Osceola County Sheriff Marcos Lopez announced charges against a deputy who lit himself and a suspect on fire while trying to apprehend the suspect at a Wawa gas station in February.
During a press conference on Thursday, Lopez shared footage of 26-year-old Jean Barreto riding his dirtbike on roads in Osceola and Orange County. He noted that deputies were called to the scene, with the 911 caller alleging that the group of dirtbike riders that Barreto was with were armed. When Osceola deputies arrived, the entire dirtbike group fled and an Osceola County helicopter followed Barreto.
In the clips shared by Lopez, Barreto can be seen riding recklessly and frequently against traffic. Rather than let the facts of the video stand, however, Lopez characterized the video with comments about what could have happened.
"Imagine this 4 or 500-pound bike crashing into a mom, kid, killing them. This is the kinda stuff we have zero tolerance for," he said. "In Osceola County, we don’t play these games."
Notably, the helicopter chase crossed into Orange County. Barreto was not approached by police again until he was several miles over the county border and fueling his bike at a Wawa gas station. While the helicopter video shared by OCSO is blocked at critical moments by the gas station's overhang, Barreto's attorney Mark NeJame described his takedown as a "flying tackle from behind" from an OCSO deputy.
What happened next is not in dispute. OCSO admits that the dirtbike spilled gas from its open gas cap and that gas was ignited when a deputy attempted to fire a Taser at Barreto while they both were covered in gasoline. The Taser had been discarded into the gasoline by another deputy who appeared to understand the danger of shooting electrical current into a puddle of gas.
Because Deputy David Crawford was aware of the gasoline and went against OCSO policy around using a Taser in the presence of flammable materials, he is being charged with misdemeanor culpable negligence.
“Crawford was aware there was gas in the direct and immediate area. We know this because on bodycam he says ‘kill the pump, kill the pump, gas.’ 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," explained Lopez. "According to the Taser log, there was a trigger pull that coincides with the timing. Although I personally believe there was no malice in his decision to do so … under the law his actions were reckless and held such disregard for human life that it rises to the level of probable cause for culpable negligence.”
In the video, Barreto can be seen running while fully engulfed in flames. An OCSO deputy grabs a fire extinguisher and puts the 26-year-old out on the grass near the station. Barreto suffered burns on 75% of his body, according to his attorney.
NeJame notes that Barreto is a "valued FedEx employee" with "no prior criminal record." Sheriff Lopez didn't seem fazed by the idea of a multi-county pursuit over what amounts to reckless driving. He noted that the original call made it seem as if Barreto might be armed, though no gun was found at the scene or in the ensuing investigation.
"Any charges that may be brought against Mr. Barreto are unjustified. What crime did he commit which would have caused him to even flee?" said NeJame in a statement to the press. "He had no record or firearm. He’s never even owned a gun, and he didn’t have one on him when he was set ablaze."
When asked about the firearm, or whether Osceola County deputies may have chased the wrong member of the group, Lopez said that Barreto matched the description and speculated that the never-seen gun could have been tossed by Barreto.
Barreto's attorney argued in a press release that his arrest was entirely illegal, as it took place outside of OCSO's jurisdiction. Lopez said on Thursday that their pursuit of Barreto into Orange County was legal under Florida's "fresh pursuit" statute, which allows officers to leave their jurisdiction while following a person suspected of a felony.
This is the second time this year that Osceola County deputies have turned a call over a minor infraction into an extremely violent arrest. Last month, OCSO deputies executed a young man over the alleged crime of shoplifting pizza and trading cards from a Kissimmee Target.
In that case, deputies in unmarked vehicles boxed in a car carrying four young men in a Target parking lot. When the panicked driver attempted to flee and rammed several of the vehicles, officers fired into the car. Three of the young men in the car were wounded and the driver was fatally shot.
Lopez claimed that the officers in that instance identified themselves by shouting "'Stop! Sheriff's Office!'" None of the many deputies involved were wearing body cameras at the time of the shooting.
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