Twice in February, men who were zapped with Tasers after getting into altercations with police were pronounced dead at the hospital within just a few hours.
Both incidents started as domestic-dispute calls. Officers used the Taser after giving chase, police and witnesses said. One man lived in South Miami-Dade, the other was visiting family in Liberty City from a small town in Georgia.
Tasers have been controversial since South Florida officers started using them a decade ago. They’re meant for police to subdue, not kill, violent or threatening subjects. The zap comes from electronic prongs that enter the skin after being ejected on a wire from the gunlike device at less than 20 feet.
But in the decade since Tasers have been used, the device has not officially been blamed for any deaths.
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Last August, a popular Miami Beach graffiti artist named Israel Hernandez-Llach, known as Reefa, was injected with a Taser after a chase by police. He later died.
Seven months later, the medical examiner and police have not explained the cause of death. In September, Norman Oosterbroek, a 280-pound former bodyguard for Lady Gaga, died after Pinecrest police Tasered him while he was gobbling suspected drugs.
The most recent death that occurred after a subject was shot with a Taser happened Thursday at 11:59 p.m.
That’s when police say Maykel Antonio Barrera, 37, fought with them at the front door of a South Miami-Dade home, then took off running.
Police said the incident began after they knocked on an apartment door at 21240 SW 202nd St. Barrera answered, words were exchanged. Then when Barrera tried to slam the door shut, a scuffle started, police said.
Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta said one officer was injured near the doorway before Barrera took off and police gave chase. The officer required stitches.
Another officer involved in the chase cut his head. Then a third officer fired a Taser in the direction of Barrera.
Barrera was slowed enough for police to take him into custody.
“It’s still unknown if the prongs impacted,” Zabaleta said. A woman was inside the home, but police aren’t saying if she made the call to police.
Miami-Dade Fire Rescue escorted the two officers and Barrera to the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Zabaleta said Barrera’s condition started “to deteriorate” on his way to Jackson.
Both officers were hospitalized and released. Barrera was pronounced dead at the hospital. A cause of death hasn’t been determined.
Criminal records show Barrera has a history with law enforcement. He was convicted of manslaughter and battery as a juvenile in Miami in 1993, and the state attorney declined to move forward on attempted second-degree murder and aggravated battery charges last year in Hialeah.
The other Miami-Dade fatality in February happened more than three weeks ago.
That’s when 21-year-old Willie Sams — studying to become a barber, from a tiny town in Northwest Georgia, and visiting his grandmother — got into a confrontation with police in Liberty City.
Just before 1 a.m. on Feb. 5, police responding to a domestic dispute call jolted Sams, 21, with a Taser, also known as an electronic control device.
An hour later, doctors at Northshore Medical Center pronounced Sams dead.
“An encounter occurred between the officers and Mr. Sams. The officers deployed an electronic control device, striking Mr. Sams. [Miami-Dade Fire Rescue] was called to the scene and Mr. Sams was taken to North Shore Hospital, where he was pronounced deceased,” is all police would say.
The medical examiner’s office said it continues to wait on blood work and toxicology findings before determining a cause of death.
Sams’ mother, 40-year-old Lagayla Bennett, said she spent more than a week in Miami retrieving her son’s body, and buried him last Saturday in Georgia.
She said she repeatedly called detectives to try and learn what happened.
“To this day no one has called me to say my son passed,” Bennett said. “Now I’m trying to track down his driver’s license.”
Bennett said her son was 200 hours short of receiving a technical degree to cut and style hair, and had done music production work. She also said Sams had no medical issues.
He lived in Palmetto, Ga., with a population of less than 5,000.
She didn’t know
Family members who Sams had been visiting in Miami did not respond to interview requests or to a note left on the front door of the Liberty City townhome in the 1645 NW 75th Street, where police said the Feb. 5 incident took place.
One neighbor there said she wasn’t even aware of Sams’ death. Latawya Willingham, 37, said she peeked out her upstairs bedroom window after hearing a commotion.
“I saw they Tasered him, it was late,” she said. “He fell, so I knew they didn’t shoot him. He’s dead? I didn’t know that.”