Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez, a street artist who goes by the name “Demz,” died Tuesday night after being struck by an unmarked Miami police car during a chase in Wynwood, police and family members confirmed.
He had been in critical condition with a severe brain injury.
Rodriguez, 21, was spotted by police gang unit members as he was “tagging” a privately owned building near Northwest Fifth Avenue and 24th Street about 2 a.m., police said. When officers began chasing him, Rodriguez fled.
He turned a street corner, then ducked between two cars to try to get rid of his spray paint can, police said. As Miami police Detective Michael Cadavid turned the corner, police said, Rodriguez jumped out from between the cars and was struck by the detective’s vehicle.
The timing and the location of the incident could not come at a more sensitive time for Miami police: Rodriguez was struck at the height of Art Basel week, as thousands of visitors descend on Miami Beach and Miami for one of the biggest art fairs in the world. Wynwood, which has gained international renown in large part because of its street art, has become central to the festival.
The incident also took place the same day a handful of local activist groups held a protest in the center of Midtown Miami. The Friday evening gathering was not only in remembrance of two unarmed black men killed by white police officers who were cleared by grand juries in New York and Missouri, but also in memory of another street artist who died after a clash with Miami Beach police.
Israel Hernandez-Llach, an 18-year-old known to friends as “Reefa,” was killed in the summer of 2013 after being chased by Beach police, who shocked him with a Taser. Police said they found Hernandez-Llach spray-painting an abandoned McDonald’s restaurant near 71st Street and Collins Avenue.
Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa called what happened a tragic accident.
“The officer is devastated, and I understand the family is devastated as well,” Orosa said. “It’s unfortunate that the young man tried to run from police.”
Rodriguez’s mother, Nannette Kaniaris, and other family members sat vigil at his bedside Friday night. She said doctors told her it would take a miracle for her son to recover.
“I don’t know that he’s going to be here tomorrow,” she said.
Kaniaris said she was notified about her son’s injuries by a social worker at the hospital who called her. She said she learned her son was injured in a police-involved accident only after seeing media reports.
Kaniaris said she was approached at the hospital by Miami police union President Javier Ortiz, who told her that her son shouldn’t have run from police, and then offered to buy her dinner. Ortiz, reached by cellphone, stood by the comments.
“I understand she is extremely upset, and rightfully so, and that her son is in the hospital,” Ortiz said by text. “However, for every action there’s a reaction. If he would have not been committing a crime and then running from law enforcement, this could have been avoided. Her son is in our prayers.” Ortiz added that he prayed with the family for Rodriguez.
Kaniaris said her son graduated from Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, and has always loved drawing. He has lived away from home for the past two years, and Kaniaris said she knew he liked to spray-paint graffiti onto buildings.
It worried her so much, she said, that she often told him it “wasn’t the right way to express art.”
Orosa said Cadavid, the officer who struck Rodriguez, took the day off from work Friday. The chief said the black box in his police vehicle — which has software that saves information like the speed an officer is driving during an accident — will be examined by the department. There was no video camera in the car, or on Cadavid.
As Wynwood has become better known over the past few years, Orosa has deployed the department’s gang unit during the art festival to counteract taggers — street artists who initial their work, often on property they have painted without permission. The chief said Miami police made more than 20 arrests last year. Rodriguez was the first tagger police have identified this week.
Rodriguez, who has posted video of his street art on social media sites, briefly attended Miami-Dade College. A 15-second spot he uploaded to the website Vimeo appears to show him in the background spray-painting big, colorful letters onto a wall.
His Facebook page is filled with pictures of girls, him at the beach, and having a good time with friends, some times at electronic music dance parties.
Miami Herald staff writer Lance Dixon contributed to this report.