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Family of teen who died in Durham police custody searches for answers

Posted November 20, 2013
Updated December 10, 2013

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— The family of a 17-year-old who died while in Durham police custody said Wednesday that state authorities told them the boy suffered a gunshot wound to the head.

The brother of Jesus Huerta said someone with the State Bureau of Investigation told the family the news after the teen’s death early Tuesday. The SBI, which is leading the investigation, declined to comment, saying the cause of death will be determined through an autopsy by the state medical examiner.

Neither the SBI nor Durham police have said publicly how Huerta died while he was in the back seat of a patrol car at 3 a.m. However, in a recording of the radio traffic between the officer and dispatch, the officer reports "shots fired" in the parking lot of headquarters.

WRAL News obtained the recording through a public information request Wednesday. The officer told headquarters he was not hurt and requested an emergency medical response for a "gunshot wound. Approximately 18-year-old male, not breathing."

Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez told reporters Tuesday that “based on the preliminary investigation, it does not appear that any Durham police officer fired a weapon during this incident.”

Officer Samuel Duncan was transporting Huerta to police headquarters on West Chapel Hill Street to pick up a warrant charging the teen with second-degree trespassing.

When the officer got to the parking lot, he heard a loud noise in the car and jumped from the vehicle, police said. The patrol car rolled into a van and came to rest with Huerta in the back seat.

Huerta’s mother, Sylvia Fernandez, said Wednesday that her son ran away from the family apartment on Washington Street, and she wanted police to help. Fernandez, who doesn’t speak English, asked her daughter to call police.

In a recording of the 911 call, the sister told the call-taker they were worried because the teen was using drugs and once tried to take his own life. But the family said Wednesday Huerta never tried to kill himself. Jesus Huerta Durham teen's family wants answers

An officer arrived about 10 minutes later, Fernandez said, and another officer radioed to say the teen was picked up about two blocks away from the home.

About 6 a.m., a police officer showed up to notify the family that Huerta was dead and a gun was involved, Fernandez said. Huerta’s body was taken to the state medical examiner’s office.

The family said they asked to see the body, but the request was declined. A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services said there is no viewing room.

“(My mother) wants to see my brother, even through a glass window,” said Evelin Huerta, Jesus’ sister. “We don’t have any answers. We want to make sure it’s him because we still have that thought, the possibility that it’s not him, that it was a mistake.”

Raziel Huerta, Jesus' brother, said the family doesn't know whether to plan for an open or closed casket at the funeral.

"We don't know if he had a gun. We don't know where the gun came from," he said. "Why wasn't he searched? We don't know when we are going to get the body. What was the cause of his death?"

Duncan, who joined the police department in July 2012, was put on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of the SBI review, which is standard procedure.

The police department’s professional standards division and homicide unit are also investigating the teen's death.

When asked whether city leaders would ask for a review, Durham City Council member Don Moffitt said it was unlikely.

"But if we're not satisfied with the State Bureau of Investigation, then we could do that," he said.

Jesus Huerta was a student at Riverside High School, where he was known by the nickname "Chuy."

Evelin Huerta said her mom called police because she believed her son would be safe in the hands of officers.

"She's saying next time she is going to doubt picking up the phone and calling a police man," she said.

57 Comments

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  • cait Nov 22, 4:19 p.m.

    I'm just curious about one thing. HOW did this kid shoot himself in the head when he was in handcuffs?

  • theblazer Nov 22, 10:51 a.m.

    "She's saying next time she is going to doubt picking up the phone and calling a police man," she said.

    Perfect - people need to realize that cops nowadays have been conditioned to think in a paramilitary way. Some are good, but many they are hiring today are not quality people. Take care of situations yourself and you will get better results.

  • rachel Nov 21, 6:17 p.m.

    while I am very sorry for the family in this situation- I do hope their search also takes them to their own home, their own values and their own contribution, if any, to this tragic situation- self examination seems to be on the wane these days

  • wake_up_jeff_0 Nov 21, 3:53 p.m.

    the family has the right to see the body...the ME can advise them not to because of the shape the body may be in or look like. But its the families choice to see the body...

  • Ven Nov 21, 12:11 p.m.

    not seeing the body coupled with not just ruling it a suicide gives the perception (maybe not reality) of something fishy. If all the facts are there, including a horrific site of the body, then let it be.

  • Moist Nov 21, 12:00 p.m.

    Good to know its real easy for criminals to sneak guns into the police station, maybe they'll put em to good use.

  • OpinionatedMama Nov 21, 11:53 a.m.

    @busyb97: Most intelligent comment yet!

    @pappybigtuna: Break not brake. And this is NEWS, so it needs to be told.

    @jonara: Never read a more ignorant comment in my life. Doesn't make the COP the bad guy, just makes him the one who put him in the car & part of the investigation. Get a clue!

  • OpinionatedMama Nov 21, 11:46 a.m.

    @ SEE CHART:

    OH! So you're ONE OF THOSE that makes EVERYTHING about race!

  • They call me CATMAN Nov 21, 11:11 a.m.

    I say where did the kid get the gun in the first place but also why didn't the Cop frisk this guy before he put him in the car.I am no Police Officer but seems to me that should have been #1 on the list of things to do.

  • mep Nov 21, 11:00 a.m.

    It is unlikely the officer had left a weapon in the backseat by mistake. Although it is possible. More likely, the officer placed the youth in the back seat without frisking him... the youth had a gun, and shot himself.

    I was arrested one time (many years ago) and the officer failed to frisk or handcuff me.... midway to the police station he stopped the car and did it.... I laughed at his mistake. Worse still, I then removed the handcuffs at the police station using a key on my key-ring the cop failed to take from me. Thankfully I was not changed further, and the original charges dropped.

    Cops make mistakes.

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