- Eric Dexheimer American-Statesman Staff
Texas Ranger Shawn Palmer arrived at the San Angelo Fire Department’s training center mid-morning on Aug. 16, 2007. He was investigating a gruesome death that had occurred in the West Texas city two months earlier, and he needed to conduct an experiment that could supply a vital clue.
With the help of several firefighters, Palmer placed a rubber mannequin near the open door of a large garage bay. He slipped a bulletproof vest onto its torso, and then pulled a black T-shirt over the vest. He placed a cap on its head.
Using a one-and-a-half gallon jug, the Ranger next dumped gasoline over the mannequin, soaking it. He paced off five and a half feet, faced the mannequin and pointed his stun gun at its chest. The two darts carrying a 50,000-volt charge lodged in the dummy’s chest area. Then … nothing.
Stun guns work when a current is established between the two darts — not possible across the mannequin’s rubber skin. Palmer wrapped a sheet of aluminum foil around the dummy’s chest between the vest and the gas-soaked T-shirt to simulate the human body’s conductivity.
The ranger walked off the five feet again, knelt and fired his Taser. “Flames ignited immediately,” he wrote in a report detailing the experiment.
The results cinched Palmer’s investigation. There was only one likely explanation for how Juan Flores Lopez had been turned into a human torch: a San Angelo police officer’s Taser had set the 47-year-old man on fire.
Company’s advice not always heeded
Though extremely uncommon, incidents of Taser-initiated combustion have occurred occasionally through the years. Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Axon Enterprises (formerly Taser International), said the company has recorded 9 fatalities since 1993. News reports show uncounted other incidents in which a person was burned by a fire ignited by a stun gun, though not killed.
In several cases, police claimed they were unaware of the presence of combustible fumes. In others, Tuttle said, officers often were presented with deciding whether to allow people to hurt themselves or others, or take a chance the electric charge itself might prove harmful: “They’re given limited choices in some situations.”
Studies have shown that stun guns are almost always safe intermediate weapons that police can turn to when lower-force tactics are insufficient but a firearm is uncalled for. Used properly, law enforcement experts say, Tasers save both officer and civilian lives by defusing otherwise dangerous encounters.
But that’s not always the case. This spring, the American-Statesman published its Question of Restraint series analyzing the circumstances of nearly 300 people who died while restrained by Texas law enforcement officers over the past decade. The newspaper found that police had deployed Tasers in 87 of the fatalities.
Many in-custody deaths involve physical confrontations, so it’s not surprising police turned to their stun-guns. Yet Axon also issues numerous warnings advising police when they should refrain from using the weapons. In a number of the deadly Texas encounters, officers appeared to have used the weapons contrary to the guidelines, or their departments’ use-of-force policies.
The company recommends Tasers not be deployed on citizens exhibiting “excited delirium” — a constellation of symptoms including bizarre behavior and drug use. Yet the newspaper found that more than two-thirds of those who were shocked and died in police custody had lethal doses of drugs in their systems.
And while Taser recommends only three cycles, or 15 seconds of shocks on one person, the Statesman identified 15 in-custody deaths when a stun gun was used five or more times on a person. Burnet-area police shocked Willie Banks for more than 3 minutes without pause.
In the wake of the 2009 Taser-related death of Michael Jacobs, a 24-year-old Fort Worth man who died after being shocked in the chest for 49 seconds, the company advised police to not aim their stun guns directly into a suspect’s chest. Texas police continued to do so, however, the newspaper found — at times with fatal consequences.
Another of Axon’s dozen or so warnings advises police to not use the stun guns around flammable materials: “TASER Devices Can Ignite Explosive Materials, Liquids or Vapors.” Tuttle said it has been included since the company’s founding, in 1993.
John Peters, president of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths and a use-of-force expert, said the dangers of mixing electric weapons and flammable materials have been known for years, when pre-Taser, early stun gun models — including those made by Austin’s Nova Technologies — were introduced. He recalled producing a training video in the early 1990s demonstrating how the weapons could ignite the shirt of a person who’d been covered with alcohol-based pepper spray.
“There’s a real concern, and a long history of teaching police of the possible dangers,” he said. “It’s not a common occurrence. But when it happens, the results can be horrific.”
A handful of more recent studies have confirmed a modern Taser’s electric charge can, under the right circumstances, also ignite fires. A 2002 British study found “risk of ignition if the Taser is fired at a target with a flammable solvent on their clothing” and urged “extreme caution” in such circumstances. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences concluded that “if used in a flammable vapour rich environment, the device could prove fatal not only to the target but the Taser operator as well.”
Trail of fires
Texas’s most recent case may have occurred two months ago, when 39-year-old Gabriel Olivas burst into flames after Arlington police shocked him with a Taser. Olivas, who was threatening suicide, had doused himself with gasoline in front of the officers. He died four days later.
“We realize that a Taser can have some other implications, but we also know he had something in his hand,” a police spokeswoman said at the time, suggesting Olivas might have been about to light himself on fire. “It’s unclear at this moment whether he became engulfed in flames from the gasoline and ignitable object he had in his hand or from the Taser.”
The department said it is still investigating the case and would not comment further. The Collin County Medical Examiner’s office said autopsy results in the case are pending.
Elsewhere, a trail of lawsuits documents the potentially dangerous combination of stun guns and combustible liquids.
On the night of Feb. 7, 2015, Miles November was leading Chesterfield County, Virginia, police on a high-speed chase when he crashed. When police arrived at the roll-over, November’s car was leaking fuel.
Police said November, who was drunk, resisted arrest. When one of the officers fired his Taser, “The electrical charge … immediately ignited flammable substances and/or vapors on and around November’s body and clothing, causing him to become completely engulfed in a fireball,” according to a pending federal lawsuit.
Burned on 90 percent of his body, November survived. The police department’s policy warned Tasers “should not” be used around flammable materials. Although several on-scene officers said they’d smelled spilled fuel, the officer who fired his Taser said he was unaware November was soaked in gas, according to court documents.
Allen Brown caught fire following a scooter chase. Pennsylvania state troopers said Brown fell to the ground in a pool of spilled gas, and when he failed to follow their commands an officer stunned him with a Taser. As Brown tried to get up, a second trooper shocked him again. This time “flames engulfed Mr. Brown,” according to court documents.
When the state’s lawyers tried to have Brown’s lawsuit dismissed, a federal judge refused. She wrote that for a traffic violation, reasonable people “surely would not conclude that conduct risking lighting that suspect on fire was an appropriate amount of force.” The case was settled in 2013; Brown’s lawyer declined to name the amount.
Other Taser-ignited conflagrations have turned tragic. In March 2009, Pennsylvania state troopers responding to a call of a disturbed man encountered Levi Mohney in a mobile home. He was holding a Bic lighter in his right hand and a one-liter soda bottle in the left, according to court documents.
Officers ordered Mohney onto the ground. When he didn’t comply, one fired his stun gun. “Almost immediately [the officer] saw flames start in Mohney’s right midsection area, which spread down to the floor and up to the ceiling.”
Mohney died the following day. The soda bottle had been filled with gasoline, but officers said they did not know that and a lawsuit against them was dismissed.
In March 2012, U.S. Border Patrol agents stopped Alex Martin outside of San Diego following a car chase. Within seconds, an agent smashed the front passenger window and fired his Taser into the car. The vehicle exploded into flames — a canister of gas reportedly had spilled inside. Martin, 24, burned to death. His family lost its lawsuit against the agency and officers earlier this year.
When a 32-year-old distraught British man who’d soaked himself with gasoline burst into flames after being electrically shocked in 2013, later dying, the incident spurred calls for better police training. “Taser should only be considered for use in the presence of flammable substances as a last resort,” the Independent Police Complaints Commission concluded, “and after every other available option has been considered and discounted.”
‘A match on a BBQ pit’
San Angelo police officer Richard Bart said it was about 3:30 in the afternoon when he responded to a call of a man pouring gasoline around a house in the northeast part of San Angelo, according to documents the American-Statesman received under the Texas Public Information Act.
He was joined by Lt. Leslie Bird. “As we were standing in the area of the porch I could smell the odor of gasoline,” Bart recalled. (Bird is still at the San Angelo department; Bart left law enforcement in 2012.)
Juan Lopez soon drove up in a car. As the officers watched, “Lopez started pouring gasoline from a small red plastic gas can onto his head and shoulders,” Bird wrote in an affidavit, adding that Lopez appeared to have a lighter in his hand. Minutes later, Lopez left the car and headed for the house and “started pouring gasoline on himself around his head area,” Bart stated. “Lopez then tried to throw the gasoline toward Lt. Bird.”
A third officer aimed a stream of pepper spray at Lopez, but it appeared to have no effect on him. Both Bart and Bird drew their Tasers.
Bart fired his first. “I thought the Taser would be effective in stopping the subject’s movement toward me and help eliminate the threat of him igniting me with gasoline,” he wrote in his report.
Bird shot next. “Within seconds flames broke out and ignited Lopez,” he wrote. Another officer described the fire spreading “like when someone throws a match on a barbecue pit.”
Police ran for their fire extinguishers. “They set me on fire!” Lopez screamed. As two officers doused him with their extinguishers, Lopez stood with his hands raised, moaning and turning in circles.
The Lubbock County Medical Examiner concluded that Lopez died the following day from thermal burns. The manner of death was determined to be accidental.
Although in their statements police wondered whether Lopez had ignited the fire himself, Palmer, the Texas Ranger, said the evidence — as well as his tests — pointed to Bird’s Taser. He noted that the manufacturer warned of such an occurrence and that the San Angelo Police Department trained its officers against it. Agency policy deemed Taser use around flammable materials as “unauthorized.”
“Therefore,” Palmer noted, “the use of the Taser as an intermediate weapon would involve negligence on the part of the officers.”
Despite that, the Ranger concluded the officers’ Taser use on a gas-soaked target had been appropriate. The reason: Because the police said they had feared for their lives, the officers were not using their Tasers as an intermediate use of force weapon, but rather as a deadly force weapon, like a gun, which had no such policy restrictions.
That was his testimony in front of a Tom Green County grand jury 10 weeks after Lopez’s death. Asked whether the San Angelo police should be charged with criminally negligent homicide, the jurors voted against indictment and the case was closed.
In October 2008, records show the City of San Angelo agreed to pay six members of Lopez's family $500,000 to settle all legal claims against it.