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Fish and Wildlife officer fired after investigation of violent Honeymoon Island arrest

Published Aug. 16, 2012

An officer who was involved in the violent arrest at Honeymoon Island of a man who later died was fired last month from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Joseph Tactuk lost his job as an FWC officer after a Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office investigation concluded that he used poor judgment March 17 when he tried to arrest James Barnes.

Barnes, 37, died at the hospital two days after he struggled with Tactuk on the beach at Honeymoon Island State Recreation Area.

"While I have found no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the officer, I do believe Officer Tactuk exercised poor judgement," wrote State Attorney Bernie McCabe in a letter to the FWC's inspector general's office.

Based on McCabe's findings, FWC officials fired Tactuk.

Though he was an officer with the Department of Environmental Protection at the time of the incident, Tactuk became an FWC officer in July when the agencies merged their law enforcement divisions.

The March incident began when Tactuk noticed Barnes flailing and shouting profanities at the water's edge, where Barnes' aunt, Paula Yount, was trying to coax him to shore.

Yount had dunked Barnes under the water during a baptismal cleansing ritual, authorities said. When she asked him to come out of the water, Barnes shoved her, saying he wanted to be dunked more. That's when Tactuk came to make the arrest.

The two men began to struggle. The officer dragged Barnes out of the water by his head. Barnes continued to writhe and scream as Tactuk handcuffed him haphazardly with his hands over his head, authorities said.

At some point, Tactuk sat on Barnes, officials said.

Moments later, Pinellas County sheriff's Deputy Kenneth Kubler arrived and ordered Barnes to stop fighting or he would be shocked with a Taser. Barnes continued to buck and kick his legs, sheriff's officials said, so Kubler shocked him three times.

Barnes went unconscious and stopped breathing. He was taken to Bayfront Medical Center, where he died two days later.

McCabe wrote his letter to the FWC on July 5. After FWC officials asked for more specifics, McCabe elaborated in a second letter, dated July 24.

"I disagreed with his decision to sit on Barnes after he was handcuffed and brought to shore," McCabe wrote. "Defusing the situation was an alternative available to Officer Tactuk. Barnes was awkwardly handcuffed, tired, beaten and had no place to run. If he did run, where was he going to go on the north end of Honeymoon Island that he could not be tracked and found? If he did run, whose life was being placed in danger?"

Tactuk, 21, had been a DEP officer since 2010 and was still in the probationary period of his employment with the FWC.

"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.

Kubler is still employed with the Sheriff's Office, officials said. It was unclear Wednesday if an investigation of the deputy's actions was still ongoing.

Dan Sullivan can be reached at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8321.

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