Posted: Jan 10, 2014 4:50 PM
Updated: Jan 10, 2014 4:50 PM
DURHAM, N.C. (AP) Police in North Carolina say all evidence collected during their investigation into the shooting death of a handcuffed teenager indicates he killed himself with a concealed large-caliber pistol that a rookie officer failed to detect when he frisked him.
Durham police on Friday presented preliminary findings of an internal investigation into the shooting death of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta, who died Nov. 19 in the back of a squad car as it was pulling into the parking lot at police headquarters.
Huerta had been arrested by Officer Samuel Duncan a short time earlier on an outstanding warrant for misdemeanor trespassing after a family member called 911 and asked for help after the teen walked out of his home following a late-night argument.
"The evidence and information collected thus far indicate that Mr. Huerta had a handgun concealed on his person," said Capt. L.J. Clayton, who oversaw the department's internal affairs investigation. "Officer Duncan did not discover this handgun during his search of Mr. Huerta. Mr. Huerta shot himself with that handgun."
The Durham Police review of the shooting is separate from an ongoing review by the State Bureau of Investigation, the findings of which have not yet been made public.
Huerta's death in police custody has rocked this Southern city. Racial tensions here are often quick to boil to the surface and mistrust of law enforcement runs deep in many minority neighborhoods, even though the city's police chief is Latino and the long-serving mayor is black.
What was intended as a peaceful candlelight vigil involving about 200 people a few days before Christmas turned violent when heavily armed police in riot gear responded with canisters of tear gas after they said an officer was struck in the helmet by a bottle thrown from within the crowd. Six people were arrested.
Authorities called a news media-only briefing on Friday at the city's downtown police headquarters, held in a tightly packed room only yards from where Huerta died. The teen's family and their attorney, who have been highly critical of the conduct of the police officials, including Chief Jose L. Lopez Sr., were not invited.
In presenting the preliminary findings, Clayton and Deputy Police Chief Anthony Marsh said Huerta's sister called 911 about 2:10 a.m. to report the teen missing. The sister told the 911 dispatcher that Huerta had previously attempted suicide, but, according to police, that information was not relayed to officers on the ground.
Duncan, who had just completed his final patrol training, and another officer spotted Huerta and a second teen about 20 minutes later at a corner about a mile from the police station. According to the report, both teens initially gave false names to the officers. Huerta was identified and arrested after a criminal database search indicated he had an outstanding warrant. The other teen, Jamie Perez, was also arrested.
According to the investigation, Duncan handcuffed Huerta and conducted a "cursory search," patting down the teen's pockets and frisking the sides of his body. Huerta was then placed in the back of cruiser 225, his hands cuffed behind his back. Huerta was wearing a pair of light gloves, according to police, which the officer did not remove.
Clayton said the car had been thoroughly searched both by Duncan at the start of his 12-hour shift and by the officer who last drove it at the end of a prior shift. After the short drive to the police station, Duncan heard a loud gunshot as he pulled into the parking lot and leaped from the vehicle, fearing he was being shot at. The cruiser, which was still in gear, rolled forward until it struck a tree.
According to police, Huerta was found inside with his hands still cuffed behind his back, a gunshot wound to his head and a .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun at his side. A recording system inside the cruiser that could have captured video and audio from the event was not on at the time of the shooting, according to the police.
A state lab found gunpowder residue on a white, batting-style glove that Huerta was wearing, while no residue was found on Duncan. The last federal record of the handgun recovered at the scene tracks it to a Georgia pawn shop in 1991. Clayton said the police investigation has not yet determined how or when Huerta got the gun, though she said text messages recovered from the teen's phone discussed a gun.
Ballistics testing on the gun and a bullet recovered from the roof of the squad car has not yet been completed, police said.
Follow Associated Press Writer Michael Biesecker at Twitter.com/mbieseck