Local News

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

Posted January 10, 2014 2:02 p.m. EST
Updated January 10, 2014 5:54 p.m. EST

— 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.