At just 17, Israel Hernandez-Llach was already an award-winning artist, on the threshold of acclaim in Miami Beach art circles. He was a sculptor, painter, writer and photographer whose craft was inspired by his home country of Colombia and his adopted city, Miami.
He was also a graffiti artist, known as “Reefa,” who sprayed colorful splashes of paint on the city’s abandoned buildings while playing cat-and-mouse with cops, who, like many, consider graffiti taggers to be vandals, not artists.
It was while spray-painting a shuttered McDonald’s early Tuesday morning that Hernandez-Llach was chased down by Miami Beach police and shot in the chest with a Taser. He later died.
Miami Beach Police Chief Ray Martinez said Hernandez-Llach was confronted by officers about 5 a.m. as he was vandalizing private property, and he fled, leading officers on a foot chase. It ended at 71st and Harding when he was cornered by police and ran toward the officers, ignoring commands to stop, Martinez said.
“The officers were forced to use the Taser to avoid a physical incident,’’ the chief said.
He was hit once in the chest and collapsed, Martinez said, at which point officers noticed he was showing signs of distress. He was transported by fire-rescue to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was later pronounced dead.
“The city of Miami Beach would like to extend their condolences to the family of Israel Hernandez,’’ Martinez said. The death remains under investigation by the city and the state attorney’s office.
Tasers are considered a nonlethal weapon, and police say their use has greatly reduced the number of fatalities in confrontations between police and violent subjects. Deaths after a Tasering are uncommon — but they do happen. Often an autopsy will discover that the Tasered individual had either a pre-existing medical condition or drugs in their system.
The medical examiner did not rule on a cause of death following an autopsy Wednesday. Further tests are pending, but Martinez said Hernandez-Llach did not suffer any other injuries. Martinez said Hernandez-Llach’s only previous arrest was for shoplifting, and that there was no indication he was involved in gang activity.
At the family’s apartment in Bay Harbor Islands Wednesday evening, a group of family and friends were tearfully coming to grips with their loss. Arranged carefully on a table in the apartment: an array of the young man’s drawings, sculptures and awards.
“He wanted to change the world somehow through art,” said the teenager’s 21-year-old sister, Offir Hernandez. “We want answers. We only want to know what happened.”
The family’s lawyer, Todd McPharlin, said his clients would like an independent investigation of the incident.
The police report goes into great detail about the wild pursuit to catch Hernandez-Llach, who led officers into alleyways, past apartment buildings, into doorways and down hallways. He jumped a fence, landed on the hood of a parked car, then, the police report said, lost his footing and fell on his chest — before taking off yet again.
“Two seconds after losing sight of the subject I heard an unknown unit on the radio advise that the subject was in custody,’’ officer Thomas Lincoln wrote in his report. “I began walking north on Harding Avenue to 71st Street where I observed the subject sitting on the ground and against a wall.’’