Police: Agitators in crowd disrupted Durham vigil
Posted December 20, 2013
Updated December 23, 2013
Durham, N.C. — Police Chief Jose Lopez said Friday that his officers acted with "a whole lot of restraint" in using tear gas and riot gear to break up what began as a peaceful vigil in downtown Durham Thursday night to remember a teen who died in police custody last month.
Lopez said agitators in the crowd of about 200 arrived wearing masks, passed out fliers instructing people to be destructive and later hurled rocks and bottles at police.
"We knew there were individuals within that group that did not have peaceful intent," the chief said during a news conference.
Jesus "Chuy" Huerta, 17, was picked up on Nov. 19 on an outstanding second-degree trespassing charge from July. Police said he shot himself in the head after he had been searched, handcuffed and placed in a patrol car.
Lopez said tests conducted by the State Bureau of Investigation showed that Huerta had gunshot residue on gloves he was wearing, but no gunshot residue was found on the hands of Officer Samuel Duncan.
"The chief asks us to trust when he provides no way for us to verify his claims," Alexander Charns, an attorney for Huerta's family, said in a statement.
Charns said the family wants to see the gloves and review the test results to determine if the gloves even belonged to Huerta. He added that Durham police have never said how the gun ended up in the patrol car.
Since Huerta's death, his friends and family members have demanded a federal investigation into the Durham Police Department about his death and possible "patterns and practices" of civil rights violations within the department.
Mayor Bill Bell said late Friday that the police department should release the findings of its internal investigation into Huerta's death, adding, "if they don't choose to release it, I would like to know why."
In a separate statement issued through Charns, the family blasted the police response to the vigil.
"Why would (Lopez) send riot police out against a grieving mother holding a flower and candle for her dead son? She was threatened with arrest along with the rest of the family," the statement said. "He sent troops in battle regalia against people holding Our Lady of Guadalupe candles and signs asking for justice. But he can’t stop prayers with force, and he can’t stop the truth from coming out. In a surprising admission, police headquarters was surrounded by crime scene tape last night."
The vigil began with candlelight, signs and flowers. Gradually it got louder, with participants shouting obscenities to the beat of a drum as they marched from CCB Plaza to the police headquarters, where the crowd was told to disperse.
The group then reversed course and headed back to CCB Plaza. Lopez said that's when acts of vandalism started occurring and his officers came under attack.
The officers used "best law enforcement practices" to disperse the crowd with minimal injuries and property damage, he said. Six people were arrested:
- Andy Guadalupe Mendoza, 18, of 1229 Berkeley St., charged with failure to disperse on command and resisting law enforcement
- Gustavo Pascual Gutierrez, 22, of 2008 Angier Ave., charged with one count of trespassing at police headquarters.
- Benjamin Colt Markgraf, 20, of 10712 Rougemont Road, charged with carrying a concealed weapon, disorderly conduct and impeding traffic.
- Vianey Fuentes, 17, of Great Bend Drive, charged with failure to disperse on command and resisting law enforcement.
- Perla Eliza Fuentes, 16, of Tremont Drive, charged with failure to disperse on command and resisting law enforcement.
- A 15-year-old juvenile female. No information was released on her charges.
Mendoza said Friday that he was at the vigil simply to support the Huerta family.
"We did not expect what happened last night, but yeah, we sort of accomplished what we wanted to. We wanted to show support," he said. "We basically wanted to show that Chuy will never be forgotten."
Other Durham residents who don't even know the family gathered outside police headquarters Friday to support the teen's mother as well.
"I really can't imagine, as a mother of two boys, what her heart feels and to want to be public with her prayer for peace, for answers to her questions," Omisade Burney said. "Durham should be a harm-free zone. Durham should be a safe place for all of our children."
A similar vigil held three days after Huerta's death also turned violent, and Lopez said he wanted to avoid a repeat of that. Unfortunately, he said, people within Thursday night's crowd had other intentions.
"It was supposed to be a peaceful march," he said. "The peaceful intent did not exist prior to and did not exist at that point in time when you start to look at the individuals that were there and the message that they were sending."
Police collected materials handed out during the protest that showed some in the crowd were "teaching others to engage in a destructive, aggressive and assaulting manner." Lopez said.
The agitators put people at more risk by throwing objects than police officers did by using tear gas and breaking up the crowd, he said. A baseball-sized rock hit one officer on a face shield, he said, and one protester suffered a minor injury.
"Nobody is happy about what happened," City Manager Tom Bonfield said, adding that he understands the police department's actions.
"It's difficult to second-guess their decisions about that. There are tactical decisions, tactical decisions that occur that they have to make instantaneous decisions about," Bonfield said. "I’m very confident that the officers that were involved were well trained and well prepared for circumstances."