DURHAM — Police in North Carolina say all evidence collected during their investigation into the shooting death of a handcuffed teenager indicates he killed himself with a concealed large-caliber pistol that a rookie officer failed to detect when he frisked him.
Durham police on Friday presented preliminary findings of an internal investigation into the shooting death of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta, who died Nov. 19 in the back of a squad car as it was pulling into the parking lot at police headquarters.
A medical examiner’s report released separately on Friday said Huerta died from a close-range gunshot to the face.
Huerta had been arrested by Officer Samuel Duncan shortly before he died on an outstanding warrant for misdemeanor trespassing after a family member called 911 and asked for help after the teen walked out of his home following a late-night argument.
“The evidence and information collected thus far indicate that Mr. Huerta had a handgun concealed on his person,” said Capt. L.J. Clayton, who oversaw the department’s internal affairs investigation. “Officer Duncan did not discover this handgun during his search of Mr. Huerta. Mr. Huerta shot himself with that handgun.”
The Durham Police report on the shooting is separate from an ongoing review by the State Bureau of Investigation, the findings of which have not yet been made public.
Huerta’s death in police custody has rocked this Southern city. Racial tensions here can be quick to boil to the surface and mistrust of law enforcement runs deep in many minority neighborhoods, even though the city’s police chief is Latino and the long-serving mayor is black.
What was intended as a peaceful candlelight vigil involving about 200 people a few days before Christmas turned violent when heavily armed police in riot gear responded with canisters of tear gas after they said an officer was struck in the helmet by a bottle thrown from within the crowd. Six people were arrested.
Authorities called a news media-only briefing on Friday at the city’s downtown police headquarters, held in a tightly packed room only yards from where Huerta died. The teen’s family and their attorney, who have been highly critical of the conduct of the police officials, including Chief Jose L. Lopez Sr., were not invited. The report was released to the family before officials discussed it with reporters.
In presenting the preliminary findings, Clayton said Huerta’s sister called 911 about 2:10 a.m. to report the teen missing. The sister told the 911 dispatcher that Huerta had previously attempted suicide, but, according to police, that information was not relayed to officers on the ground.
Duncan, who had just completed his final patrol training, and another officer spotted Huerta and a second teen about 20 minutes later at a corner about a mile from the police station. According to the report, both teens initially gave false names to the officers. Huerta was identified and arrested after a criminal database search indicated he had an outstanding warrant. The other teen, Jamie Perez, was also arrested.
According to the investigation, Duncan handcuffed Huerta and conducted a “cursory search,” patting down the teen’s pockets and frisking the sides of his body. Huerta was then placed in the back of cruiser 225, his hands cuffed behind his back. Huerta was wearing a pair of light gloves, according to police, which the officer did not remove.
Clayton said the car had been thoroughly searched both by Duncan at the start of his 12-hour shift and by the officer who last drove it at the end of a prior shift. Huerta was the first person placed in the back seat that night. After the short drive to the police station, Duncan heard a loud gunshot as he pulled into the parking lot and leaped from the vehicle, fearing he was being targeted. The cruiser, which was still in gear, rolled forward until it struck a tree.
According to police, Huerta was found inside with his hands still cuffed behind his back, a gunshot wound to his head and a well-worn .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun at his side — the same large caliber as the service weapons issued to Durham police. A recording system inside the cruiser that could have captured video and audio from the event was not on at the time of the shooting, according to the police.
A state lab found gunpowder residue on a white, batting-style glove police say Huerta was wearing, while no residue was found on Duncan. The last federal record of the handgun recovered at the scene tracks it to a Georgia pawn shop in 1991.
Clayton said the police investigation has not yet determined how or when Huerta got the gun, though she said text messages recovered from the teen’s phone discussed firearms. Ballistics testing on the pistol and a bullet recovered from the roof of the squad car has not yet been completed, police said.
Asked how Huerta could have shot himself while restrained, police showed photos of a handcuffed officer contorting himself to point a gun at his head. They conceded not everyone would be that flexible, but Deputy Police Chief Anthony Marsh said the diminutive teen must have been.
“Not only can it be done, it has been done in other jurisdictions,” Marsh said. “The fact that it occurred is suggestive (that he could do it). ... All the evidence suggests, very strongly indicates, that he basically died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the back of a police car.”
Moments after the police briefing ended, Huerta’s family and activists including members of the state chapter of the NAACP held a news conference of their own outside city hall.
They rejected the review’s findings, saying the Durham police could not be trusted to investigate themselves and were engaging in a “whitewash.” The family says he did not own the gun recovered by police and that the other teen, Perez, told investigators that Huerta was not armed when he was arrested. They have called for federal authorities to investigate the teen’s death, along with other recent cases of fatal encounters with Durham officers.
Known to his family and friends by the nickname “Chuy,” Huerta was described as an upbeat high school student who was a loving brother and uncle — far from the portrait of a budding delinquent with a drug problem that police have painted.
“He was a happy kid,” said Jamie Huerta, the dead teen’s sister-in-law. “He’s not just a headline. He was our family, he was a loved one, and he was a part of our life. And he was taken away by the actions of police by not following procedures. Somebody needs to own up and take responsibility for that.”