More than a year ago, Coral Gables cops used Taser stun guns to restrain a drug-fueled pest exterminator who was in the middle of the street stripping his girlfriend naked while furiously trying to cleanse her of a curse and “evil spirits.”
Prosecutors have now cleared the officers, saying they were legally justified in using the weapon on Aviel Gutierrez during the bizarre confrontation outside a liquor store near Coral Gables in December 2016.
Video surveillance backed up officers who said Gutierrez was in a psychotic rage, refusing to surrender while attacking his girlfriend alongside LeJeune Road.
“The use of the Taser was reasonable under these circumstances,” according to a final report by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office released this week. “In fact, there were no life-threatening injuries of any kind caused by any of the police officers in lawfully detaining or arresting Mr. Gutierrez.”
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Prosecutors made the ruling after the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s office earlier ruled he died not from police force, but a brain disorder aggravated by a potent mix of drugs. The disorder is called “excited delirium,” which researchers say turns people into raging attackers with elevated body temperatures.
Gutierrez’s father, reached by phone on Thursday, declined to comment only saying: “I’m not OK with what happened,” he said of his son’s death.
His was the latest in a string of deaths of people in Miami-Dade shot by police Tasers over the past decade. In only one case have pathologists blamed the weapon designed to be a less-than-lethal alternative for police in stopping violent suspects. Critics contend that “excited delirium” is built on shaky medical research, a way to cover for overaggressive police tactics.
Gutierrez, 38, was a father of three who was estranged from his wife. On the morning of Dec. 4, 2016, he and his girlfriend, Erika del Socorro Guido, had been smoking marijuana. While walking the streets of downtown Miami, a strange homeless woman approached them and began “uttering curses at them.”
“Mr. Gutierrez appeared to believe that the woman had placed a curse upon them and/or their clothing,” prosecutor Reid Rubin wrote in his final report.
The two hopped in Gutierrez’s BMW and drove off. But Gutierrez became consumed with the encounter and he began stripping Guido as they drove. They pulled over outside Big Game Liquors, 930 SW 42nd Ave., where Gutierrez opened the truck and began flinging clothes from the trunk in a rage.
Officer Hector Diaz happened to drive by and saw the commotion. He saw Gutierrez stripping Guido “so that she was left naked on the street.”
The surveillance video showed that Diaz did not immediately try to arrest Gutierrez, instead talking to him for more than a minute as he awaited backup. After other officers arrived, they tried subduing Gutierrez “but he kept breaking away from them lunging at Ms. Guido and removing the towel that was the only object covering her.”
In the scrum, Officer Raul Sheran used his Taser four times on the “drive stun” mode, meaning the powerful electrified prongs were not fired. Diaz shot his Taser three times, the prongs lodging in the man’s back.
Paramedics rushed to the scene and had to shoot Gutierrez with a sedative because he was still agitated. About 15 minutes later, his heart gave out; he was pronounced dead at Coral Gables Hospital.
A toxicology report showed that Gutierrez’s blood tested positive for cocaine, marijuana and a variety of synthetic drugs, as well as painkillers and anti-anxiety medication.
Gutierrez died amid increased attention on police officers’ use of force in fatal confrontations across the United States. In the most visible Taser-related South Florida case, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that a Miami Beach police stun gun caused the death of graffiti artist Israel Hernandez-Llach in 2013.
In Miami-Dade, however, most Taser-related deaths have been ruled to be caused by excited delirium, a condition first identified here during the crack-cocaine epidemic in the 1980s. Researchers describe it as a genetic abnormality of the brain that might never reveal itself without the triggering mechanism of stress, mental illness or chronic abuse of drugs.
The disorder, however, has its detractors who dub it “junk science.”