Jorge Mercado, the Miami Beach police officer involved in the Taser death of an 18-year-old graffiti enthusiast, has a trail of trouble, including a complaint from an Iraq War veteran that Mercado and fellow officers beat and Tasered him in his South Beach hotel room in 2008.
Mercado, a 13-year veteran, also was accused of breaking a man’s nose during an off-duty brawl, was reprimanded by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for flunking a drug test and was among a squadron of officers caught up in a 2011 overtime scandal, records show.
Over a three-year period in 2007, he earned $66,000 in questionable overtime — and also claimed he was working a special robbery detail when he was actually vacationing in Orlando and, at another time, when he was at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood.
He also was investigated for handcuffing and arresting a 59-year-old Miami Beach woman who tried to make her way through heavy traffic to get to her home during Memorial Day weekend in 2012.
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In all but one of the complaints — the failed drug test — Mercado, 39, was either cleared or the cases were closed because of lack of evidence.
The FDLE is probing the Aug. 6 Tasering of Israel Hernandez-Llach, who had been spray-painting an abandoned McDonald’s at 71st Street and Collins Avenue around 5 a.m. when he was confronted by Mercado and fled. Mercado and other officers chased the teenager several blocks before cornering him on the east side of City National Bank, 71st and Harding.
Police Chief Raymond Martinez said Hernandez-Llach ignored all police commands and ran toward Mercado instead, forcing the officer to use his stun-gun device to subdue and apprehend the teen. About 30 seconds after he was shocked by the Taser, Hernandez-Llach appeared to be having a seizure, according to police dispatch recordings. Paramedics were summoned, but he was pronounced dead at Mount Sinai Hospital about an hour later.
The Taser struck him in the chest, Martinez said. The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner has not released the cause of death pending toxicology results, which could take four to six weeks.
Alex Bello, president of the department’s Fraternal Order of Police, hinted that tests will show that Hernandez-Llach was under the influence of drugs and that’s what caused his death.
“We hope to clear that up in 3-4 weeks when we get the toxicology. Then the entire thing will be known,’’ Bello said.
Mercado was placed on a three-day paid administrative leave following the incident, but has since returned to the force. He has been reassigned from patrol to the Economics Crime Unit, department spokesman Robert Hernandez said Thursday.
Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Taser International, which produces the stun-gun, cautioned Thursday against making conclusions. Historically, those conclusions have been proven wrong by medical examiners, he said.
“I’m a parent too. I feel for his family. But we have to wait for the science and the facts to come out. The last thing we should do is speculate,’’ he said.
Martinez said even though Mercado followed department guidelines, he feels horrible about what happened. “I can say he is very distraught over the incident. His intention was not to cause the death of this individual. He was trying to apprehend this individual and do his job,” Martinez told Miami-Herald news partner CBS4.
His judgment, however, is questioned by Hernandez-Llach’s family and friends, who believe he used excessive force in deploying the Taser.
Mercado’s internal affairs record also raises questions about his judgment. Former Miami Beach police chief Carlos Noriega told FDLE that Mercado was an exemplary officer, but that an “error in judgment’’ led to a problem with a random drug test he flunked in January 2011.
According to FDLE, which reviewed his police certification after he failed the test, Mercado came up positive for a controlled substance, propoxyphene, also known as Darvon.
Mercado told his supervisors that he was suffering from a sinus headache, along with aches and pains, a few days before the test and that his mother mistakenly gave him a couple of pills from a bottle of his brother’s prescription painkiller medication. At the time, he said he thought she was giving him Tylenol.
The incident nevertheless was considered serious enough to warrant a state reprimand, a 160-hour suspension, a last-chance agreement whereby he would be automatically fired for subsequent misconduct and he was forced to undergo a rigorous set of drug tests over the following two years.
Of the other complaints, all were exonerated or unsubstantiated with the exception of one filed by military veterans Luis Maldonado and Randy Vega, who claimed Mercado and three other officers barged into their hotel room and began beating them after bouncers at a South Beach nightclub complained that the vets had offended them.
One of the police officers — it is not clear who — Tasered Vega in the head, Vega claimed, and the officers continued the beating even after the veterans identified themselves as being in the military. The two veterans complained to their U.S. congressman, who wrote to the police chief, and they also hired lawyers. Ultimately, however, they withdrew their complaint.
Bello said five complaints over a 13-year career is not egregious, especially for a proactive officer like Mercado. “He has had over 1,000 arrests — three or four complaints is not a lot,’’ Bello said.