Charges recommended against Osceola County deputy in Taser-sparked fire at Florida gas station

The Osceola County Sheriff’s Office has recommended a misdemeanor charge against one of its deputies after that deputy allegedly fired a gasoline-covered Taser at a suspect at a Florida gas station, which sparked a fire that burned him, the suspect, and another deputy.

Sheriff Marcos Lopez made the announcement during a news conference on Thursday.  He said Deputy David Crawford knew there was gasoline in the area and by firing the Taser, his actions were "reckless" and showed no regard for human life, which rose to the level of a potential crime. According to the State Fire Marshal, the Taser ignited the fire, which left both Crawford and the suspect, Jean Barreto-Baerga, severely burned. 

Barreto-Baerga also potentially faces several charges stemming from the incident, including fleeing and attempting to elude law enforcement, reckless driving, a three-wheelie offense, and resisting arrest. 

On Feb. 27, Osceola County deputies received reports of people on motorcycles allegedly pointing weapons at other vehicles. That investigation led deputies and a sheriff's helicopter to locate a group of motorcycle riders in the area, who were captured on video popping wheelies, driving on sidewalks, and driving erratically through the streets.  During a news conference, Sheriff Lopez played the helicopter's aerial surveillance video from that day. 

Deputies attempted to stop Barreto-Baerga on a blue dirt bike, but he rode away, according to Sheriff Lopez. The sheriff said Barreto-Baerga was putting the public at risk.

"He ran 13 red lights, [did] six wheelies on public roadways, drove on the grass, sidewalks, next to pedestrians, drove in the opposite lane of traffic five times, drove recklessly around civilizations more than eight times," he added.

He was then followed from the air to a Wawa gas station off of Central Florida Parkway where deputies attempted to detain him, he said.

Video shows an apparent struggle between deputies and Barreto-Baerga, followed by a sudden explosion of fire. Barreto-Baerga suffered burns to 75% of his body, according to his attorney, and three deputies were also burned. Two had minor injuries and were released. A third deputy suffered third-degree burns and remains hospitalized.

Sheriff Lopez on Thursday showed the previously released surveillance video and went step-by-step through his deputies' actions at the Wawa. 

He said deputies attempted to detain Barreto-Baerga, who was fueling his dirt bike. A deputy yelled for someone to turn off the pump and acknowledged there was gas. Another deputy attempted to use his Taser on Barreto-Baerga, which had no effect. At some point, Deputy Crawford picked up the Taser, warned Barreto-Baerga he was going to use it, and then the fire quickly ignited. 

"Deputy Crawford was aware there was gas in the direct and immediate area. We know this because he says on bodycam, ‘Kill the pump! Kill the pump! Gas!’" Sheriff Lopez explained. "After that statement, he picked up the discarded Taser that was located in gas and says, ‘You’re about to get Tased dude!' Immediately after that statement with the Taser in his hand, the fire ignites."

Lopez said the charge was recommended because the deputy's actions were "reckless" and disregarded human life.  He said Deputy Crawford should never have used a Taser at a gas station. 


Credit: Family of Jean Barreto via NeJame Law.

Barreto-Baerga's attorney, Mark NeJame, has denied that his 26-year-old client had a gun on him and said he was on his way home. At a press conference on Wednesday, he demanded the Florida Department of Law Enforcement open an investigation. (NeJame is also representing the family of a man who was shot and killed by Osceola County deputies outside a Target store in Kissimmee.)

"Never had a gun that day. Never brandished a gun. But yet is being vilified while he’s laying pretty much skinless in a hospital bed fighting for his life," NeJame told reporters Wednesday.

NeJame said Osceola County sheriff's deputies should not have gone into Orange County to pursue Barreto-Baerga, and he also claims deputies failed to get Barreto-Baerga help immediately after the incident. Prior to the Osceola County Sheriff's Office's news conference, NeJame said any charge against Barreto-Baerga was unjustified. 

Sheriff Lopez said Barreto-Baerga did get help right away and played a video clip that showed deputies running towards him with fire extinguishers. He also played a video clip where the helicopter pilot notifies Orange County that they were about to pursue a suspect in their jurisdiction and said they were within their rights to do so. 

Sheriff Lopez said he never referred the case to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement because this case involved a Taser, rather than a gun. He also said they never found a gun on Barreto-Baerga, but investigators believe he could have tossed it someplace during the pursuit.  

"I chose not to send this case to FDLE because II have full faith and confidence in the abilities and integrity of my detectives." 

Deputy Crawford will be on paid leave pending the investigation. He would be charged with culpable negligence. Barreto-Baerga would be charged with fleeing and attempting to elude, reckless driving, and resisting officers without violence. Some of them are felony charges.

Below is a full statement from NeJame:  

"We’re very pleased that we were able to apply enough pressure on the Sheriff to finally disclose what he’s been withholding from us, the public, the State Attorney, and the media for almost 3 months. He continues to minimize his dangerous policies and the potential harm and cost it brings to the public and his deputies. This case is but another example of its foolishness and danger.

 "While we are gratified to know that some criminal charge is being recommended against the Deputy, it will be up to the Office of the State Attorney to determine if the charges against the Deputy are sufficient as to his crime or should be greater since the Sheriff has now admitted culpability and the actions are so apparent and egregious. Sheriff Lopez continues to double down on and promote his dangerous policies, practices, and procedures, taking no responsibility that such policies have led to this horrific outcome.  

"The laws apply to him and the Osceola Sheriff’s Office and to cross county lines in pursuit of a young man for traffic violations, without the consent of the adjoining county, is a violation of the Mutual Agreement set forth throughout every county in Florida. The Sheriff is not above the law, nor can his policies give permission to his deputies to violate the law either. The deputies he sent had no authority or jurisdiction to even be there. The Sheriff can’t create his own set of laws, even though his policies were the cause of our client being engulfed in a fireball, with 3rd degree burns over 75% of his body and causing burns to the other deputies as well. It is these policies which also helped cause his deputies being burned and subject to criminal charges.

"We will appropriately represent our client for the traffic violations and await the determinations from the Office of the State Attorney, and not the Sheriff’s own investigation. By refusing to have an independent investigation which intentionally avoided scrutiny and review by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the State Attorney’s Office, Sheriff Lopez has caused distrust and compromised the integrity of his office. 

"We await the independent review as to the full charges to be considered against the deputies involved, not just the one charge announced today. Mr. Barreto continues to fight for his life and has completed his first round of skin grafting."

Editor's note: A previous version of this article misspelled the man's name. The correct spelling is Jean Barreto-Baerga.