DUNEDIN — James Clifton Barnes died two years ago after a violent confrontation at Honeymoon Island State Park with two law enforcement officers — one from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the other from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
Though his death was ruled a homicide, no one was charged with a crime. Barnes' mother, Patricia Juanita Wate of Tarpon Springs, has now gone to the civil courts. She hopes a wrongful death lawsuit filed in Pinellas County will grant her closure.
"Her primary objective is getting to the bottom of why this happened," said her attorney, Keith Carter. "She's heartbroken, inconsolable right now . . . There is nothing more difficult to get over than the loss of a child, even if the child is of adult age."
The 57-page complaint chronicles the deadly encounter between Barnes and law enforcement.
On March 17, 2012, Barnes and his aunt, Paula Yount, arrived at Honeymoon Island in Dunedin moments after he learned that an ex-partner of his had been diagnosed with AIDS.
When they entered the water, Barnes said he wanted to "cleanse his spirit by baptizing himself," the complaint states. With Yount's help, he sat in the water up to his chest and swung his body backward into the waves.
That's when DEP officer Joseph Tactuk, then 21, spotted the unfolding scene. According to a report released by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office in 2012, Tactuk told investigators he saw Barnes push or hit Yount, which prompted him to confront Barnes. When Barnes refused to come to shore, a scuffle ensued.
The complaint states Tactuk used "excessive force," punching Barnes, submerging his head in the water, putting him in a choke-hold and pepper-spraying his face.
Tactuk handcuffed Barnes and dragged him to shore, where he sat on his chest. Barnes was still kicking and struggling when Sheriff's Office Deputy Kenneth Kubler arrived and Tasered Barnes. Moments later, he lost consciousness.
Although Barnes was not breathing, Kubler, who had a barrier device that allowed him to perform CPR without risk of disease, did not do CPR, according to the complaint.
"He decided that (the barrier device) was not trustworthy enough for him to use it," Carter said.
Barnes, 37, was hospitalized and died two days later. The lawsuit claims that asphyxia, blunt trauma and restraint contributed to his death. The medical examiner's office ruled his death a homicide. An autopsy revealed traces of synthetic marijuana in his blood.
In a report released to the Tampa Bay Times in 2012, prosecutors said although Tactuk exercised poor judgment in Barnes' violent arrest, his death was an excusable homicide. The report also noted Kubler acted reasonably in Tasering Barnes.
Tactuk was fired after the DEP and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission merged their law enforcement divisions. Now 23, he works at the Port Richey Police Department, state records show.
Kubler, 50, still works at the Sheriff's Office, where he is the SWAT team liaison. His Tasering of Barnes was justified, a spokesman said.
Tactuk and Kubler declined comment for this article. Additional defendants named in the suit are the Sheriff's Office, DEP and the wildlife commission. They declined comment as well.
Among several allegations, the lawsuit claims that Tactuk and Kubler violated Barnes' constitutional rights and Kubler failed to render life-saving aid to Barnes. Tactuk also "intentionally battered" Barnes, whose arrest was unlawful because he had not committed a crime, the complaint states.
Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727)445-4157. On Twitter: @lauracmorel.