Key Largo Teenager Dies After New Year's Day Tasering

Last week we published an investigation into Taser misuse by Miami police officers. The article unearthed dozens of instances of questionable Taser use, including 11 recent cases in which subjects died after being tasered.

Sadly, there is now another name to add to that list. Key Largo teenager Roberto Ornelas died today, almost a week after he was tasered by a Monroe County Sheriff's deputy.

"I don't want to judge anybody," said Roberto's father, Guadalupe, when asked if he thought the sheriff's office should have tasered his son. "My feelings are hurt, but at the same time I don't want to say anything more right now."

See also: Shock & Awe: Miami Cops Misuse Tasers, With Deadly Results

Ornelas said his son was a good kid whose only previous run-in with the law was getting caught smoking pot at school. Roberto, who was 18, was put into a program that required him to be drug-tested every month, Ornelas said.

"He was behaving for over a year," Ornelas said. "He wasn't doing drugs at all. That's why I really don't understand this at all."

Ornelas said his son went out with friends New Year's Eve but returned home early complaining he was feeling ill. But instead of going to bed, Roberto put on loud music and began pacing back and forth in his room.

"He was walking and walking and listening to music," Ornelas said. "I told him: 'Son, I need to go to bed.' He told me: 'OK, Dad.' But then he started getting more and more active, out of control and aggressive. So I got up [out of bed] again and said, 'Son, what happened?'"

By then, however, it was too late. Roberto had become someone else.

"He didn't recognize me," Ornelas said. "He screamed, 'Who the hell are you?'"

"That's not my kid," Ornelas said. "My kids have never talked to me [that way]. I only teach love in my family. That was not him."

Ornelas' other sons were out partying, so he called 911 and waited for police to show up. When Monroe County Sheriff's Deputy Bryan Cross arrived at 4:29 a.m., he found the door to Roberto's room locked.

Cross and another deputy could hear Roberto screaming, talking to himself, and breaking things inside his room but were unable to get the teenager's attention. The two deputies were able to push open the door enough to see Roberto punching the inside of his closet.

When deputies finally broke open the door, they saw Roberto's blood on the floor and walls.

"Roberto appeared to be wigging out on some form of drug," Cross wrote in his report. "Roberto was sweating profusely, his eyes were wide open with a blank state as if staring through you, and was foaming around his mouth and nose area."

Deputies tried to restrain Roberto, but he broke loose and then spat and lunged at the officers. So Cross shot the teenager in the chest with his Taser.

Roberto fell back onto a pile of clothes. When he began spitting at officers and got up again, Cross tasered him a second time. The deputies then put a spit mask and handcuffs on the young man.

"Upon standing Roberto up to carry him out to the ambulance, Roberto continued to yell and scream and kick at Sgt. Whitehouse and his father, Guadalupe," Cross wrote. Roberto was hobbled and at 5:46 a.m. taken to Mariners Hospital in Tavernier, where he was forcibly sedated.

By the time Guadalupe Ornelas arrived at the hospital, his son was unconscious. Ornelas was already late for work as a cook at a Key Largo restaurant, so he left his number with hospital staff and asked to be called if anything happened to his son.

But when he returned at 3:30 p.m., hospital staff said they didn't have any patient under Roberto's name.

"I just brought him here this morning!" Ornelas said. After checking their records, hospital administrators told him that Roberto's health had worsened just a few hours after his father had left him. Roberto had been sent to Homestead Hospital.

"When I got there, he was brain-dead," Ornelas said. "I'm really disappointed because they didn't call me like they promised."

Roberto's condition continued to worsen, and he was taken off breathing machines Tuesday afternoon.

"I never saw him open his eyes again," Ornelas said.

He said it is too early to blame the deputies for tasering his son and admits Roberto might have been on some type of drug, perhaps synthetic acid, that wouldn't have shown up on his son's drug tests.

"It's a possibility," Ornelas said. "They tell me that somebody was pushing him to try it, try it, try it."

Becky Herrin, a spokeswoman for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, said Roberto Ornelas died from drugs, not from tasering.

"This was not an in-custody death," she said. "It's my understanding that his death was drug-related, not due to being tasered. The report will speak for itself." (The arrest report is attached below.)

Guadalupe Ornelas said that, whatever the cause, his son's death has devastated him and his family.

"I'm hurt," he said. "This is very hard. Very hard."

Roberto Ornelas Arrest Report Monroe Sheriff

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.