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Tampa police learn man shocked with Taser was in final throes of viral meningitis

TAMPA — Jairious McGhee, 23, caught the attention of a Tampa police officer Saturday.

He was in the intersection of Kennedy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway, pounding on cars, police say. His eyes were bloodshot, and he lunged at the approaching officer.

Unable to restrain him, the officer used a Taser. Only later did police learn the officer had shocked a gravely ill man.

With a 105-degree temperature, McGhee was within hours of death, apparently due to viral meningitis, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

The illness can cause delirium in its final stages, according to Dr. John Sinnott, director of the University of South Florida's infectious disease program.

Officer Greg Preyer thought McGhee was mentally ill. But he had no idea the man was physically sick until after police checked McGhee into Tampa General Hospital under the state's Baker Act, which allows for observation of people considered a danger, McElroy said.

There, staff reported McGhee's fever. He died 28 hours later.

The cause of death is still under investigation. The Hills­borough County Medical Examiner's Office has not yet released autopsy results. McElroy answered a St. Petersburg Times reporter's questions, but police have not yet made their report public.

McGhee's mother believes police are responsible for her son's death. Melody Thompson said she doesn't accept the police account that her son was acting erratically in the intersection.

"I know my son's personality," she said.

She cut off the phone interview before a reporter could ask her about meningitis.

Police had no idea about the diagnosis until a doctor called the department Sunday, McElroy said. The officers who came in contact with McGhee took an antibiotic as a precaution.

Viral meningitis is less contagious and fatal than the bacterial version. Unlike bacterial meningitis, medical staff is not required to report viral meningitis to the county health department, said department spokesman Steve Huard.

A sergeant reviewed Officer Preyer's use of the Taser, which is done every time one is deployed, McElroy said. His actions were deemed appropriate, she said.

This is what happened at about 5:30 p.m. Saturday, according to McElroy:

Preyer was near Kennedy and Dale Mabry when a motorist flagged him down and told him there was a crazy man running through the intersection, knocking on windows.

Preyer saw McGhee and approached him with the intention of taking him to the hospital under the Baker Act. McGhee was darting through traffic and appeared to have urinated in his pants, McElroy said.

As Preyer approached, he asked McGhee if he was okay. McGhee reportedly said he wanted to fight.

As McGhee lunged at the officer, Preyer fired his Taser, McElroy said. The prongs hit McGhee in the upper body but didn't slow him down, so Preyer pulled his gun and pointed it at the ground.

That was enough. McGhee sat on a bench.

But as Preyer radioed for backup, McGhee lunged at him again, McElroy said. Preyer knocked him to the ground with a leg sweep and handcuffed him.

Preyer and three other officers took McGhee to the hospital.

It took them and several hospital staff members to get McGhee into a bed, McElroy said.

"It's tragic," she said. "But tragic situations can turn dangerous. The officer had to protect himself."

Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or jvandervelde@sptimes.com.

Tampa police learn man shocked with Taser was in final throes of viral meningitis 04/06/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 6, 2011 10:17pm]
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