A Florida deputy has been charged after allegedly tasing a suspect who was pumping gas, touching off a fireball that caused third-degree burns across more than 75 percent of the man’s body, authorities announced Thursday.
Jean Louis Barreto Baerga, 26, has been in the hospital and undergone six surgeries since the Feb. 27 incident, in which his attorney says he was literally “cooked alive.” Cops were attempting to arrest Barreto, a motorcyclist they say was riding recklessly and had pointed a gun at other motorists. Barreto’s lawyer, Mark NeJame, insists his client hadn’t committed a crime, has no criminal history, and continues to undergo excruciating surgeries in order to save his life.
At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, Osceola County Sheriff Marcos Lopez said a concerned citizen called 911 to report a biker fitting Barreto’s description had waved a pistol at him on the road. Numerous squad cars and a police helicopter tracked Barreto, who eluded cops for at least a half hour, according to Lopez. Barreto then pulled into a WaWa less than a mile from his home, and began to refuel.
Deputies soon descended on the location, and one struggled to handcuff a resistant Barreto, Lopez said. In the fracas, Barreto’s dirtbike got knocked over and gas started spilling out of the tank, he continued. That’s when Osceola County Deputy Christopher Koffinas tried to take Barreto into custody by tasing him, which didn’t “have the desired effect,” according to Lopez. A second deputy, David Crawford, then yelled at Barreto, “You’re about to get tased again, dude,” Lopez said, adding that Crawford called out for someone to cut the flow of fuel to the nearby pumps.
“Immediately after his comment, the fire ignites,” Lopez said, explaining that the taser log showed “a trigger pull that coincides with the timing.”
Deputy Benjamin Mclean grabbed a fire extinguisher and attempted to douse the flames, he said. Another deputy “improvised,” grabbing a bottle of Gatorade to try and put out the fire climbing Crawford’s legs, according to Lopez.
Lopez said Crawford and Maclean both suffered non-life-threatening burns. Crawford is now charged with culpable negligence, a misdemeanor, for allegedly causing the explosion.
“Although I personally believe there was no malice in this decision to do so, because [Crawford] also received burns and injuries, under the law, his actions were reckless and held such a disregard for human life that it rises to the level of probable cause for culpable negligence,” Lopez said on Thursday.
Lopez showed video from the police chopper showing Barreto running red lights, doing wheelies, riding on the sidewalk, and eventually resisting arrest.
“I’ve said, and I’ll continue to say, here in Osceola County…we have zero tolerance for this type of behavior,” Lopez said.
Barreto, who remains hospitalized, will be charged with a combination of felony and misdemeanors, including fleeing and attempting to elude law enforcement, reckless driving, and resisting an officer, according to Lopez.
In a statement provided Thursday to The Daily Beast, NeJame said his client had simply been out for a ride with “dozens of other motorbike enthusiasts,” and stopped at a local WaWa on his way home to fill up the tank.
“Our investigation confirms that after filling his tank but before the gas cap was put back on, he was attacked by being body slammed with a flying tackle from behind by an Osceola County sheriff’s deputy,” the statement reads, alleging that the deputies had crossed out of their jurisdiction into Orange County during the pursuit. “After he was pumping gas for over a minute and a half, Mr. Barreto was unknowingly bum-rushed from behind with the flying tackle by an Osceola County sheriff’s deputy, who had been secretly trailing him at the gas station. As Mr. Barreto was knocked over from behind, by this surprise takedown from a then-unknown force, his dirt bike also went down, spilling gas over Mr. Barreto and the deputy.”
A state fire marshal’s incident report reviewed by The Daily Beast says gasoline had pooled beneath Barreto, and that the electricity discharged by the taser ignited fuel vapor that “travel[ed] to the gasoline puddle as it is spilling out of the dirt bike’s fuel tank onto the ground.”
The resulting blaze virtually engulfed Barreto’s entire body, and about half of Crawford’s.
The fire marshal’s report, which said Barreto at the time was not expected to survive, IDed the deputies involved as Crawford, Maclean, and Koffinas. However, it did not say which one deployed the taser that touched off the fire.
Agency policy prohibits deputies from using tasers if a suspect “could possibly be seriously injured by secondary factors,” which includes flammable liquids, the Orlando Sentinel reported.
Barreto has spent the past 10 weeks in the hospital, and is “without skin on most of his body,” according to NeJame, who said Barreto “is wrapped and unwrapped in gauze daily, bleeding profusely still as he doesn’t have the requisite amount of skin to contain his body fluids.”
NeJame and co-counsel Albert Yonfa have asked the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an independent investigation into the case, calling the tasing “reckless, foolish, unnecessary, and deadly.”
In a follow-up email after the charges against Crawford were announced, NeJame said in a statement, “While we are gratified to know that some criminal charge is being recommended against the Deputy, it will be up to the Office of the State Attorney to determine if the charges against the Deputy are sufficient as to his crime or should be greater since the Sheriff has now admitted culpability and the actions are so apparent and egregious.”
Because of his injuries, Barreto will not be physically arrested at this time, Lopez said Thursday. Crawford has been placed on paid leave while the investigation continues.