Sunday, June 24, 2018
Public safety

Report sheds more light on fatal Honeymoon Island arrest that led to FWC officer's firing

James Barnes went to the beach March 17 searching for solace.

The Tarpon Springs man had recently learned a former partner had AIDS. The ex called Barnes just as he arrived at Honeymoon Island with his aunt, Paula Yount.

The call upset Barnes, who had a history of troubles, including drug abuse, but who was also religious and was working to clean up his life.

After sitting in the sand for a while that afternoon, Barnes announced that he wanted to get into the water.

"That baptism of the spirit thing sounds pretty good about now," he told his aunt.

Things got strange quickly.

Barnes fell backward into the waves several times — a kind of self-baptism.

"Demons be gone!" he screamed. "Demons get out! I'm getting rid of this."

Perched on an ATV nearby, a 21-year-old law enforcement officer watched the bizarre scene unfold. Joseph Tactuk had been on the job for just seven months. He was still a probationary employee.

He moved in.

The encounter between Barnes and the officer quickly turned violent. For about 10 minutes, they fought.

Eventually, Tactuk dragged Barnes by his head to shore. He handcuffed him awkwardly above his head. He sat on him.

Barnes continued to fight. A Pinellas deputy arrived and shocked Barnes with a Taser.

Two days later, Barnes, 37, died in the hospital. The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office ruled his death a homicide, the result of complications from asphyxiation. Blunt trauma and restraint were cited as contributing factors.

In his blood, they found synthetic marijuana.

• • •

The encounter between Barnes and Tactuk sparked a multi-agency investigation.

A report released to the Tampa Bay Times this week offers the most comprehensive account yet of the clash between the young officer and Barnes that day.

The report, authored by Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, determined Barnes' death was an excusable homicide. Tactuk will not face criminal charges.

But McCabe also said Tactuk exercised poor judgement. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently fired Tactuk after receiving McCabe's report.

McCabe said Tactuk's young age and limited experience played a role.

• • •

Witnesses on the beach that day told investigators they saw Barnes flailing around in the water.

Tactuk told investigators he saw Barnes push or hit Yount, which is why he felt compelled to confront Barnes. Tactuk also said Yount asked him to help her.

Tactuk went into the water and tried to get Barnes to come to shore. Barnes refused. He and the officer started to struggle.

Tactuk tried to get handcuffs on Barnes. He got one on while they were in the water, then secured the second arm when they got to shore.

Barnes, who at 290 pounds outweighed Tactuk by more than 50 pounds, wasn't giving up.

Barnes was still struggling and kicking when Pinellas Sheriff's Deputy Kenneth Kubler arrived. Kubler saw that Barnes was lying on his back, his face bloodied. Tactuk was out of breath and sitting on top of Barnes.

Kubler used a Taser on Barnes. At some point Barnes stopped moving.

Moments later, the officers realized Barnes was unresponsive. They called for help.

McCabe's investigation said Kubler acted reasonably by using his Taser. Kubler was not placed on leave after the incident. The Sheriff's Office said this week that an internal review of his use of the Taser is ongoing.

• • •

Barnes' family declined to comment for this story.

McCabe's report says that after the incident, Yount told other relatives it seemed as if Barnes had "snapped" that day. One of the relatives responded that it sounded like the episodes Barnes had when he was on methamphetamine.

An autopsy did not find that in his system.

His blood did contain synthetic cannibinoids. These substances, which county officials have recently taken steps to ban, act on some of the same brain receptors as marijuana.

They are often sold locally in products with names like "Spice" and "K-2."

"While they act on those same receptors, the response on the body is not the same," said Reta Newman, director of the forensic laboratory in the Medical Examiner's Office. "Some of them cause psychosis, some cause great anxiety."

In a July 24 letter to the FWC, McCabe said he disagreed with Tactuk's decision to sit on Barnes. He said Tactuk had other options to diffuse the situation. Barnes was "awkwardly handcuffed, tired, beaten and had no place to run."

"Experience and training in handling emotionally and mentally disturbed individuals may have resulted in Officer Tactuk choosing a different course of action once Barnes was on shore," McCabe wrote.

Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.

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