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Stun gun deaths raise drug-link questions

By Elizabeth Hume -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 am PST Saturday, November 13, 2004

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Ricardo Zaragoza and Gordon Rauch suffered from mental illnesses. Both men fought when they were confronted by Sacramento County sheriff's deputies. Both were shot at least twice with a Taser, a stun gun considered nonlethal by police. Both died.

The similarities surrounding their deaths place Zaragoza and Rauch on a growing list of those on medication or other drugs who died after being hit with 50,000 volts of electricity from a Taser, a relatively new weapon used by law enforcement officers.

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Zaragoza died Monday. The cause of his death won't be established for weeks pending toxicology reports.

Rauch died more than a year ago. The Sacramento County coroner's report said he died naturally Aug. 17, 2003, from a "sudden cardiac death during struggle with police" resulting from "excited delirium and bipolar psychiatric disorder."

Zaragoza and Rauch were taking psychiatric medication at the time of their fatal encounters with law enforcement.

As the number of stun gun-related deaths rises, recent studies suggest that more research is needed to show the effects of Tasers on those taking prescription medications or illegal drugs, and on other sensitive populations.

"There's really almost no medical research examining this issue," said Dr. Kathy Glatter, a UC Davis Medical Center electrophysiologist, a cardiologist who specializes in heart rhythm disorders and sudden death.

Even with research, experts may have difficulty understanding how Tasers work on certain people.

Glatter said it's difficult to determine whether a pre-existing heart condition or psychiatric medication could affect a person shot by a Taser.

"Many of those medicines can cause life threatening heart rhythms, although it's rare, and they are generally considered safe," Glatter said. "But the combination perhaps in the wrong person could be lethal."

Since 2001, at least 76 people have died in Taser-associated deaths in the United States and Canada, said Mark Silverstein, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Colorado.

A high percentage of those were using stimulants. At least six coroner's reports state that Tasers were a contributing factor.

"The more deaths that are associated, the more that someone needs to be questioning and doing a very serious study," Silverstein said.

Officials of Taser International, the Arizona company that produces the stun guns, are quick to dispute any allegations about the Taser's involvement in police-related deaths.

"Several studies have stated the Taser is most likely not a contributing factor during the custody deaths," said Steve Tuttle, a company spokesman.

Yet two of the studies, both released in September by the U.S. Department of Defense and British Columbia Office of Police Complaints, suggest more research and training are needed.

Because of the lack of information surrounding stun guns, Amnesty International has been compiling information on Taser use in the United States for a report to be released Nov. 30.

"Our primary concern is that we want to make sure these things are not killing people," said Edward Jackson, a spokesman for Amnesty International.

Other organizations are questioning policies surrounding Tasers.

The U.S. National Institute of Justice has recently funded the International Association of Chiefs of Police to review law enforcement "use of force" policies, including Tasers.

The Canadian Police Research Center in Ottawa is conducting a separate study on Tasers and associated deaths.

Jim Cessford, chairman of the advisory committee to the Canadian Police Research Center and the chief constable of Delta, a city in British Columbia, said the study is due to be released in the spring.

"It's so important for the police to be tracking Taser use to show why they are using it and document the number of uses and certainly compare information on any tragic circumstances," Cessford said.

The Sacramento County Sheriff's Department has purchased at least 584 Tasers since 2001. Monday's death has not changed current policy on Taser use, sheriff's spokesman Sgt. R.L. Davis said.

"Right now the officers that are trained to utilize them will continue to use them as a tool to help get noncompliant individuals into custody," Davis said.

Sheriff's officials refused to release the names of the four officers placed on paid administrative leave because of their involvement in Zaragoza's death.

The case will eventually be turned over to the Sacramento district attorney for review.

In April, the DA's Office found "no evidence of criminal misconduct" on the part of eight officers involved in Rauch's death.

In the two Sheriff's Department cases, the men who died were middle-aged and had histories of psychological disorders. Zaragoza, 40, had been diagnosed at age 20 as a paranoid schizophrenic. Rauch, 38, had a long history of mental illness and was bipolar.

Both lived with parents when they died.

There are other similarities. Each had picked a fight with his mother on the day he died. Emergency 911 calls were made to police dispatchers. Both men attacked a deputy.

Both were shot twice with a Taser, once from a distance and again on contact. In both cases, the men continued to flail. Eventually, their legs were tied together.

Finally, the thrashing stopped as their bodies went limp.

Minutes later, paramedics arrived and took the men to area hospitals, where they were pronounced dead.

About the writer:

  • The Bee's Elizabeth Hume can be reached at (916) 321-1203 or ehume@sacbee.com.

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