Family of teen who died in Durham police custody searches for answers
Posted November 20, 2013 3:05 p.m. EST
Updated December 10, 2013 6:46 p.m. EST
Durham, N.C. — 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.
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.