Durham police held a press conference Friday afternoon to release a preliminary report on findings of the department’s internal investigation of the Nov. 19 incident involving the 17-year old Huerta, who died shortly following the indicent. Captain Laura Clayton read from a statement describing the sequence of events that resulted in Huerta being found shot in the back of a police cruiser with his handcuffs still on.
“All evidence strongly indicates that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the back of our police car,” Deputy Chief Anthony Marsh concluded.
Huerta was arrested on an outstanding trespassing warrant from July by Officer Samuel Duncan Huerta's sister called 911 to report him missing on Nov. 19. Huerta was found by police at Washington Street and Trinity Avenue at approximately 2:30 a.m. Duncan checked with Patrol Sergeant Pearsall who referred to a law enforcement database and found that Huerta had an outstanding warrant. He then arrested Huerta, handcuffed him behind his back and placed him in a patrol car.
Clayton said Duncan patted down both sides of Huerta including his waist area before putting him in the cruiser. The cruiser had also been inspected by Duncan before his shift and no contraband materials were found. Huerta was the first person to be placed in the car during Duncan’s shift.
During the three-minute, one-mile ride to the police headquarters, Duncan heard movement in the backseat and the sound of a hard object rubbing against the hard plastic seat but thought it may be the sound of the handcuffs. Duncan later told investigators that he planned to search Huerta further once arriving at headquarters. After pulling in, he heard a loud noise akin to a gunshot and jumped out of the vehicle. Duncan and Officer James Harris approached the car and found Huerta slumped over, still handcuffed in the backseat. Huerta was decleared dead at the scene by Emergency Medical Services.
The investigation later found that the white baseball gloves Huerta was wearing at the time tested positive for gunshot residue. Duncan’s hands tested negative for gunshot residue.
“[Duncan] missed the gun,” Marsh said. “That’s as far as I can go at this point.”
The most recent documentation of the gun used, a .45-caliber pistol, is from Commerce, Ga. in 1991. Marsh said it is so far unknown how Huerta came to posess the gun.
Clayton noted that Huerta’s sister had informed the 911 dispatcher that Huerta had mentioned suicide previously, but in accordance with police protocol, the information was not relayed to the patrol officers at the time.
The press conference presentation also showed a photograph from 2012 of a handcuffed person, intending to demonstrate the amount of flexibility that a person still has within the confines of handcuffs.
The Chief of Durham Police, Jose Lopez, was not at the press conference Friday. Marsh said that Duncan has been on administrative leave following the incident.
Marsh and Clayton both emphasized that the investigation is still ongoing and the press conference served as an update to the media on the incomplete investigation. Information such as the ballistics report and final medical examiner's report are still forthcoming and will appear in the final police report.
The State Bureau of Investigation is conducting a separate investigation of the incident, Marsh said. The Durham Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division and Professional Standards Division are involved in the internal investigation.