Miami-Dade County

Street artist struck by police car in Wynwood dies

Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez
Delbert Rodriguez Gutierrez

The day after doctors turned off the ventilator keeping graffiti artist Delbert Rodriguez alive, police said the unmarked patrol car that hit him was moving at less than 15 miles per hour, and that the department has no plan to change its policy on tracking down taggers.

Doctors unhooked Rodriguez’s lifeline just before 10 p.m. Tuesday. His organs will go to those in need. But some organs will remain with the Miami-Dade County medical examiner’s office as it determines the exact cause of death, and as Miami police investigate how it came to be that one of their own was involved in the death of a 21-year-old man who was being chased for spray-painting a wall.

Just after midnight Friday, as thousands of people visited Miami during Art Basel week, Miami Police Detective Michael Cadavid — working an undercover detail on the lookout for “taggers” — spotted Rodriguez spray-painting a building in Wynwood near Northwest Fifth Avenue and 24th Street. Police said Rodriguez ran after spotting the officer.

A short chase ensued. As Cadavid turned a corner in his unmarked vehicle, police said, Rodriguez jumped out from between two cars and was struck. He suffered severe brain injuries and had been in a coma and hooked up to life support until Tuesday night.

“It’s an unfortunate accident,” Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa said. “The family and the police officer are devastated.”

Police on Wednesday released information they retrieved from the black box in Cadavid’s car. They say it showed the unmarked vehicle was traveling less than 15 miles per hour and that Rodriguez, who was wearing black clothing, was struck by the front-passenger bumper.

Police said Cadavid and his partner spotted Rodriguez, then approached with the vehicle’s lights flashing. Rodriguez, they said, took off around a corner. The car driven by Cadavid, police said, struck Rodriguez before he noticed him.

Cadavid, 30, was off the street Wednesday and working a desk job while waiting to see the department’s psychologist, Orosa said. The department’s traffic homicide unit is investigating the incident.

Miami Police Union President Javier Ortiz, who visited Rodriguez and his family in the hospital, released a three-paragraph statement saying the focus from police and the community should be on the loss of life.

“Officer Cadavid was doing his job in enforcing the laws of our country. It is unfortunate that this young man lost his life due to his poor decision to run from the police,” Ortiz wrote.

Orosa, aware that Wynwood’s streets are filled with wannabe graffiti artists painting walls during Art Basel week — some with permission, some without — said he began deploying undercover units three years ago to root out those who deface businesses.

The chief said he authorized the plan after business owners complained, and that he has no intention of curtailing the decision to root out taggers, comparing them to someone burglarizing a business. He said police will continue to try to protect the business community at night.

“You can’t let it slide because of a tragic incident,” Orosa said.

The timing of last week’s incident was extremely sensitive for police. It was the height of Art Basel with thousands of out-of-town visitors in Miami and Miami Beach, and protests were planned in and around Wynwood over the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York.

Taggers are graffiti artists who paint on property without permission and initial their work. The vast majority, like Rodriguez, toil in anonymity. A small percentage become famous artists, like Banksy, who last summer honed his craft while being schooled in New York and who was prominent at art shows during Art Basel week. Others die after getting into altercations with police.

Rodriguez, who went by the street name Demz, was the second graffiti artist to die after an altercation with local police in the past 18 months. In summer 2013, Israel Hernandez Llach, known to friends as Reefa, was chased by Miami Beach police after they say he vandalized an abandoned McDonald’s restaurant on Collins Avenue.

After cornering Hernandez Llach, Miami Beach police officer Jorge Mercado tried to subdue him with his Taser. Hernandez Llach died a short while later. The medical examiner determined his heart stopped after he was shocked by the Taser. The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office has yet to determine if Mercado is at fault for Hernandez Llach’s death.

On Tuesday, shortly before Rodriguez succumbed to his injuries, a friend of his named Neo told NBC 6 that the two often worked together.

“He probably shouldn’t have ran. You know, considering that it is Wynwood and it’s an art district and everyone is basically doing graffiti, the cops might have just given him a chance,” Neo said.

Rodriguez’s mother, Nannette Kaniaris, and other family members, stayed at Rodriguez’s bedside as he struggled to survive the past week. Kaniaris said police never notified her of the incident. She was called by a hospital social worker who said her son was involved in a car accident.

Last week she told the Miami Herald she spoke to her son often about his penchant for tagging, and it worried her.

“It wasn’t the right way to express art,” Kaniaris said.

On Wednesday, the family kept a low profile, not responding to interview requests.

Rodriguez, who lived in Pembroke Pines and had only recently taken a job at a warehouse, is a graduate of Flanagan High School. Kaniaris said her son moved out of the house about two years ago. His Facebook page is filled with pictures of girls, visits to the beach, and good times with friends, including electronic music dance parties.

He briefly attended Miami Dade College, but his passion for street art became a priority. 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.

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