Israel Hernandez sprinted through dark alleys, scrambled over fences and fell onto cars, leading cops on a frantic chase after being caught tagging an abandoned McDonald's in Miami Beach. The early-morning pursuit ended with the 18-year-old artist known as Reefa slumped over on the street, his heart stopped cold after a Taser blast to the chest from Officer Jorge Mercado.
Three years after Reefa's death, his family now believes they know why he ran from the cops. New video footage shows the scrawny teen hustling through an alleyway, tailed by two officers carrying what the family believes are drawn guns.
"If two people are behind you with pistols," says Reefa's father, Israel Hernandez, Sr., "wouldn't you run?"
The family has long argued that the young artist never should have been hunted down for an offense as trivial as spray-painting an empty building. His death sparked public outrage, leading to mass protests, national headlines and eventually new rules for Tasers in Miami Beach.
Now, the video footage is among a trove of evidence that raises more questions about the police's actions that day. The new details — including Mercado's record of Taser use, his questionable statements in a deposition and the video — were produced in the Hernandez family's wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Miami Beach. The case is slated to go to trial in late February.
The city is still fighting the family's claims, while the officers involved — all of whom were cleared of wrongdoing by prosecutors — stick to their story that Tasering the young graffiti artist was the correct action to take. (The city and police force have policies against commenting on ongoing litigation.)
"I was in a threatening situation and it was either — it was either use the Taser or get hands-on with someone and get hurt," Mercado said during a deposition. "And God knows what would have happened."
Born in Colombia, Hernandez had immigrated to with his family to South Florida, where he attended Miami Beach High School. He was passionate about art from a young age and painted, sculpted, wrote and shot photographs. By age 18, he was already winning awards for his work.
At night, he found another outlet for his creativity: blank walls across the city. He was spraying waves of gold paint on walls and windows of the shuttered McDonald's around 5 a.m. on August 6, 2013 when a squad car pulled up. When Mercado and another officer tried to confront Hernandez, he bolted. After catching up, according to Mercado's version of events, he fired his Taser to try to get Hernandez to stop.
But the Taser prongs hit Hernandez square in the chest. The teen — who was healthy, with no prior heart conditions — sagged to his knees. Then he stopped moving.
"Every single time, once a subject is in custody, you get a reaction from the subject where there is, you know, why you're arresting me or anything, or you try to, you know, get up, man, you know, you try to get them up, you check, make sure that he's okay," Mercado said in his deposition. "We weren't getting any of that. He was just slumped over."
Witnesses claimed the officers high-fived and laughed after catching and Tasering Hernandez, adding to public outrage over the case. Mercado denied those allegations.
In the months after Hernandez's death, the family organized vigils and protests, and filed their lawsuit. A report on the incident was also filed with the United Nations Committee Against Torture.
But in July 2015, prosecutors announced that no charges would be filed in Hernandez's death. Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said the death was accidental and thus “left little legal room to pursue any possible criminal charges.”
“Our extensive investigation determined that the sad tragedy of this situation is that no one involved intended or anticipated any serious injury occurring to this young man,” she said at the time. “In my meeting with the family, I expressed my heartfelt sorrow for the unimaginable loss of their son.”
The conclusion of the State Attorney's Office investigation cleared the way for the Hernandez family to finally take depositions and obtain records and other information on the case. The video footage of the chase, taken from a building's security camera, is among the evidence their attorney has gathered in preparation for trial, though he says he had to fight police for it in court.
In the official narrative of the encounter, police have never mentioned the officers brandishing firearms. But the video suggests at least some of the officers did. And Officer Cornelius Lattimore, who chased Hernandez with Mercado, acknowledged in a deposition that he had his gun drawn. Mercado, however, denied unholstering his weapon. Shown the video during a deposition, he said he didn't know what he was holding.
He said, however, that an officer would be justified in having a gun out.
"If we're going to play, you know, what if, he went in the back of a dark alley," Mercado says in a deposition in the case. "If an officer pulls out his firearm, he's in all the right."
Todd Falzone, the attorney representing the Hernandez family, vehemently disagrees, saying "there is no factual scenario that would justify them pulling their guns on this kid."
"They don't have any justification for using or threatening deadly force on him when he's spray-painting a building," he says. "Why are they chasing him with their guns out?"
During Mercado's deposition, taken in April, he insists that Tasers are nonlethal, despite Hernandez's death and the Miami-Dade County Medical Examiner's conclusion that it was caused by the device.
More than 500 people have died in the U.S. since 2001 after being shocked with stun guns like Tasers, according to Amnesty International. A New Times investigation found 11 men had died within an eight year timeframe after being stunned in Miami.
"A Taser is a great tool," Mercado said. "It has caused less injuries to officers and less injuries to subjects."
He said that he felt threatened by Hernandez from the beginning of the confrontation, after the teen kicked his skateboard at him. That constituted battery, the officer said, adding that Hernandez could have faced felony charges. (His story is at odds with the one told by Lattimore, who said Hernandez ran off with the skateboard in his hand.)
Mercado said the teen ran toward him when he was cornered, posing an imminent threat that would have allowed him to use his firearm.
"I could have resorted to my firearm at that time," Mercado said. "As I said, this guy is running towards me, I don't know what he's got. You know, taking him down at gunpoint, I chose not to do that."
Taser has repeatedly advised against shooting people in the chest, noting that doing so can cause cardiac issues. Mercado had claimed during an internal affairs investigation that he didn't know that. But during his deposition, after being shown training materials, he said he had been mistaken and he did know of the issue.
He said he had tried to hit Hernandez in the abdomen.
When the medical examiner listed the artist's cause of death as heart failure caused by the discharge of a Taser, it was a first for Florida. Yet Mercado insisted in his deposition that the stun gun — which he said takes people on a "five second ride" — was not to blame. "Other things" have caused people to die when a Taser is deployed, he said.
Asked what had killed Hernandez, he replied, "I don't know. I'm not a doctor."
The family also says Mercado's Taser records — which have never before been released — raise questions about his judgment. Mercado deployed his Taser 18 times in five years, including on back-to-back days. In one case that triggered an internal affairs complaint, Mercado allegedly Tasered an Iraq War veteran in his hotel room. The veteran was Tasered in the head, Falzone says.
"This guy, he was Taser happy," Falzone says. "He was Tasering everybody in sight."
The Hernandez family says they are disturbed by the failure of the officer and city to take responsibility in Israel's death. They blasted the State Attorney's Office investigation, saying the office did little to investigate what happened, instead relying on the narrative given by Mercado.
"People like Officer Mercado are just a blank spot in such a respected institution here in the United States," says Israel Hernandez, Sr., who spoke through a translator. For him to continue working as a police officer without any consequences makes him "like a wild wolf in search of prey," he says.
He says his son was simply expressing himself through graffiti when he "landed in some hands that he shouldn't have, that were irresponsible."
Reefa's death means that "humanity has lost a great artist," the elder Hernandez says. The teen used to bring home things people had thrown away and put notes on them that read, "Not trash." Then he would turn them into works of art. Seeing those notes around the house is one of the things his family misses most.
"We will never get over it," says his sister, Offir Hernandez. "We will have to learn to live with it."
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.