OKLAHOMA CITY – The maker of Tasers said Monday that at least 15 people have caught fire, and five have died, after being stunned while near flammable materials, similar to an Oklahoma man who was burned beyond recognition after he was shocked and reportedly got into his gasoline-soaked van.
Axon spokesman Steve Tuttle said the deaths include the man shocked Nov. 7 by a police officer in the town of Lindsey, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) south of Oklahoma City, although authorities say they are still investigating whether the man may have lit himself on fire.
"We've seen it happen," Tuttle said. "It's happened about 15 times in 24 years ... out of about 3.5 million field uses" of the device, known as a conducted electrical weapon, or CEW.
"It's a known situation. Thankfully it's been a very rare event," Tuttle said.
Investigators say the man in Oklahoma who caught fire was armed with a gun and was also carrying a lighter. An officer stunned him with a Taser, but the man managed to fight his way back into his van, where he burst into flames. Authorities say they're still trying to determine whether the man used his lighter to start the fire or whether the Taser was the cause.
Scottsdale, Arizona-based Axon notes on its website that a Taser can cause flammable materials, including gasoline, to catch fire.
"Do not knowingly use a CEW in the presence of any explosive or flammable substance unless the situation justifies the increased risk," the website states.
The names of the man and the officers involved in the confrontation have not been released. The dead man's body was sent to the state medical examiner's office for positive identification and to try to determine the cause of the blaze.
McClain County Sheriff's Det. David Tompkins, who is taking part in the investigation, said it appears the officer was probably justified in using the Taser.
"Right now, I think it will be justified, unless something else comes up to change my mind," he said.
Tompkins said investigators don't yet know whether there is video of the confrontation because they have not been able to open and view the camera that was on the officer's patrol vehicle. He said the dashcam has been sent to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to determine whether it was working at the time.
The dead man is believed to be a person who was reported to police in nearby Norman as possibly suicidal.
Norman police spokeswoman Sarah Jensen declined to release that person's name.