50,000 volts

Taser guns have become a favored control device for local law-enforcement officers, but something’s gone wrong with this “nonlethal” weapon. In Sacramento, the dead bodies are mounting.

Illustration By Matt Bors

It was December 22, 2004, and 31-year-old Ronnie Pino was making animal noises inside the intake room at the Heritage Oaks Hospital in East Sacramento. He’d been released from the psychiatric ward of another hospital the day before, and now, on the advice of the family doctor, his mother, 63-year-old Marjorie, had brought him to Heritage Oaks to get his medications adjusted. Hopefully, they could get the dosages right, and Ronnie’s rampaging hallucinations—oftentimes manifesting themselves in the form of Governor Schwarzenegger telling him such things as that his food was poisoned—would start to subside.

Ronnie would never be “normal,” but perhaps he could get back to how he used to be: a generally happy, albeit slow, person who liked fishing and gambling in casinos, and enjoyed playing pool at the Moose Lodge down the street from his mother’s large, well-maintained mobile home.

Ronnie was hard of hearing, mentally disabled (photographs show a large man with unfocused eyes and a disengaged facial expression) and on a bevy of powerful medications to control his seizures. His ailments were the legacy of a large brain tumor that had been diagnosed when he was 9 years old and removed when he was 15. He had a vagus-nerve stimulator running from his heart up to his brain to try to limit the frequency of his fits, and, despite his retardation, he knew enough to know he wasn’t even supposed to walk too close to a microwave oven in case the machine interfered with the stimulator.

The 31-year-old also was wracked by compulsive behaviors. He lacked impulse control and got upset very easily, maddened that he couldn’t read, angered that he didn’t have a girlfriend. A big man with the mental age of a young child, Ronnie had been known to hit walls, even to attack his mother’s car, when in a rage. Yet, even after the trauma of his father dying of a heart attack in front of his eyes at a truck stop on Stockton Boulevard in 1997, he did not express his frustrations by attacking other people.

Now, as the animal noises he was making got louder, Ronnie decided he needed to smoke a cigarette. Yet, the intake room was a non-smoking area. Fearful that he’d flee if allowed outside, the hospital staff locked the area down, preventing Ronnie from exiting the room. His anxiety increased. He begged the staff to let him out. They refused. Eventually, unable to take the pressure, Ronnie kicked and hit his way through a window, and, covered with blood, blundered outside. There, with his cousin accompanying him (she and her mother, Ronnie’s aunt, had come with Marjorie to the hospital), he began to chain-smoke his way through several cigarettes.

The staff called the city police department, whose officers arrived, armed with their newly favored control devices, Taser guns. The Taser is an increasingly controversial weapon that stuns hard-to-control people with 50,000 volts of electricity. In the past year, following the use of such weapons, about half a dozen people in the Sacramento area have died, making the region one of the most lethal Taser hotspots in the world.

When the Taser was unholstered at Heritage Oaks, so began the final chapter in Ronnie Pino’s tortured life.

Ronnie’s death cry
Ronnie had always admired police officers. They were, he knew, the good guys, people to turn to in an emergency. As his hallucinations had gotten worse in recent months, Ronnie had repeatedly dialed 911, calling them from his group homes, calling in the middle of the night from his mother’s house. The policemen, he hoped, could help him ward off his demons. “Ronnie liked cops,” recalled his older brother, Ryan Pino. “He respected them.”

When her troubled son Ronnie was Tasered by city police officers at Heritage Oaks Hospital in East Sacramento, Marjorie Pino heard him let out a death cry, “Oh Mom!”

Photo By Larry Dalton

But the officers who showed up outside Heritage Oaks weren’t the heroes of Ronnie’s imagination. They were confrontational, jittery people, seemingly untrained in how to deal with a person as disturbed as was Ronnie. “He would have listened to those cops,” Ryan believes. “But the cops had the wrong impression of him because of his size.”

The first to arrive on the scene was a female officer. She ordered the now-sobbing Ronnie to get down on the ground. As Ronnie cried and shouted, she drew her Taser gun. Marjorie ran outside and begged her not to Taser Ronnie, telling her that he had a vagus-nerve stimulator, and that an electric shock could kill him. According to witnesses, the officer—whose name has not been released by the police department despite Public Records Act requests from the media, from Marjorie’s attorney and from the American Civil Liberties Union—responded by threatening to Taser Marjorie unless she backed off.

A few minutes into the confrontation, as other police officers milled about, a second patrol car raced onto the scene, its car lights blinking as the officer screeched to a halt just in front of Ronnie. The disoriented man shouted that the lights were going to give him a seizure.

As the scene got more chaotic, the second driver, a male police officer, approached Ronnie. Ronnie reared up, and—his mother says inadvertently—his arms struck the officer. The policewoman fired her Taser gun into Ronnie’s chest. He fell, convulsing, to the floor and, according to the police, pulled the Taser barbs out of his body. Then he reared up, shouting again. A second blast from the Taser struck him in his abdomen, and as he lay immobilized, four or five additional police officers jumped him, cuffed him and dragged him off to a squad car.

“Ronnie let out a death cry. He screamed, ‘Oh Mom!’” said Ryan, repeating the story Marjorie told him shortly after the Tasering. “That drives you crazy. They’re at Heritage Oaks. There were plenty of staff there to handle the situation. I could have handled it myself.”

Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome
Marjorie, after she had gotten her emotions slightly back in check, left Heritage Oaks and returned home. She’d been assured her son would be taken to a hospital to have his cuts treated and, she presumed, to be checked out following the Tasering. But, when she phoned around to find out, it turned out Ronnie was in the county jail, run by the sheriff’s department.

The next morning, a medic from the jail phoned her in something of a panic. Ronnie was, apparently, having a grand-mal seizure, and, since the officers had not taken with them the medications that Marjorie had tried to give them, the medic didn’t know what drugs Ronnie needed to stabilize.

Marjorie spent the next few hours on the phone, trying to find out exactly what her son’s situation was and what charges he was being held on. She was, naturally, worried about the seizure, but Ronnie had had several grand mals in recent months, and she knew that, with time, they passed. Eventually, she managed to find out that Ronnie was being charged with assaulting an officer and that he was being held on $5,000 bail. She also was told he was resting after his seizure. And so, with her brother and her niece accompanying her, she drove out to the jail to post the bond. There, as they waited, an officer came out and, she says, took them into a side room. Quietly, the officer told them that Ronnie was dead.

Whether Marjorie’s memory as to the exact chronology of events here is accurate could not be verified, since the sheriff’s department refused all comment on the Pino case.

Taser International, the Arizona-based company that manufactures the high-tech stun gun, claims that every single patrol officer in Sacramento now carries a Taser product.

Days afterward, Ronnie’s body was autopsied. The coroner found the cause of death to be Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome. Buried on page three of the report were references to the Taser injuries. “On the anterior lower left chest is a crusted superficial puncture wound with surrounding faint ecchymosis situated 8.5cm below and 5cm lateral to the left nipple, consistent with a Taser barb injury. On the lower left abdomen is a pair of superficial abrasions. One of these abrasions surrounds a tiny puncture wound. … The injury is consistent with a Taser barb injury.”

“I took him to get help,” Marjorie recalled tearfully, sitting at her plastic-covered dining-room table, a large TV in the living room blaring out daytime talk shows. “I didn’t take him to get killed. That’s what hurts a lot.”

“They say that Tasering is not cruel,” added longtime family friend Ray Bryant, in a booming bass voice. “For the families that lose someone from Tasering, it’s no different from a bullet—except possibly a bullet would have been easier and quicker on him. The suffering and prologue would not exist.”

Meet the Taser X26
In 2003, after decades of research and development and limited sales involving a series of less powerful devices, Taser International, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company, began aggressively marketing its Taser X26 stun weaponry. The handheld electronic gun fires two darts—which remain attached by wires and deliver a blast of 50,000 volts—at a target up to a distance of 21 feet away. The company claimed the Taser was a completely safe device, something that would incapacitate dangerous criminals, that would leave them convulsing on the ground, while not maiming or killing them. The marketing worked, and the company soon was selling Tasers to law-enforcement departments around the country.

By mid-2005, more than 6,000 police departments worldwide, and one-fifth of all police departments within the United States, had bought at least some Taser products. California, in particular, went for the new device with a vengeance. Today, more than 50 departments up and down the Central Valley are using them, as are the Los Angeles Police Department and other big-city forces. In Sacramento, in particular, it became a favored control device, first being used on a large scale in June 2003, against protesters at an international conference on biotechnology being held in the city’s convention center. By early 2004, Sacramento law-enforcement personnel had access to 650 Tasers, 150 more than were available in the whole of Los Angeles. And, by the end of 2004, Taser International was claiming that the city had purchased Taser products for every single patrol officer.

But soon after the Tasers were introduced, reports started coming out about men and women who had been Tasered and had died, either immediately afterward or within a day or two. The Arizona Republic newspaper established a database to track these deaths and by the autumn of 2005 was reporting more than 160 such deaths in the United States and Canada, more than a third of them in just two states: California and Florida.

In the months since Tasers have become a standard part of the Sacramento police and sheriff’s officers’ package of equipment, media reports indicate that six local residents have died following the use of Tasers against them, making the region a central player in the national debate over the safety of the devices. As in other locales where the weapons had been used shortly before an individual has died, the evidence in the Sacramento Tasering cases doesn’t explicitly and unequivocally tie the stun gun to the deaths. It isn’t as causally obvious as a bullet going through a skull. In fact, as with Ronnie Pino, coroners generally have ruled the deaths to be accidental, to be sudden and inexplicable. But, taken as a whole, the pattern is enough to raise serious questions about Taser training and usage in the vicinity.

Exactly what might have gone wrong in these instances is a matter of speculation, since the sheriff’s department and police department refuse to release the police reports and incident reports, as well as the data downloads from the Taser guns used in each case. When SN&R asked to interview the sheriff’s officers involved, as well as administrative personnel responsible for setting Taser-usage policy, Lt. Scott Jones, Sheriff Lou Blanas’ legal adviser, wrote back that he was “disinclined to allow any officer to be interviewed by you regarding their discharge of a taser for various reasons, including pending litigation on this topic.”

Neither will the sheriff’s department discuss its training procedure for Tasers. Yet, while the city police department’s general orders say that Tasers “may be used to overcome resistance from subjects who the officer reasonably believes present an immediate, credible threat to the safety of the officer(s), the public, or whenever an officer reasonably believes that a subject poses an immediate, credible threat to the subject’s own safety,” the sheriff’s department’s general orders are far vaguer: “Field Services Officers may deploy a taser when it will enhance officer or public safety, enhance a tactical advantage or when directed by a supervisor.” In other words, assured by Taser International that the weapons were entirely safe, the sheriff’s department, in particular, appears to have made Tasers simply another part of the standard arsenal designed to gain an edge on perceived criminals.

In late September, 24-year-old Timothy Torres died after being Tasered during a fight with six sheriff’s deputies near his family home in Rancho Cordova. Timothy’s father, Tim, tattooed an image of his son on his forearm.

Photo By Larry Dalton

The same seems to have occurred in West Sacramento, where this summer police Tasered and then severely beat two Mexican brothers who had the misfortune to be caught loitering in a park late at night and who failed to cooperate quickly enough when the police tried to arrest them. One of the men, Ernesto Galvan, was Tasered several times in the stomach and back, and then was beaten about the head, back, chest, arms and legs so severely that he spent a month in a coma and is now severely brain damaged. At the request of the Mexican consulate, a Sacramento law firm has filed a civil action against the city of West Sacramento in federal court.

Sacramento-area law-enforcement departments aren’t alone in their seemingly cavalier attitude toward Taser use. For, while Tasers initially were marketed as a high-tech substitute for live ammunition, as a less-lethal last-ditch alternative to guns when all other options had been exhausted, increasingly they have become control tools of first resort. In Florida, officers in several incidents have Tasered young children, including a 6-year-old who was waving a piece of broken glass at them inside his school and who, under no stretch of the imagination, could have been considered to be a lethal risk to the officers involved, as well as a 12-year-old caught by police while playing hooky from school. In Chicago, a 14-year-old boy almost died after being Tasered. In Arizona, more than 20 football fans were Tasered by Arizona State University security officers after they failed to follow crowd-control instructions in the fall of 2004. And in South Carolina, a 75-year-old woman was zapped after refusing to leave a nursing home in which she was staying.

In other words, Tasers are now being used in circumstances where guns would never have been drawn by officers, where officers in the past would have used at most a baton or pepper spray and often simply would have devoted a bit more time to talking a person, or crowd, down through simple human interaction.

A rising body count
The evidence suggests that healthy adults can survive being hit by a Taser with little more long-term damage that psychological trauma. Indeed, most Taser usage does not result in fatal complications, and the great majority of those who subsequently die after a Tasering turn out to have prior medical conditions or to be on powerful drugs. Some law-enforcement agencies, in fact, include the Tasering of officers as a part of the training package for use of the weapon. Used with restraint, therefore, it’s likely that the weapons generally would, as its advocates claim, save lives, subduing violent criminals who otherwise might well have been gunned down by the law.

The rub, however, is that law-enforcement officers in confrontational situations have no way of knowing upfront whether they are Tasering a healthy person or someone with a heart problem such as arrhythmia—perhaps even a sickness that has lain dormant for years and only emerges after being triggered by a massive electric shock. Nor do they know upfront whether they are Tasering someone with a seizure condition; or someone on powerful psychotropic medications; or someone so hyped up on drugs that the electric shock, in conjunction with the drugs, triggers a heart attack.

Paradoxically, news reports from around the country, as well as a growing number of lawsuits, suggest it is often precisely the people most at risk of fatal complications who get Tasered. Like Pino, many of those who end up in the kind of confrontation with authority that police end up trying to defuse through Tasering, are mentally unstable; many are so messed up by drugs that they aren’t behaving rationally or able to follow orders closely, and many are physically weakened by years of living on the streets. (Such a perverse situation is also the case inside maximum-security prisons, where it is often the most seriously mentally ill prisoners who end up committing the kind of rule infractions that lead to prisoners being placed in solitary confinement within what are known as “secure housing units.” And, in the same ways as Tasers are most destructive for these subpopulations, isolation housing within prisons is most devastating to the seriously mentally ill, who are most frequently sent to such units.)

In November 2004, an Elk Grove man whom police were attempting to transport to a hospital for a mental evaluation died after being Tasered. In August 2005, a naked man throwing furniture and picture frames at sheriff’s officers died after being Tasered. In late September, an agitated 24-year-old named Timothy Torres died after being Tasered during a fight with six sheriff’s deputies outside his family home in Rancho Cordova.

In late 2004, as the body count mounted, federal investigators began an inquiry into Taser International’s safety claims. At the same time, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) opened an investigation into the Scottsdale company’s possible manipulation of earnings data. This September, as the investigation widened and the SEC prepared to subpoena documents, Taser International fired its auditors.

While this was going on, attorneys from the Boca Raton, Fla., office of Lerach Coughlin Stoia Geller Rudman and Robbins filed a class-action lawsuit, on behalf of the town of Dolton, Ill., and several other cities, against Taser International, alleging that the company’s product was too dangerous to be used on the streets and that Tasers had been marketed illegitimately using shoddy science and misleading statements about their safety.

Maria Espinoza’s son Tommy tried to commit suicide in a local gas station’s bathroom. When law enforcement arrived at the scene, an altercation ensued, and Tommy was Tasered. Said his mom: “I can’t believe my son is dead.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

“Ultimately,” said San Francisco attorney Nima Nami, of the Gonzalez & Leigh law firm, “the police are being sold a faulty product.” Last month, Nami filed a wrongful-death claim in U.S. District Court against the city of Sacramento on behalf of the Pino family for $25 million in damages. Nami’s initial legal strategy involves going after the city’s police force for using excessive force against Pino, and the sheriff’s department for failing to provide adequate follow-up care. But he believes that, as expert testimony starts to corrode the safety claims made by Taser’s in-house specialists, it is just a matter of time before Taser International itself is toppled by a massive class-action lawsuit. Nami thinks that sooner or later, Tasers will have to be removed from the standard police arsenal. “It was marketed as safer than a baton,” he stated. “But if I had to choose between being Tasered or batoned, I’d choose the baton. And so would a number of officers.”

Not surprisingly, over the course of 2005, as the legal climate and the media coverage have grown more hostile, Taser International’s stock price has fallen more than 80 percent. At the same time, the company has become less media-accessible.

In its marketing materials, the company repeatedly portrays its products as “non-lethal systems.” The Taser, the promotional package explains, “saves lives every day. … To date, TASER International estimates over 6,000 lives have been saved by the use of TASER technology.”

Nevertheless, despite repeated requests for interviews for this article, Taser’s public-relations chief, Mike Coplen, failed to arrange such interviews or to provide any of the information requested on Taser’s safety data and training methods. When SN&R contacted Steve Ashley, master Taser instructor with the national Police Policy Studies Council, he initially agreed to be interviewed. When phoned back for the interview, he apologetically explained that Taser International had asked him to refer all calls back to the company. But Rick Guilbault, Taser’s director of training, then did not return requests for comment.

Lawsuits and losses
Despite the growing controversy, Tasers continue to be used, it seems, almost casually by local law enforcement. In October, the family of another local man, Ricardo Zaragoza, who died in Elk Grove in November 2004 after being Tasered, filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court. The lawsuit alleges that Taser was hawking its product to law-enforcement agencies by misrepresenting the weapon’s safety record. Meanwhile, Nami is getting ready to file a second lawsuit, following the aforementioned Tasering, beating and subsequent death of a psychotic young man, Timothy Torres, in front of his family home during the summer. And Nami also is talking with the family of a third man about possible litigation.

This third case is, if anything, even more bizarre than the Ronnie Pino tragedy.

Late on the evening of July 22 this year, more than seven months after Ronnie’s death and well into the federal investigation into Tasers’ safety, a drug-addicted, depressed, 38-year-old Elk Grove resident named Tommy Gutierrez wandered into a gas station on El Camino Boulevard.

Gutierrez recently had separated from his wife, who had taken their 5-year-old daughter when she left. He also was fearful (whether with reason or out of paranoia; it’s not clear) that some men were trying to kill him. Wilting under the weight of these collective traumas, Gutierrez locked himself in the gas station’s bathroom and climbed atop the toilet to reach the fluorescent light. He broke the bulb and, with the jagged edges, proceeded to slit his wrists. Then he sat down and waited to die.

Sometime later, the gas-station attendant noticed that blood was seeping out from under the door and called the sheriff’s department. By the time officers arrived on the scene and broke down the door to the toilet, Gutierrez was reputedly too weak to rise up off of the ground and unable to verbally communicate with the officers. When they came toward him, he weakly tried to bite one of their feet—an action hardly likely to result in serious injuries, given that the officers wear steel-capped boots.

In response to this action, however, the officers, who had been called to try to save a suicidal man’s life, Tasered Gutierrez. Shortly afterward, in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, Tommy Gutierrez died.

In the middle of the night, the coroner’s office phoned his sister, Cindy, and then the coroner and Cindy drove over to Tommy’s parents’ house to break the news that their son had died. “It was,” said Maria Espinoza, Tommy’s 65-year-old mother, “just complete devastation. We were in complete shock—especially hearing he was trying to commit suicide and instead of getting help, he was Tasered. And he ended up dead because of the Tasering, not because he cut his wrists. I can just imagine how much he was hurting in that bathroom when he cut his wrists. It was a cry for help, not a call for violence. But he didn’t get help; he got killed.

“It will be a haunting memory for the rest of my life, that he was crawling on his hands and knees toward the police officers and they Tasered him,” said Maria. Like Marjorie Pino, all this mother wanted was for her son to get the help he needed. Instead, Tasers were employed by law-enforcement officers, and the two troubled men ended up losing their lives. “Every morning,” Maria explained, crying, “when I wake up, I just can’t believe my son is dead.”