DURHAM — Jesus Huerta died from a close-range gunshot that hit him in the mouth, passed through his head and lodged in the roof of the police car in which he was sitting with his hands cuffed, according to a state medical examiner’s report released Friday.
The report was made public late in the afternoon, after a Durham Police Department news conference in which police officials released preliminary findings of their internal investigation into the Riverside High School student’s death on Nov. 19.
Those findings include the conclusion that Huerta, 17, shot himself, supporting statements previously made by Durham Police Chief Jose L. Lopez. Lopez attended but did not speak at the conference.
Police officials said their administrative investigation is looking at whether Officer Samuel Durcan failed to follow department policies for handling and transporting prisoners and operating a video recorder inside his patrol car.
According to police, Duncan checked Huerta for weapons before putting him into the police car but did not find a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun that was discovered in the car’s back seat after Huerta died. Duncan had checked the car for weapons or other “contraband” when he began his patrol, and no one else had occupied the seat before Huerta, police said.
“Mr. Huerta had a handgun on him,” Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh said. “Officer Duncan did not notice the handgun. Mr. Huerta shot himself with that gun.”
The State Bureau of Investigation is conducting its own inquiry, no details of which have been released.
Durham Mayor Bill Bell who had urged police to release information without waiting for the SBI to finish, said Friday’s release was what he had hoped for, “considering the fact there are other investigations going on.
“I don’t know that there’s much more that could come out that they didn’t bring out at this point,” Bell said.
But other city officials and residents said they still had questions.
“I’m trying to be patient,” City Councilman Eddie Davis said. “I’m trying real hard.”
Huerta family members questioned the findings at a news conference with their attorney, Alex Charns, and representatives of several civil rights organizations.
“He’s not just a headline; he was our family,” said Jaime Huerta, Jesus’s sister-in-law. “He was a loved one, and he was part of our life, and he was taken away by the action of police in not following procedure.
“How can you shoot yourself with your hands behind your back? That doesn’t make sense,” she said.
“We're going to do whatever it takes to find out the truth,” said Raziel Huerta, Jesus’ brother.
“They've been telling us lies. Someone needs to be held accountable. There are still questions we have,” said Evelin Huerta, Jesus’ sister.
Information not relayed
Charns has questioned why police did not search Huerta more carefully and take more care in his arrest, because his family had told a 911 dispatcher he had once “tried to take his own life.”
Huerta was arrested on an outstanding trespassing charge after his family called 911 for help finding him. A recording of the 911 call indicates that a sister called on her mother’s behalf and said Huerta left the house because his mother had caught him using drugs. The caller, whose name is not revealed, said the family was worried because he had threatened suicide, according to the 911 recording.
That information, though, was not relayed to the officers searching for Jesus, police said Friday.
Spokesmen for the civil rights groups, including the state NAACP, linked Huerta’s death with two 2012 fatal shootings by Durham police and allegations of profiling and other racist behavior by Durham officers.
Irv Joyner, chairman of the state NAACP legal redress committee, said, “The misunderstanding, the distrust and the mistrust gap between the Durham community and the Durham Police Department has ... become intolerable,” and added that the City Council “has absolutely abdicated its responsibility to oversee, hold accountable, the Durham Police Department for actions it has taken.”
Joyner urged residents to attend hearings of the Durham Human Relations Commission, which, at Bell’s request, is investigating the allegations of police racism. The commission next meets at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Stanford Warren Library on Fayetteville Street.
Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden, who attended the police news conference, said she, too, is looking forward to more information.
“I grieve, though, at the thought of another young man remotely thinking of taking his own life,” Cole-McFadden said.
“If it is true that he talked about taking his own life, there must be some way we can intervene to save our children,” she said.
After Huerta’s family called 911, Duncan spotted him with another teen, Jaime Perez, at the corner of Washington Street and Trinity Avenue, near the Huerta home.
Duncan was joined by several other officers, one of whom found Huerta had an outstanding arrest warrant for misdemeanor trespassing issued in July. After frisking him, Duncan put Huerta in his car and drove to police headquarters to get a copy of the warrant before taking Huerta to jail for processing, according to police.
Duncan heard something scraping against the plastic back seat but did not stop to investigate because they were close to headquarters, police said. As he turned into the headquarters parking lot, he heard a loud noise, thought he was being shot at and jumped out of the car while it was still in gear. The car continued moving until it struck another vehicle, as Duncan made a “shots fired” call.
When officers arrived at Duncan’s car, they found Huerta dead and the handgun in the back seat. The gun has been traced to ABC Dependable Pawn in Commerce, Ga., but that record dates from 1991, Marsh said. No more recent record of its whereabouts has been found, he said.
Staff writer Andrew Kenney contributed to this report.