DURHAM — Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez broke his silence Wednesday on the death of a teenager in the back seat of a police car with a brief news conference that raised more questions about the Nov. 19 incident and drew an immediate rebuke from an attorney for the teens family.
Lopez said Jesus Huerta, 17, a student at Riverside High School, shot himself in the head while handcuffed behind his back.
During his six-minute, 30-second press conference, Lopez said Huerta had been searched and handcuffed before he was driven to police headquarters where the shooting took place in the parking lot. Lopez said the gun was not a police officers weapon.
How the gun got into the patrol car, and who owned it, remain under investigation, he said.
Lopez plays hide and seek with the facts, Alex Charns, an attorney for Huertas family, said Wednesday afternoon.
The chiefs statement is a conclusion exonerating, in part, the DPD, while blaming the one person who cant speak for himself, Charns said. The chief offers no details to support his claims. We are asked to trust without any way to verify the information.
In a statement released at his news conference, Lopez said he anticipated the disbelief.
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, he said. While incidents like this are not common, they unfortunately have happened in other jurisdictions in the past.
Lopez had said previously there is no indication that Officer Samuel Duncan, who had taken Huerta into custody, fired a weapon during the incident.
The State Bureau of Investigation is still investigating the shooting, as is the Police Departments professional standards division. Duncan is on administrative duty until the investigations are complete, as is normal procedure.
On the lookout
Huertas older sister had called 911 to ask that police be on the lookout for him after he left home about 2 a.m. Duncan stopped Huerta about an hour later and took him into custody after discovering that the teenager had an outstanding warrant issued in July for second-degree trespassing.
Huerta was found with another man, who gave a false name but was later identified as Jaime Perez, according to police. Perez was issued a citation for resist, delay and obstruct and then released.
According to police, Duncan was taking Huerta to the Durham County jail and stopped at police headquarters to get a copy of the warrant. Driving into the parking lot, Duncan heard what he took to be a gunshot from the back seat and jumped out of the still-moving car, which struck a parked van and stopped.
Officers responding to Duncans report of shots fired found Huerta slumped over, still handcuffed and not moving, according to the statement released Wednesday. They also found a handgun on the patrol cars floorboard.
Huertas family and a national Latino organization, Presente.org, has petitioned the FBI to investigate his death and launch a patterns and practices investigation into the Durham Police Department.
On Wednesday, Arturo Carmona, the groups executive director, called the chiefs statements absurd.
Chief Lopezs statements make obvious that he and his department may have much to hide and are not interested in a serious probe of this very disturbing case in which a handcuffed boy was killed while in Durham Police custody, he sad.
The family has sought all city employees and officials communications that concern Huertas detention, arrest and death, and all investigation reports concerning Huerta, Charns said.
Durham officers have fatally shot two people this year: Jose Adan Cruz Ocampo, 33, on July 27, and Derek Deandre Walker, 26, Sept. 17. Ocampo was a suspect in a non-fatal stabbing; Walker was fatally shot after pointing his gun at police in a downtown standoff. Results of SBI investigations in those cases have not been publicly released.