A Florida sheriff's deputy is facing a criminal charge after using a Taser near gasoline, igniting a fire that severely burned a 26-year-old suspect and injured the deputy himself and two fellow officers.
Osceola County Sheriff Marcos Lopez said during a news conference Thursday that deputy David Crawford has been placed on paid leave during an internal investigation and will face a misdemeanor charge of culpable negligence.
The sheriff said Crawford was aware there was gas in the immediate area when he attempted to use a Taser on the suspect, Jean Barreto, during an arrest in February at a Wawa gas station in Orange County.
"We know this because he says on body cam, 'Kill the pump, kill the pump! Gas!'" the sheriff said. "After that statement, he picked up the discarded Taser that was located in gas and says, 'You're about to get Tased, dude.' "
Immediately after, as the deputy held the Taser, the fire ignited, Lopez said.
Attorneys at the NeJame Law group, who are representing Barreto, said their client sustained third-degree burns over 75 percent of his body and has been in the hospital since the incident with life-threatening injuries.
"He is without skin on most of his body, his skin having been burned off," Barreto's attorneys said in a statement. "He undergoes procedures that require his dead skin to be routinely peeled off of his body. He is wrapped and unwrapped in gauze daily, bleeding profusely as he doesn't have the requisite amount of skin to contain his body fluids."
The attorneys called the Taser use "reckless, foolish and unnecessary."
Barreto faces charges of fleeing and eluding law enforcement, reckless driving, resisting arrest without violence and a felony charge for popping three wheelies on his motorcycle, according to the charging documents.
Officials with the Osceola County Sheriff Office said in an initial statement that there were multiple 911 calls on Feb. 27 reporting motorcyclists pointing guns at people. "The citizens reported two Hispanic males on blue dirt bikes that pulled guns on them and the occupants of an additional innocent vehicle," the sheriff said on Thursday.
When deputies arrived, several motorcyclists fled the scene, according to the authorities.
Helicopter footage released by the sheriff office on Thursday appeared to show deputies attempting to pull over a motorcycle rider, later identified by officials as Barreto. The rider popped a wheelie and fled from the deputies.
The motorcyclist joined other riders, who together weaved in and out of traffic - sometimes on the wrong side of the road. The rider identified as Barreto was also seen running multiple stop lights during the incident.
The sheriff said he has "zero tolerance" for reckless driving.
"We will identify you. We will catch you even if you flee into a different county because agency helicopters are following the suspect the whole time," he told reporters.
Eventually, the rider was seen pulling into a Wawa gas station. While Barreto was pumping gas, Crawford, the sheriff's deputy, approached him on foot and tried to arrest him, the sheriff said. He said the deputy believed Barreto might have been armed because of the 911 calls.
No gun was found, authorities said.
Lopez, the sheriff, said body cam footage showed that during the attempted arrest, Barreto's dirt bike fell over. Because the gas cap was not secured, fuel started pouring out. Lopez said another deputy first used a Taser on Barreto to get him to comply. Then Crawford shouted at the deputies, "Kill the pump! There's gas!" Lopez said.
At that time, the first deputy discarded the Taser and went "hands on" with Barreto, Lopez said.
Lopez said Crawford then picked up the Taser and said, "You're about to get Tased again, dude."
Separate video footage from the ground showed a fireball burst into the sky, and at least two people ran away on fire. Lopez said both Crawford and Barreto were "engulfed by flames" but that other deputies provided aid immediately.
According to a recent report from Florida's Bureau of Fire, Arson and Explosives Investigations, the explosion was caused by an electrical discharge from the Taser. Lopez said he does not dispute the findings, which is why he said Crawford faces charges for violating a policy that Taser should not be used around combustible materials.
Lopez said no one has been arrested but that the charges have been filed with the state attorney's office.
Barreto's attorneys called the charges against their client "unjustified."
"What crime did he commit which would have caused him to even flee? Why has any such evidence been hidden? He had no record or firearm. He's never even owned a gun and he didn't have one on him when he was set ablaze," they said in a statement to The Washington Post.
Following the news conference, Mark NeJame, one of the attorneys representing Barreto, said their client had been "cooked alive" by "the overzealous, irresponsible and illegal actions" of the sheriff's department."
"Their actions insult and defame the mostly good members of law enforcement, as much as their reckless policies maim, injure, and kill our citizens," he added.
The Washington Post