Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Public safety

Man dies as differing accounts emerge of Tasering at Honeymoon Island

A man who was stunned by a Taser during a violent struggle this weekend with authorities at Honeymoon Island State Park died Monday evening as two very different narratives of the confrontation began to emerge.

Law enforcement officials said James Barnes brought about the violence by resisting arrest and bloodying an officer. Barnes' family insists he was fighting for his life as an officer used unnecessary force on him.

The Tarpon Springs man, 37, died just after 5 p.m. Monday at Bayfront Medical Center. The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office will perform an autopsy this week to determine the cause of his death.

Diverging accounts are not unusual after people have violent encounters with law enforcement — especially when Tasers are involved.

The safety of stun guns, which are used by more than 13,000 law enforcement agencies, has long been questioned. Taser International, which makes the device, says they regularly save lives. But since 2001, Florida has had 65 Taser-related deaths, second only to California, which has had 92, according to Amnesty International.

But Barnes' family doesn't only blame the Taser. It was the fight before, they said, that killed him. "This is what they did to him," said Mary King, who is engaged to Barnes' brother. "This is homicide."

• • •

Before the battle came the breakup.

Sitting at the dinner table Thursday, surrounded by family, Barnes announced his relationship was over. He was in pain, King said.

"He decided to go to the beach with his aunt," King said. "He wanted to cleanse himself."

Two days later, Barnes and his aunt, Paula Yount, went to the park and waded into the gulf. She dunked him three times, baptismally. Yount then tried to coax him to shore, but he shoved her, saying he wanted to be dunked more, King said.

That's when Department of Environmental Protection officer Joseph Tactuk, 21, noticed Barnes. He was jumping up and down in the water, shouting profanities and making biblical references, said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

When the aunt indicated she needed help, Gualtieri said, Tactuk went to arrest Barnes.

Everyone agrees the two men quickly came to blows; that Tactuk dragged James Barnes out of the Gulf of Mexico by his head; that Barnes was writhing, kicking and screaming.

Minutes later, Barnes was in handcuffs and the two were still struggling. That's when Pinellas Deputy Kenneth Kubler arrived.

"Stop fighting or I'm going to Tase you," Kubler said to Barnes.

Barnes bucked his head and kicked his legs.

Kubler's Taser prongs hit Barnes' lower back. After three shocks, Barnes stopped moving. He also stopped breathing.

Other details are less clear.

King said Yount told her that the officer held Barnes underwater and pummeled him.

"Sure he was struggling — to breathe," said King.

King said doctors at Bayfront Medical Center found saltwater, sand and flecks of seashells in his lungs. His face was so swollen his family could hardly recognize him, she said. "His face is demolished," King said.

Barnes' family believes if he hadn't fought back, he would have drowned. King described him as loving, slow to shout and quick to apologize.

The Taser may have sent him into cardiac arrest, King said, but she blames Tactuk's "brutal beating" for the death.

Making matters worse, she said, was how the Sheriff's Office characterized the event. At a Sunday news conference, Gualtieri said Barnes "went berserk for no reason."

"First they kill him," she said, "then they make him out to be a lunatic."

• • •

Gualtieri said there is virtually no evidence to support the family's version of events.

If his lungs were filled with water, Barnes could not have fought back when pulled ashore. If he was only struggling for self-preservation, Gualtieri said, Barnes wouldn't have ignored Kubler's order to stop moving before the Taser was fired.

The officer was acting in self-defense, Gualtieri said.

"Nobody is saying the DEP officer didn't strike Mr. Barnes," the sheriff said. "Of course he did. He was fending for his life."

Eleven witnesses said they saw Barnes causing a commotion in the water, according to the Sheriff's Office. A blood test revealed Barnes had marijuana in his system, Gualtieri said.

"He was totally out of control," he said. "The DEP officer's face was covered in blood, his hands were swollen and bruised."

Tactuk was hired by the DEP in 2010. DEP officers have powers to arrest and carry weapons; they are held to Florida Department of Law Enforcement standards.

Tactuk has a spotless disciplinary record. When he happened upon Barnes, officials said, he was patrolling the beaches, which were teeming with spring break crowds.

When Kubler fired the stun gun, Barnes was on the ground, bucking and kicking, Gualtieri said. His hands were cuffed haphazardly over his head, his elbows free to swing at Tactuk.

Rather than shooting Barnes with the usual five-second shock, Kubler hit Barnes three times with three-second shocks.

Gualtieri stood by Kubler's decision to use the Taser, calling it less harmful than a nightstick and less painful than pepper spray.

"Our deputies are trained to use the Taser to avoid injury to themselves and others," Gualtieri said. "He wasn't trying to hurt; he was trying to protect."

As the Sheriff's Office investigates, one thing is clear: Tactuk didn't have to wade into the water. Under state law, officers have no obligation to go after someone in the gulf.

And maybe he shouldn't have, said Roy Bedard, a tactical training expert from Tallahassee.

"When you're arresting someone in a waterborne environment, there's a very good chance you can be hurt or killed yourself," Bedard said. "You could wait for the person to come out."

Times staff writers Lorri Helfand and Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Marissa Lang can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386.

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