Taser role in death probed - East Valley Tribune: News

Taser role in death probed

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Posted: Saturday, July 31, 2004 6:18 am | Updated: 5:46 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Milton Salazar threatened a store clerk the first day he got out of prison, was shot by a Mesa police officer’s Taser, went pale, then died two days later.

Now his July 23 death is the subject of an investigation to determine whether the electric stun gun is to blame — a finding that would deal another blow to the Scottsdale manufacturer of the "less-than-lethal" weapons.

Taser’s stock plummeted two weeks ago after a New York Times story revealed the weapons may be more harmful than first thought.

Salazar, 29, of Flagstaff died at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa and may be the Valley’s first Taserrelated fatality.

Maricopa County medical examiners are awaiting autopsy and toxicolog y results before ruling the cause of death, but hospital tests show that Salazar had an unknown amount of cocaine in his system before he died.

"In this case, if cocaine is present in significant amounts, it may not be a Taser death, it may be drugrelated," said Dr. Philip Keen, chief medical examiner at the Maricopa County Forensic Science Center. "Until we know the toxicology results, we won’t know (the cause of death)."

Police received several 911 calls at 6:30 p.m. July 21 about a shirtless man standing in the middle of the street who was throwing rocks at passing cars in the intersection of Dobson and Broadway roads, said Mesa detective Tim Gaffney.

The man, who was later identified as Salazar, then went inside a crowded Circle K at 417 S. Dobson, where he threw candy bars at the store clerk and threatened to shoot him in the head, Gaffney said.

When officer Daniel Engle tried to arrest him, Salazar laid face down on the floor and put his hands under his body so he couldn’t be handcuffed.

Backup officer Cynthia Stull, fearing Salazar was armed, directed him to follow orders or he would be shot with a Taser. Salazar told the officers, "Tase me, Tase me, let’s go."

Stull fired her M26 Taser into Salazar for five seconds, and he began to roll on the floor, kicking and screaming.

Salazar, who was 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 135 pounds, continued to fight with officers; Stull stunned him again by touching him with the Taser, Gaffney said.

"They tried to place him under arrest, and he would not comply with orders. Even after he was Tased, he continued to struggle with officers," Gaffney said.

Salazar’s face turned white once he was handcuffed.

He was breathing but unresponsive when emergency crews arrived and took him to the hospital.

He died two days later.

Mesa police are trained to use Tasers on potentially dangerous people as an alternative to pepper spray, which Taser International also recommends.

"Taser is one of the tools officers use to protect themselves and other individuals from being injured," Gaffney said.

Salazar’s death comes weeks after a New York Times article reported that at least 50 people have died after being shocked since 2001.

Company spokesman Steve Tuttle defended the Taser, saying the shock weapon has been cleared in all Taser-related deaths. He said Salazar’s death was likely drug-related.

"Cocaine tends to be the most common element in these types of drug in-custody deaths," Tuttle said. "A common factor in in-custody deaths has been erratic, extremely bizarre, violent behavior, which is fairly typical of an overdose or excited delirium or someone off their meds.

"It’s a very unfortunate and sad fact, but our product will be associated with more of these deaths," he said. "Our tools have been the weapon of choice for people who don’t feel pain, and this is a tool that works on those types of people."

Salazar had just been released from prison after serving 2 1/2 years for violating his parole on an aggravated assault conviction, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections.

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