A state agency has opened an investigation into the death of a man who died after being stunned by a Taser during a violent struggle with authorities at Honeymoon Island State Park.
The inspector general of the Department of Environmental Protection will conduct a review of a DEP officer's involvement in the Saturday incident.
James Barnes, 37, died Monday evening at Bayfront Medical Center, where he was taken when he stopped breathing after being shocked three times with a Taser. Barnes had been engaged in a violent struggle with DEP Officer Joseph Tactuk.
Officials are awaiting autopsy results that will determine a cause of death.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, whose deputy, Kenneth Kubler, fired the Taser, was still seeking witnesses and conducting a death investigation Wednesday.
The DEP investigation will include a "holistic, fact-finding assessment of DEP's involvement in the matter," as well as a panel focused on the officer's use of force, said department spokeswoman Jennifer Diaz.
The department typically asks for a review in situations that result in the serious injury or death of an officer or suspect.
Tactuk, 21, has had no history of disciplinary action since he joined DEP in 2010. He has come under fire from Barnes' family members for what they called a "brutal beating" of Barnes.
Barnes had gone into the Gulf of Mexico with his aunt to "cleanse himself" baptismally after a breakup with a boyfriend.
"He's the most loving, peaceful person you ever want to know," said Mary King, who is engaged to Barnes' older brother. "He was out there praising God in the water."
After his aunt, Paula Yount, dunked Barnes three times, he refused to leave the water. He shoved her, and the DEP officer waded in to arrest him.
What followed was a "violent battle" that raged for at least five minutes, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Gualtieri has supported Tactuk, saying the officer was defending himself from Barnes, who was "out of control."
Barnes' family also questioned the use of the Taser, saying it may have sent him into cardiac arrest.
But Gualtieri said the Taser was the deputy's best option.
The fact that Barnes was wet would not have had any impact on the shock inflicted by the stun gun, said Roy Bedard, a tactical training expert from Tallahassee.
Gualtieri said deputies are trained to identify circumstances when stunning someone is unsafe. Barnes was lying on the sand, hands haphazardly cuffed and tangled over his head, when Kubler fired. "Tasers are utilized for protecting law enforcement officers who are in exactly that situation," Bedard said.
Anyone who witnessed the incident has been asked to call the Sheriff's Office at (727) 582-6200.
Marissa Lang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.