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The family of an Arlington man who died after two officers used their Tasers on him while he was covered in gasoline say police caused his death, according to a lawsuit filed in federal court Wednesday.
The lawsuit, which names the two officers and the city of Arlington as defendants, also claims one of the officers lied about using his Taser and partially blames the Arlington Police Department’s use-of-force policy for Gabriel Eduardo Olivas’ death.
In July 2017, Olivas doused himself in gasoline and told his wife and son he was going to kill himself.
Olivas’ son called the police, who showed up at the home in the 1600 block of Carla Avenue and quickly established they were to use non-lethal force on Olivas, according to the lawsuit. Family members frantically yelled for the officers to hurry and pointed them to the back bedroom.
The room was dark and chaotic — Olivas dumped more gasoline on himself as Officer Caleb Elliot sprayed him with pepper spray and shouted, “If we tase him, he is going to light on fire,” the suit says.
Seconds later, the other two officers in the room, Ebony Jefferson and Jeremias Guadarrama, used their Taser stun guns on Olivas, according to the suit. He burst into flames. Officers pushed his wife and son into the hallway as the room filled with smoke.
Days later, Olivas died in the hospital, 85 percent of his body covered with burns.
“His wife and his son saw him catch fire right in front of their eyes, saw the house catch on fire — that’s not an image that goes away easily,” the family’s lawyer, Dean Malone, said. “It had quite an effect on them.”
A Tarrant County grand jury cleared Guadarrama, Jefferson and Elliot of wrongdoing.
“Arlington Police Department Officers were confronted with a dynamic and challenging incident involving a call where a suicidal subject had poured gasoline on himself and inside the house while holding a lighter in the presence of other innocent family members and officers,” the police department said in a statement Friday. “The officers had few options to try and diffuse the situation and remove the family members to safety. The autopsy revealed the manner and origin of the fire remained undetermined. The department thoroughly reviewed this incident and the case was reviewed by a Tarrant County Grand Jury.”
A woman who answered the phone at Guadarrama’s residence said he had no comment on the lawsuit. Jefferson could not be reached for comment. A city spokeswoman said the city had no comment.
In 2017, Sgt. VaNessa Harrison said in a news conference it was unclear if Olivas caught fire because of the Tasers or because he may have been holding a lighter.
The suit argues Olivas would not have died if officers had not used their Tasers on him, and that one of the officers changed his story multiple times about what happened in the moments leading up to Olivas’ death.
Notes in the lawsuit include portions of a 137-page report by Detective Grant Gildon, who investigated Olivas’ death on behalf of the city of Arlington.
In the report, Gildon said Jefferson originally told him that he did not fire his Taser. Gildon responds by telling him that four Taser probes were pulled from Olivas’ chest.
“Upon hearing this, (Jefferson) immediately stated that if two Tasers were discharged, then he had to of fired his Taser,” the lawsuit quotes Gildon’s report as saying.
The lawsuit says Jefferson should have been fired for lying about using his Taser. Guadarrama left the police department in January and Jefferson is still an Arlington police officer, Malone said.
In the suit, the family also argues Arlington’s escalation-of-force policy contributed to Olivas’ death.
The use-of-force policy lists methods of force that Arlington police should use. The least severe type of force it identifies is simply an officer’s presence, while the most severe is using a firearm. According to the policy, an officer should use a Taser before using “empty hand control,” which is described as soft or hard pressure with one’s hand.
“However, it is undisputed that a Taser can cause death in more situations than would use of soft hand techniques or impact weapons,” the lawsuit states.
The suit argues Arlington’s escalation policy caused Olivas’ death because it allowed officers to use a Taser instead of physically moving Olivas, which would not have caused him to catch fire.
Malone, the family’s lawyer, also said Arlington police should have secured the scene at Olivas’ house by getting the family out of the room and calling in SWAT or a crisis intervention team.
“Officers are called to the scene to help and unfortunately caused the ultimate horrific thing here,” he said.