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Durham chief: Teen shot self in head while in police car

Posted December 11, 2013

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— Durham's police chief says that Jesus Huerta, the 17-year-old who died in police custody last month, shot himself in the head after he had been searched, handcuffed and placed in the back of a patrol car.

"I know that it is hard for people not in law enforcement to understand how someone could be capable of shooting themselves while handcuffed behind the back," Chief Jose Lopez told reporters Wednesday. "While incidents like this are not common, they unfortunately have happened in other jurisdictions in the past."

Lopez said that Officer Samuel Duncan picked up Huerta early on Nov. 19 in response to a call about a runaway and learned that he had a warrant out for his arrest on a second-degree trespassing charge.

By 2 a.m., according to police, Huerta was dead – his hands still cuffed behind him, slumped over in the back seat of the car outside the Durham Police Department – and a handgun was found in the floorboard of the patrol car.

An autopsy confirmed the self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Huerta's sister, Evelin Huerta, says Lopez's explanation is difficult for her to understand and that her brother did not have a gun.

"I’m just more frustrated now," she said. "In what world does any of this make sense?"

It's unclear where the gun came from. Lopez said it was not a departmental gun and that no officer fired the weapon.

If Huerta had the gun when he was taken into custody, it's unclear why Duncan did not find it when he searched the teen.

"One of my concerns is the nature of the search. Was it a good enough search?" said Durham City Councilman Steve Schewel, who also spoke to reporters Wednesday. "We do need to understand (really well) what happened, and once we understand what happened really well, it all needs to be out there."

An internal police investigation and an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation remain active, Lopez said. Duncan is on administrative leave pending the outcome of those investigations.

"Whether (Huerta's) wound was accidental or intentional is unknown at this time," Lopez said.

Lopez's news conference comes a day after Huerta's family called for a federal investigation into the case, and it is the first time the chief has publicly commented about the events on the morning of Nov. 19.

The family says they called police after Huerta ran away from home and, according to a 911 recording, were worried because he had tried to take his own life. The family later said Huerta never tried to kill himself.

They've since made a public records request for all forms of communication regarding the case, their attorney Alexander Charns said, "in a continuing effort to find out the truth."

"How did Jesus end up dead in the parking lot at police headquarters in these circumstances? Searched. Handcuffed behind the back. How is it even possible to shoot oneself?" Charns said in a statement.

"The chief’s statement is a conclusion exonerating, in part, the DPD, while blaming the one person who can’t speak for himself," he continued. "The chief offers no details to support his claims. We are asked to trust without any way to verify the information."


This story is closed for comments.

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  • GETOUT Dec 13, 2013

    678 where did it come from that the officer was shot??? Also, Vietnam vet take a look at the video in my previous post and you can see it is indeed possible for this young man to shoot himself if he had the gun tucked well in his waistband.

  • 678devilish Dec 13, 2013

    My question is...if the kid was searched...where did the gun come from?

    He was not searced. The officers failed in his job and should be fired. The proof is there and flags all around. The officer failed to do his job. He did not search the young man and just put him in the officer's car. Then there was the shot. I guess the officer was shot and came up with a lie. Shame on him!

  • Vietnam Vet Dec 13, 2013

    My question is...if the kid was searched...where did the gun come from? Is this simply a sloppy search by arresting officers, or is this some sort of lame attempt at a cover up? This whole story has a definite odor to it. Handcuffed behind his back? I don't see how anyone could shoot themselves in the head, unless he slipped the cuffs and got his hands in front of himself, but then again...where did the gun come from???

  • kenshi Dec 13, 2013

    From a forensic standpoint this would be an easy case to determine.

  • Lightfoot3 Dec 12, 2013

    “my post are continually discarded” – thepeopleschamp

    As a moderated site, WRAL is spotty in service. Many times my posts don’t make it, and/or I have to rewrite to avoid the duplicate warning and try again.

    “But it is also a fact that guns are not always easy and simple to find.” – thepeopleschamp

    I believe that. I bought a NAA mini-revolver that can be easily hidden. I want to know what kind of gun this kid shot himself with.

    “It may or may not have been the search was "weak"” – thepeopleschamp

    While I play the devil’s advocate quite a bit, that’s actually what I’m thinking happened, if he was searched at all.

  • bbyrd009 Dec 12, 2013

    Duncan was responsible for Huerta after he handcuffed him. Even if a suicide, it is now Duncan's responsibility. He might not be guilty of murder, be his is a walk-on for manslaughter. Sorry for him if he is innocent.

  • Southern Girl Dec 12, 2013

    Sorry, I just have my doubts about that.

  • thepeopleschamp Dec 12, 2013

    @lightfoot3, my friend, I've tried multiple times to debate you on a professional level but my post are continually discarded. I don't know if you have the same troubles with your point of view or not. I actually agree with you that the largest flaw in this incident appears to be a gun was missed during the search. But it is also a fact that guns are not always easy and simple to find. I saw a DOC employee tell a class he had a toy gun on him and no one in the class was able to find it searching him. It may or may not have been the search was "weak", that is unknown.

  • JustOneGodLessThanU Dec 12, 2013

    @LetsBeFair, yes, let's be fair. Before saying it's impossible, watch the video that shows how easy it is to actually do it...to shoot yourself in the head with your hands cuffed behind your back. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PyBRk0R-hQ

    Then, look at the picture of this boy. It's not difficult.

    And here are just a couple of people from last year who did the same:



  • 1066hardrada Dec 12, 2013

    The CIB can wipe a persons hands (forearms, shirt, seat, etc)and test for firearm discharge residue. The lab test is public information (eventually). The cops know this. They're not trying to cover anything up, because it would be near impossible to cover up. (CIB=Crime Invest Bureau)