MIAMI BEACH, Florida (Reuters) - Hundreds of friends and supporters of an 18-year-old graffiti artist who died after being shocked by a stun gun during a police chase in Miami Beach gathered on Saturday in a tearful rally at the site where he had been spray-painting.
Colombian-born Israel Hernandez-Llach died on Tuesday after police shocked him with a Taser as he ran away from officers who caught him spray-painting the wall of a shuttered McDonald’s.
“He was a genius,” said Lucy Rynka, 18, who graduated from Miami Beach Senior High School with Hernandez-Llach last spring. “He showed me how powerful art can be, how you can use color and design to relay a powerful message.”
Miami Beach Police Chief Raymond Martinez has said that Hernandez-Llach was confronted by officers after vandalizing private property and ignored their commands to stop running.
Once in custody, Hernandez showed signs of medical distress and was pronounced dead soon after, Martinez said. A formal cause of death has not been established in the case pending toxicology results.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said on Friday it would conduct an independent review of the Miami Beach Police Department’s investigation into the death of Hernandez-Llach, who was known as “Reefa” and whose work had appeared in some Miami art galleries.
Florida’s state attorney and the medical examiner for Miami-Dade County are also reviewing the case, officials said.
Miami Beach police has come under scrutiny in recent years for a series of shootings and improper conduct, including the death of a 22-year-old man who was shot 16 times by police two years ago during a Memorial Day weekend hip-hop festival.
During the peaceful rally attended by around 400 people, some in the crowd booed and whistled at police officers standing nearby and shouted, “Whose streets? Our streets!”
The teen’s father, Israel Hernandez-Bandera has called his son’s death “an act of barbarism” and an “assassination of a young artist and photographer.”
Jason W. Kreiss, an attorney representing the family, said Hernandez-Llach would likely not have been prosecuted over the spray-painting and would have probably faced a punishment of community service.
At the Saturday rally, the wall where Hernandez-Llach spray-painted was covered with his nickname and messages.
“The only thing I want everyone to remember is his goal was to have his art around the world,” said Vivian Azalia, 18, told the crowd while fighting back tears. “I know he’d be happy with the support that’s come from around the world and from the graffiti community.”
Editing by Kevin Gray and David Brunnstrom