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Suspect dies after shock from Taser

Police said Thursday they don't know what killed the man or why he fought with officers.

By JACOB H. FRIES and DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN
Published April 7, 2006


CLEARWATER - The first time police shocked Thomas C. Tipton with a Taser, it barely slowed him down, a witness said.

The second time, it did nothing.

"He was uncannily powerful," said Cesar Cuevas, 47, who saw Tipton fight police in the courtyard of the Tropic Isle Motel late Wednesday night. "He was like a bull in a china shop."

Three officers eventually handcuffed Tipton, who continued to struggle, police said. Then, suddenly, he went limp.

By the time Tipton, 34, of Tampa reached a hospital, he was dead.

Police said Thursday they don't know what killed Tipton or why he fought with officers. The violent confrontation and another in Pasco County involving a 92-year-old man are likely to fuel the debate about the growing prevalence of Tasers and the risks involved.

Since 2001, more than 150 people nationwide have died after they were shocked by Tasers, according to an Amnesty International report released last week.

Most deaths were later attributed to drugs, pre-existing heart problems or "excited delirium," a psychotic and typically drug-induced state in which the heart is susceptible to cardiac arrest.

Taser International, which makes the weapons, has challenged those statistics, saying the deaths had not been officially connected to a Taser shock.

The company has said it knows of just six cases in which an autopsy found that a Taser shock was a contributing factor in someone's death.

In Tipton's case, it will fall to Pinellas-Pasco medical examiner Jon Thogmartin to determine the cause of death. Thogmartin, who declined to comment Thursday, said in October that it was a medical fact that a Taser alone would not kill.

He said, however, that Tasers can contribute to a death by exacerbating an existing medical condition.

* * *

It was unclear why Tipton ended up in the breezeway of Clearwater's Tropic Isle Motel late Wednesday night. He wasn't a guest. Police said they are retracing his steps.

At 11:30 p.m., he knocked over several patio chairs and broke jalousie windows, police say. Guests called 911 and looked out doors and windows.

There stood Tipton, shirtless, muscular and angry, police say. When officers tried to subdue him, Tipton kicked and punched at them while shouting expletives, police and witnesses said.

"He was very belligerent," said Cuevas, a fashion photographer whose first-floor room looked out on the scene.

Cuevas said one of the officers drew his Taser and fired. That slowed Tipton, but his fight with officers continued. Another Taser was deployed, he said.

"It took the three of them, with all their training and experience, to get the handcuffs on one man and they still didn't have the upper hand," Clearwater police spokesman Wayne Shelor said.

Tipton, who had no known criminal record, continued to fight, police said. He was pronounced dead at Morton Plant Hospital.

"Although the man was involved in a violent fight with police, there was no obvious injury that would have resulted in collapse and death," Shelor said.

The three veteran officers involved were placed on paid administrative leave while the case is investigated, standard policy. They are Sgt. Joe TenBieg, 50; Officer Larry Harbert, 37; and Officer Daniel Higgins, 43.

Clearwater police policy requires officers to be trained before they are issued a Taser and requires that it "never be used as a tool for coercion." The policy further outlines when the Taser can't be used - such as when a person could fall from a high place, is pregnant or when another option is available - and bans shooting the Taser at someone's head, neck or genitals.

Detectives with the department's Criminal Investigations Division and Office of Professional Standards are investigating the incident.

Tipton's family, who gathered at his home on Colonnade Drive in the Pebble Creek area of northeastern Hillsborough County, declined to talk about Tipton or his death. He was a manager for a staffing firm and moved to Tampa with his wife last year, a family friend said. The couple did not have children.

"He didn't have a violent streak in him," said employee Bobby Concepcion, who spent Thursday comforting Tipton's wife.

Concepcion added, "He was an easy-going guy."

* * *

Tasers are used by deputies in Hillsborough, Pasco and Citrus counties, and police officers in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Temple Terrace, Dade City, Port Richey and Tarpon Springs.

Before Tipton, one person had died in the Tampa Bay area after a Taser shot. An autopsy attributed that 2004 death involving Hillsborough deputies to "accidental cocaine-induced agitated delirium."

In Pasco early Thursday, a sheriff's deputy shot 92-year-old Olin Holcombe with a Taser as Holcombe beat another elderly man with a cane. Holcombe, who has advancing Alzheimer's, was in the behavioral health unit at Community Hospital in New Port Richey.

The man Holcombe is alleged to have attacked, 81-year-old Roland Casanova, was in critical condition at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point on Thursday afternoon.

Jared Feurer, southern regional director for Amnesty International, called for further research into the effects of Tasers. Until then, the group is urging a moratorium on the weapons.

"We would like policy to catch up with technology," Feurer said. "Our elected officials need to have the independent research and information to develop policies that ensure losses like his do not occur in the future."

Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle said the company is being hurt by misinformation.

No one in the country has died as the "sole result" of being shocked with a Taser. Six autopsies have listed it as a contributing factor, he said.

--Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan and staff writers Rebecca Catalanello and Amber Mobley contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 7, 2006, 06:11:24]


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