A teenager who Durham police say fatally shot himself while in custody last year used a .45 caliber pistol that he had concealed and an officer did not discover while frisking and arresting him, police said Friday.
Officers had picked up 17-year-old Jesus Huerta the morning of Nov. 19 because his family reported him as a runaway, police said, but emergency dispatchers did not relay warnings from the family that Huerta had threatened to kill himself.
Durham police on Friday presented preliminary findings of an internal investigation, in its most detailed release of information in the case to date. Hundreds of concerned residents have march to the department headquarters in protest of the police action and they have pressure city administrators to call for more transparency. Yet it was not fully clear why responding Officer Samuel Duncan didn’t find the firearm during search.
“What we can say is he searched Mr. Huerta. What we can say is he missed the gun,” Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh said. “That’s as far as I can go at this point.”
An attorney for the Huerta family, Alex Charns, responded by telling reporters the family would be doing its own investigation and questioning the possibility the teenager was carrying a gun, and responding officers’ not knowing about Huerta’s suicidal threats. The department has generated mistrust because it did not release Fridays’ details sooner, he said.
“He was a young man that needed help. The family asked for help,” Charns said. “Now what we get is continued slaps in the face. This misdirection, this misleading, this shell game – it continues, and it’s frankly disgusting.”
Huerta died of a close-range gunshot that passed through his mouth, tore through his head and lodged in the roof of the police car, the state's medical examiner said Friday, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.
In presenting preliminary findings, Marsh and Capt. Laura Clayton, who oversees the department’s standards division, outlined a chronology of the morning of Nov 19. Chief Jose Lopez, who has been the department’s public face in the case, attended the conference room but did not speak.
The department is investigating violations of its policies over the in-custody death, the handling and transporting of a prisoner, and an in-car mobile camera. The summary also said:
- On Nov. 19, Duncan had been with the department 16 months and had recently completed the final independent phase of his field training.
- Duncan inspected and drove patrol car No. 225, which had also been inspected by its last user, Officer O. Ortiz, and found no contraband.
- The car has a one-piece plastic seat, a plexiglass and metal containment cage between the rear and front, and an in-car video recording system.
- The in-car camera stopped recording about 2:09 a.m. because it automatically shut off after the car had idled for more than 50 minutes. Duncan did not re-start the camera.
- At 2:10 a.m., Huerta’s sister called the 911 emergency dispatch center to report him as a runaway. The sister said Huerta attempted suicide in the past, but that information was not relayed to officers. The runaway dispatch call said: “Jesus Huerta, Hispanic Male, 17 years old. He does not have any medical or mental conditions and is not a risk.”
- At 2:30 a.m. Duncan and Officer Beck found two males who gave incorrect identities, but later determined to be Jesus Huerta and Jaime Perez.
- Duncan searched Huerta’s pant and jacket pockets and placed him in the back of the car. “Duncan advised that he searched Mr. Huerta by using his hands to sweep both sides of Mr. Huerta’s body, including his waist area,” the summary says. “Jaime Perez, who was with Mr. Huerta during this encounter, advised that the officers only patted their pockets in their coats.”
- Huerta moved his cuffed hands from behind his back to behind his knees. Duncan directed Huerta to put his hands back behind his back.
- Huerta continued shifting while Duncan was driving him to police headquarters, and Duncan heard an object rubbing against the plastic seat. Duncan told him multiple times to stop. Huerta replied he was uncomfortable.
- When they got to the department’s parking lot, Duncan heard a gunshot from the back of the car. Duncan found Huerta slumped over in the back seat with his hands behind his back.
- He found a black Haskell semi-automatic .45 caliber pistol on the right back seat floor board. The gun’s last known location was ABC Dependable Pawn in Commerce, Ga., on Dec. 18, 1991.
FAMILY AND COMMUNITY REACTION
The Huerta family immediately disputed the police’s claims. Residents and city officials, including Mayor Bill Bell, have put pressure on police to release full information.
“The circumstances around this incident are bizarre,” Durham City Manager Thomas Bonfield said in an interview. “We want to do everything to expedite this investigation.”
The Durham Police report is separate from a review by the State Bureau of Investigation, which has not yet issued its findings.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez did not attend the news conference. Durham Police sent out a clarification saying Chief Lopez did attend the news conference. He did not speak at the news conference.