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Police: Durham officer 'missed' gun in search of teen who died in custody

Posted January 10, 2014

— A much anticipated report of the Durham Police Department's internal investigation of a teen's death while in police custody included several new facts, but it still left the teen's family and others searching for answers.

Jesus "Chuy" Huerta, 17, died Nov. 19 shortly after Officer Samuel Duncan picked him up on an outstanding trespassing charge. Police Chief Jose Lopez said previously that Huerta shot himself in the head while he was handcuffed and sitting in the back of a patrol car.

Some in the community have questioned the police's explanation of Huerta's death, and public pressure built for the department to release the findings of its internal investigation. Deputy Police Chief Anthony Marsh said Friday that a complete report would be released later and declined to answer questions about some aspects of the investigation, which is ongoing.

"This is not a quick process. Investigations are, by their very nature, sometimes slow," Marsh said during a news conference. "The important thing for the public is to receive the truth, and it takes time to get to the truth."

Among the details included in the preliminary report disclosed Friday:

  • The patrol car was inspected by both Duncan and the officer who drove it during the previous shift, and no gun was found on the backseat, on the floor or under the front seats.
  • Durham County 911 dispatchers never relayed information from Huerta's family to Duncan that the teen had tried to commit suicide previously.
  • Duncan pulled Huerta out of the backseat before heading to the police station to readjust the handcuffs because, the officer said, the teen had wiggled his cuffed hands from behind his back down to behind his knees. Duncan also told investigators that he heard Huerta working on the cuffs during the drive to police headquarters and told the teen to stop.
  • Text messages found on Huerta's cellphones referred to guns.
  • The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives traced the .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun found in the back of the patrol car, but there is no record of its ownership since 1991, when it was at a pawnshop in Georgia.
  • A camera inside the patrol car didn't record Huerta's shooting because it shut off automatically while Duncan was out of the car during the teen's arrest, and he never logged back into the system to turn it on again.

"All evidence indicates that Mr. Huerta died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound," Capt. Laura Clayton, director of the police department's Professional Standards Division, said while going over the findings of the internal investigation.

An autopsy report released late Friday said Huerta was shot in the face, with the bullet going through the right front of his jacket before entering his mouth and exiting out the back of his skull. A toxicology report found no drugs or alcohol in his system.

James Soukup, director of Durham's 911 center, said there was no reason to pass along any concerns about Huerta's mental state to Duncan. The teen's family initially reported him as a runaway, and they said he had tried to kill himself before. But Soukup said the 911 dispatcher asked the family if police should known about any mental or physical concerns, and the family responded no.

Jaime Perez, who was arrested with Huerta but was transported to police headquarters in a separate patrol car, told investigators that Duncan gave the teens only a cursory pat-down, contradicting statements by other officers that Duncan thoroughly frisked Huerta and Perez.

Marsh declined to address Perez's statement, saying it was still under review, but he said the department was looking into how Duncan handled the arrest to determine if any policies were violated. Duncan remains on administrative duty pending the conclusion of the investigation.

"What we can say is he searched Mr. Huerta. What we can say is he missed the gun. That's as far as I can go at this point," Marsh said. "This happens throughout our profession; it's not just Durham PD. There are times when items are missed.

"This could be a wake-up call, as many other tragedies are, to our profession."

"(It's) something that shouldn't haven't have happened if they had followed procedure," Huerta's sister, Evelin Huerta, said after the police news conference.

Huerta's family said they weren't accepting the conclusions of the internal report and continued to call for an independent investigation of his death and the Durham Police Department.

"The tiny truths in there are intertwined with half-truths and misdirection. The facts are not readily identifiable," the family said in a statement released through Durham attorney Alexander Charns. "Even more mysteries are revealed and left unanswered."

The State Bureau of Investigation also looked into Huerta's death. Its report has been turned over to the Durham County District Attorney's Office, but the findings haven't yet been made public.

Huerta's family asked for the public to pressure the Durham City Council to seek changes in the police department.

The state chapter of the NAACP also said that Durham officials should demand more accountability from the department.

"The distrust and mistrust gap between the Durham community and the Durham Police Department has widened considerably, and it has become intolerable," said Irving Joyner, an NAACP member and a law professor at North Carolina Central University.

Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield declined to comment on any possible changes in the police department.

"I assure you that there are many more pieces to be evaluated, but at this point, that's not what today is about," Bonfield said.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • zProt Jan 14, 2014

    View quoted thread

    I agree. Some even go so far as to imply that it's not an officer's job to see to the safety of the public. What on earth have we come to?

  • bill0 Jan 14, 2014

    Well, it only took a couple hours for it to come out that the police were lying about some of these "facts". They claimed officers weren't told about the kids mental problems, but they have recordings of the officers talking about how the mom was going to have him committed. Even in the report, some officers insisted the kid was thoroughly frisked and the arresting officer claimed he only made a "cursory pat-down". Guess they didn't have enough time to get their stories straight.

  • jjmcdon11970919 Jan 13, 2014

    Accept for a few sane people that commented on reality, the rest of you really sicken me. It's easy to hide and say ignorant and unintelligent comments. Why don't you sign your name to your comments. Exactly! Sick people!

  • Deb1003 Jan 13, 2014

    The family called police because they believed he was suicidal and was missing..now they want to ignore the fact that they actually said that. The officer missed the gun because it wasn't relayed to him that the teen was suicidal. Way too many errors in this whole incident, but the fact is, a suicidal teen decided to end his life in the back of a police car w/ a gun he had, that wasn't found by the police.

  • GETOUT Jan 10, 2014

    Also, for everyone that thinks the officer turned the camera off right before Huerta was encountered you are wrong. The car was idle for 50 minutes beginning at 0119 hours. Which means that the car was off and only started when the officer was dispatched to the call. He never turned it on when he called enroute, which by their general order may be a violation but there is no conspiracy that he conveniently turned it as the Huerta situation began. Read the report.

  • lynchb01 Jan 10, 2014

    Might sound harsh but if the kid was suicidal he was going to do it anyway. Whether it was in the back of a patrol car or somewhere else.

  • The2ruthHurts Jan 10, 2014

    People commit suicide every single day of the week. No matter how much you want to blame someone, its not the officer's fault. He missed the gun-he did. That is as far as his role goes. It is not the police's job to keep a person alive. The idea of such thing is nice and it would be the noble thing to do. But there is no law obligating a police officer to save, preserve, or guarantee a person's life. There are police officers who out of their own volition will do these things but it is not their job. Tax payers pay law enforcement to enforce laws and help maintain a certain level of quality of living but that is about it. This guy was doomed way before he chose to attract the attention of police.

  • GETOUT Jan 10, 2014

    Yep, he did miss a forty five. And the kid killed himself. Wonder why he had the gun?? Wonder what made him decide to kill himself?? Wonder why he thought that was the best option? Still very relevant, unanswered, avoided and lingering questions.

  • A person Jan 10, 2014

    Was the gun part of the kids thieving spree?

  • The2ruthHurts Jan 10, 2014

    It is all about money at this point. Doesn't surprise me that so many clueless people have nothing better to do than to come up with their own spin of what they allege happened. No training no LEO experience, just biased opinions that satisfy their disdain for cops in general. Makes me glad that they don't have any authority whatsoever or influence in these type of matters.