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The Dark Side

"And then all of a sudden he broke out in a great flame of anger, stamping with his foot, brandishing the cane, and carrying on like a madman." — The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

It was as if he were two people. Most of the time, Xavia Jones was a mellow, caring father to his daughter, Catherine. He was an ex-con determined to self-improve, a CNN junkie who studied after work at the Miami Beach Convention Center to earn union certification.

But more and more often, something terrible was taking hold of the lanky Opa-locka native whose skin was inked with Immortal, Outlaw, and Thug Life. Xavia's live-in girlfriend, Carrie, would find him hiding behind the couch, a sweating, convulsing fugitive from invisible corrections officers or other unknown enemies. And he'd burst into evil spells, slapping Carrie and pulling her hair, threatening to kill her for cheating on him, his face a dark slate. "He could be a very good friend," Carrie says, "or the next moment, he could be scared and paranoid, thinking everybody in the world was after him."

And then one Friday night after work in January 2008, Xavia permanently entered his own private horror show. Sitting on a couch among friends in a Coral Gables condo, sweating, twitching, and blasted on lines of coke and a half-dozen beers, he hugged himself and pleaded, "Oh, please, Jesus, give me the strength not to do this."

Then he began growling, screaming, and running in and out of the apartment like a man on fire.

At 2 a.m., Coral Gables cops found him lying in the middle of traffic-clogged U.S. 1, screaming, "God is coming to take me!" As an officer edged toward him with gun drawn, Xavia's eyes gleamed as he dared him: "Kill me, kill me, shoot me, shoot me."

One of the four cops present would later say Xavia's threatening posture made it "unsafe to approach." So Sgt. Jesus Garcia unloaded his Taser four times into the writhing man. It "seemed to have no effect." So another officer, Scott Selent, hit him with five more electrical bolts. This time, Xavia "kind of locked up, almost like he was a board," the police would later recall.

As the electricity coursed through Xavia's muscles, the cops slapped cuffs on his wrists, dragged him to the sidewalk, and set him facedown on the pavement. "What the heck is going on?" one officer asked.

"Fuck you, motherfucker" was the answer. As soon as Xavia said it, his body went limp and a white liquid trickled from his mouth.

Xavia Jones was the fifth person to die after being hit with a police stun gun in Miami-Dade, according to a December 2008 study by Amnesty International, ranking it seventh of all counties in the United States. Fifty-two people died in Florida after being hit by the 50,000-volt department-issued Tasers, second only to California's 55.

But the electricity didn't kill Xavia, according to Miami-Dade County Associate Medical Examiner Erik Mont. The official cause: "excited delirium syndrome, associated with cocaine use."

The symptoms were all there, wrote Mont: "agitation, excitability, paranoia, aggression, great strength, numbness to pain, and sudden death."

In fact, in all five county cases of death following tasing, the medical examiner's office named excited delirium as the cause of death. According to the 2008 Amnesty International study, 111 of the nation's 334 post-Taser deaths were blamed on excited delirium.

The bizarre syndrome, first diagnosed in Miami, transforms its typically sane victim into a slobbering, raging, supernaturally strong menace hell-bent on self-destruction. It could be ripped straight from the pages of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Scottish scribe Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 archetypal tale of split personality. In the novella, the gentle Dr. Jekyll drinks a potion to become the murderous, hideous Mr. Hyde. In this real-life affliction, the spark is cocaine.

Excited delirium appears to be inflicting South Floridians at an alarming rate. Since 1989, the Miami-Dade medical examiner's office has declared 38 people dead of the syndrome. In the past decade alone, that number is 28, compared to five during that time in Broward County. Figures for Palm Beach County were not available.

The Miami victims were predominantly male. Twenty were white or Hispanic; 18 were black. They included a hairdresser, a truck driver, and an attorney. Thirty-six of them had cocaine in their system. The other two were diagnosed schizophrenics.

Among the cases: the crack-addicted former lawyer who ran around Liberty City screaming that somebody was trying to kill him. He broke into an abandoned house and began beating the walls, and himself, with a stick when he was tased. He died in handcuffs soon after.

Then there was the 35-year-old Northwest Miami-Dade father who for a full day had been "acting paranoid" and was unable to recognize his children, his wife later told cops. Police showed up after he ran into noontime traffic, and he stopped breathing one to two minutes after being handcuffed.

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Gus Garcia-Roberts

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