From the moment of the 9-1-1 call reporting Jesus Huerta as a runaway, to his death 44 minutes later in the back of Durham Police Car No. 225, law enforcement made several pivotal decisions. Any one of them, in retrospect, could have changed the arc of a boy's life, a family's grief and the fate of a rookie police officer.
At a press conference this afternoon, Durham police released findings of an internal department investigation into Huerta's death at just before 3 in the morning on Nov. 19.
This is what happened, according to the investigation into police protocol and procedures: Jesus Huerta, 17, who had previously attempted suicide, killed himself with a black Haskell .45 caliber pistol while handcuffed in the back of a police car.
This is what didn't happen:
- Although Huerta's sister advised the 9-1-1 dispatcher that Huerta had been suicidal, this information was not relayed to the patrol officers.
- Officer Samuel Duncan, who had been with the department 16 months and just completed the final independent phase of his field training, did not find the gun on Huerta during a pat-down and search.
- Although Duncan heard "the sound of something rubbing against the plastic backseat area" of the patrol car on the way to headquarters, he chose not to stop and search Huerta more thoroughly because they were almost to the station.
- And after shutting off his car to apprehend Huerta, Duncan did not reactivate the on-board video camera. As a result, there is no video documentation of Duncan's search and transport of Huerta to police headquarters, where the boy shot himself while Duncan drove him into the parking lot.
(Editor's note: We removed page 5 from the report because it contained the Huerta family's phone number.)
Huerta's death and that of Jose Ocampo, who was killed by an officer last spring—that investigation is also ongoing—have drawn criticism from city officials, who say more transparency is needed from the department, and outrage from the family and many community members, who suspect police misconduct and a coverup. On Nov. 22, a peaceful vigil became violent when some protesters threw firecrackers and vandalized windows at DPD headquarters. And on Dec. 19, a second vigil also went south when police showed up in riot gear and tear gassed demonstrators, only some of whom had thrown rocks and bottles at officers.
DPD's Professional Standards Division is investigating possible violations of several polcies, including how Duncan transported and searched Huerta, the death of Huerta in his custody and the operation of the onboard video camera. The State Bureau of Investigation is conducting its own inquiry; both the SBI and DPD are waiting for the state medical examiner's final report toxicology results before issuing additional findings. [Update 12:57 a.m.: WNCN
is reporting results of the medical examiner's report late Friday, which states Huerta died of a gunshot would in the mouth. The bullet was found in the right side of the patrol car above the back seat. Huerta had a hole in his jacket over the right portion of his chest. No alcohol was detected in his system.]
Officer Duncan's 12-hour shift began at 5:45 p.m
. on Monday, Nov. 18. Before heading to patrol the streets that evening, he inspected Car No. 225 to ensure it was functioning properly and that no contraband had been left by the previous user. Nor did Duncan store any of his personal items in the vehicle.
Car 225 had not been used during the day shift, and the previous officer, O. Ortiz, told investigators he had transported only one person his the car in the back seat—a pregnant woman—whom he had searched. Ortiz also searched the back seat after she got out and noted no contraband.
At 2:10 a.m.
, nearly eight hours into Duncan's shift, the Durham Emergency Communications Center received a 9-1-1 call from Huerta's sister, saying her brother, who had been suicidal in the past, had run away. However, Huerta's mental condition was not relayed to officers, center director James T. Soukup said today, because "it was perceived by the 9-1-1 dispatcher that it had happened in the past." The dispatcher asked Huerta's sister if Huerta suffered from any physical or mental conditions, Soukup said, and she said no. "That's why the information didn't get relayed."
Several officers patrolled the area of Washington Street and Trinity Avenue, while another officer spoke to the family about the boy. At 2:30 a.m.,
Officer Duncan and Office Beck spotted two teens near that intersection, Huerta and Jaime Perez.
Huerta, officers learned, had an outstanding warrant for trespassing; Duncan took him to custody for the misdemeanor warrant and handcuffed him behind his back. According to two officers, Duncan frisked Huerta's pants and jacket pockets and found no contraband. Perez told investigators that Duncan only patted their pockets and looked in their coats. Duncan then seized Huerta's backpack, and put the boy in the back of the patrol car.
Officer Beck, who had been questioning Perez, noticed that Huerta had moved his cuffed hands from behind his back to behind his knees. Beck told Duncan, who told Huerta to return his cuffed hands behind his back, which he did. Then Duncan, who had not restarted the video camera since turning off his car more than a half hour prior, began driving Huerta the one mile to police headquarters.
During the trip, which takes about three minutes to drive, Duncan heard the sound of something scraping against the plastic back seat. He asked Huerta to stop making that noise, and Huerta responded that he had a "wedgie" and felt uncomfortable. Duncan thought Huerta may have been trying to hide or discard drugs and later told investigators that had he not been so close to the police station, he would have stopped and searched Huerta more thoroughly.
"In the parking lot … shots fired!" Duncan yelled into his police radio.
At 2:54 a.m.
, Duncan arrived at police headquarters and pulled into the parking lot from Chapel Hill Street. He then heard a loud noise that appeared to be a gunshot inside the car. Duncan thought he was being shot at, so he jumped out of the car while it was still in drive. It collided with a parked van in the parking lot. Officer Harris, who was in the lot, told him that his prisoner was shooting at him. Both officers approached the wrecked patrol car with guns drawn and opened the rear seat door.
Huerta was slumped over in the rear seat with his handcuffs behind his back. The .45 was lying on the floor board in front of the right back seat. Huerta had shot himself in the head. At 2:56 a.m.
, according to the event log, it was noted Huerta "was not breathing." Paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene.