Nearly two years after a naked24-year-old man died while in police custody in Henry County, his family is taking the officers who repeatedly deployed their Tasers on him and pinned him to the ground to federal court.
The parents of Fernando Octavio Rodriguez filed a lawsuit this week against Henry County, the city of Hampton and each of the officers involved in the “excruciating and humiliating death” of their son. Named in the civil complaint are Hampton officers Gregory Bowlden, Mason Lewis and Marcus Stroud, and Henry officers Robert Butera and Quinton Phillips.
Rodriguez died following a Sept. 20, 2019 encounter with police officers who stunned him with Tasers at least 16 times following a music festival in Henry County, the complaint said. Attorney Page Pate, who is representing Rodriguez’s family in the case, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the officers also made “unprofessional” statements about the naked man while he was writhing in pain and kneeled on his body until he lost consciousness.
“The complaint then alleges that officers placed Mr. Rodriguez on his stomach, known as the prone position, handcuffed him, and kneeled and stood on his head, neck and back,” Pate said in a statement. “Video from body cameras shows that officers became aware that Mr. Rodriguez had stopped breathing and was unresponsive, but the officers continued to pin Mr. Rodriguez to the ground for several minutes.”
The GBI investigated the officers’ use of force during the incident and turned over its findings to the Henry district attorney’s office Jan. 17, 2020, the agency’s spokeswoman Nelly Miles confirmed. The Henry district attorney confirmed it had received the report and is investigating the incident, but did not provide further details about the case.
The complaint gives a second-by-second account of the nearly 30-minute exchange between the unarmed man and the officers. Body camera footage from one of the officers involved captured the full incident from the moment police encountered Rodriguez walking naked down an empty street, to the first time he’s stunned with a Taser, right up until he’s carried away to a hospital by an ambulance.
Rodriguez was confronted by police after leaving the Imagine Music Festival at Atlanta Motor Speedway, officials said. Officers were sent to the intersection of Oak Street and Windsor Parkway in Hampton about 10 p.m. after someone called 911 and reported that an “unclothed man” was walking down the street.
“As officers arrived at the scene at approximately 10:11:04 p.m., Fernando was unclothed, unarmed, noncombative, in a confused state of mind, and walking away from officers,” the complaint said.
Bodycam footage shows Rodriguez walking in the center of the dimly lit road while the officer has a stun gun trained on his back. The officer, identified by Pate as Lewis, commands Rodriguez to get on the ground at least four times, the video shows. Rodriguez replies with an expletive and continues walking away.
Credit: Page Pate
Credit: Page Pate
Lewis and a second officer, Stroud, tell Rodriguez to get on the ground several more times, and the man continues walking away, the video shows. About 30 seconds into the exchange, Lewis is heard saying: “I’m going to tase you.”
Then, a flash of electrified wire is seen flying from Lewis’ stun gun and clinging to Rodriguez’s back. The man falls to the ground as the electricity enters his body.
“Clearly in agony, and while the Taser was still connected to and shocking Fernando, Fernando rolled onto his back. The officers then commanded Fernando to roll over onto his stomach,” the complaint said.
The officers collectively tell Rodriguez to roll over about 15 times, the video shows. In the audio, Rodriguez can be heard screaming and shouting expletives at the officers.
“Roll over,” Lewis shouts at the naked man.
“(Expletive) you,” Rodriguez responds.
“Roll over,” Lewis shouts again. Lewis is next seen deploying his Taser for a third time after Rodriguez says “no.”
Attorney Jess Johnson, Pate’s legal partner, said Rodriguez might have been in a state of mind that rendered him unable to follow the officers’ orders.
“We haven’t received the toxicology report yet, but it is probably likely that he was under the influence of something and wasn’t able to follow commands,” Johnson told the AJC.
For the next three minutes, the officer continues to deploy his stun gun on Rodriguez while commanding him to roll over onto his stomach.
“Dude, roll over so we can get you some help,” Stroud can be heard saying at one point.
“I’m going to stay here,” Rodriguez can be heard saying while lying on his back.
“OK, but you’re going to keep getting tased,” Stroud responds. “Roll over.”
The officers continue to tell Rodriguez to roll over while sirens begin to sound in the background. Additional police officers are en route to the scene.
“Whatever it is you’re on, it ain’t worth all this,” Stroud is heard saying, seemingly referring to drug use.
As three more officers arrive, Lewis can be heard telling them: “I done tased him about three times.” Periodically, Rodriguez can be heard screaming.
As Phillips arrives at the scene, Lewis deploys the Taser for a fifth time, according to the video. Rodriguez can be seen writhing on the ground.
The officers issue additional commands for Rodriguez to roll over, according to the video.
“Want me to tase him, Bowlden?” Lewis is heard asking.
“No, hold on a second,” Bowlden is heard replying.
Amid additional commands to roll over, Rodriguez can be heard seemingly speaking gibberish and shouting more expletives at the officers.
“All right, you need to stop,” Lewis says in the video.
“Get him with the Taser! Hit him with the Taser,” Rodriguez shouts. When Stroud tells him to roll over once again, Rodriguez replies: “(Expletive) you, (expletive).”
Credit: Page Pate
Credit: Page Pate
By 10:18 p.m., Rodriguez had been stunned 13 times. The officers are seen in the video using the stun guns to subdue Rodriguez while they forcibly flip him onto his stomach to handcuff him.
“While Fernando was lying face down and handcuffed in the street, the video shows officers kneeling on him and standing on his arms and legs,” the complaint said. “While Fernando was handcuffed and lying face down in the street, Defendant Phillips deployed a fourteenth round of electricity into Fernando’s body via his Taser.”
Bodycam footage shows the officers standing and kneeling on Rodriguez’s body for nearly 10 more minutes while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. At one point, an officer says that Rodriguez is “holding his breath.” Then, an officer said Rodriguez had stopped breathing.
“At that point,” Johnson said, “they are required to render medical aid or at least get off him so he can breathe. And that wasn’t done.”
When paramedics arrived about 10:30 p.m., they noted that Rodriguez was unresponsive, not breathing and pulseless, Pate said.
In the video, an officer can be heard telling paramedics that he’s “playing possum,” implying that the officer believes Rodriguez is not genuinely losing consciousness.
He was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital, where doctors discovered he was suffering from respiratory failure, renal failure, anoxic brain injury, cardiac arrest and acute blood loss anemia.
He died in the hospital two days later. A medical examiner ruled Rodriguez’s death a homicide “as a result of his interaction with law enforcement,” Pate said.
Bowlden and Lewis are still employed by the Hampton Police Department, where they have worked since 2017 and 2018, respectively, according to Peace Officer Standards and Training Council records obtained by the AJC. Stroud resigned from the department in 2019.
Both Butera and Phillips are still employed by the Henry police department, POST records show. The AJC has requested the incident report from Henry police but has not received it.
Rodriguez’s family is asking for the case to be taken to a jury, the complaint said.
“During Fernando’s arrest, he was in extreme pain and suffering, both physically and mentally, having been tasered multiple times by the Defendant Officers and unable to breathe due to the Defendant Officers’ actions,” Pate said.
In addition, the family is asking for “compensatory damages in an amount sufficient to compensate for the full value of the life of Fernando.”
Asia Simone Burns is a watchdog reporter for the AJC. Burns was formerly an intern in AJC’s newsroom and now writes about crime. She is a graduate of Samford University and has previously reported for NPR and WABE, Atlanta’s NPR member station.