Police: Cursory search of Huerta didn’t find weapon

Jan. 10, 2014 @ 07:12 PM

Police say they believe Jesus Huerta shot himself with a pistol “concealed on his person” that an officer didn’t find in a “cursory” search of the 17-year-old while taking him into custody.

Huerta died in the back seat of a police patrol car on Nov. 19. Investigators recovered from the car a Haskell .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun that’d been off the government’s radar, sales-records-wise, since late 1991.

Two officers had checked the back of the patrol car, one as he went off duty and one as he went on, without finding any contraband in the back seat, said Capt. Laura Clayton, head of the Durham Police Department’s professional-standards division.

The back seat of the car is hard plastic, similar to a bus seat, and the floorboards have barriers installed to prevent anything from being concealed under the front seats, she said.

The officer who detained Huerta, Samuel Duncan, is a rookie who had just completed his training. He told investigators he searched the youth, “using his hands to sweep both sides” of his body “including the waist area,” Clayton said.

A sergeant saw Duncan frisk Huerta’s clothing “but did not see him search further.” A corporal also on the scene saw Duncan pat down Huerta.

Another youth with Huerta when he was picked up as a reported runaway, Jamie Perez, told investigators that officers “only patted their pockets and looked in their coats,” Clayton said.

Officers picked up Huerta at his family’s request, after a relative called 911 to report he’d left home after an argument and previously had “tried to take his own life.”

Clayton said patrol officers were not notified of any suicide risk, and to the contrary were told by 911 dispatchers that Huerta did not have “any medical or mental condition.”

The head of Durham’s 911 center, Jim Soukup, said dispatchers after questioning the original caller had decided the suicide possibility was “something that had happened in the past” and Huerta didn’t have any condition officers needed to know about.

Duncan told investigators that Huerta squirmed around in the back seat of the patrol car, moving “his cuffed hands so much that he had to tell” the youth several times to stop. Huerta responded by saying he had a “wedgie” and was uncomfortable. The officer suspected him of trying to hide or dispose of drugs.

State medical examiners said Friday that the bullet that killed Huerta entered the left side of his mouth from close range, traveling at a sharp upward angle through his brain before exiting the back left side of his head.

The bullet passed through the fold of the red and black jacket Huerta was wearing. Soot and gunpowder particles were on the front of it. Medical examiners believe the bullet passed through the jacket before striking Huerta.

Investigators recovered the bullet from the headliner of Duncan’s patrol car. They told medical examiners it’d been on the right side of the cabin, just behind the partition separating the front seat from the back seat.

A report from the state crime lab found “particles consistent with gunshot residue” on a pair of white-and-black gloves, similar to those used by baseball players, that Huerta was wearing.

A test of Duncan turned up no metal particles on him of the sort associated with gunshots, but technicians in their report noted that did “not eliminate the possibility that [he] could have fired a gun.”

Investigators are still waiting on the arrival of a ballistics report that would indicate any connection between the recovered pistol and the bullet, Deputy Police Chief Anthony Marsh said.

The investigation remains open on three fronts, as the State Bureau of Investigation, the Police Department’s internal-affairs unit and its criminal-investigations unit all work the case.

An in-car video camera wasn’t running at the time of Huerta’s death. The car had been idle for nearly an hour before officers received the initial call about him, and shut itself off as a battery-saving measure. Duncan didn’t turn it back on when he restarted the car.

Marsh said police throughout the country miss items during searches.

“I can say this happens throughout our profession,” he said. “In many cases, it goes toward the detriment of the officer; the officer winds up injured.”

Duncan is at work but restricted to office duties. Clayton said internal affairs is still pondering whether there were violations of policies that address in-custody deaths, the handling of prisoners and the use of in-car video cameras.

Huerta’s family, speaking directly and through lawyer Alex Charns, disputed elements of Friday’s report.

Charns said Perez had told the SBI and at least one other investigator that Huerta didn’t have a weapon. But the lawyer ducked a question asking whether Perez knew that for certain.

“The officer was, because he patted him down,” Charns said, maintaining the pat-down in failing to locate a weapon had been accurate.

The lawyer during a news conference said the “gun most likely was in the back seat when [Huerta] was placed there,” and that police are dodging the issue because such a finding “does not suit” Police Chief Jose Lopez Sr.

Charns also said officers were aware, from their radio chatter, that Huerta’s mother wanted him involuntarily committed for mental-health treatment.

“He was taken away [from us] by the actions of the police not following procedures,” added Jamie Huerta, one of the youth’s relatives. “Someone needs to own up and take responsibility for that.”

Police discussed the case with reporters Friday afternoon in a briefing orchestrated at the behest of the City Council. It followed calls by Mayor Bill Bell and other elected officials for the release of the information they have on the case, even if that information was incomplete.