Police in Durham, N.C., launched an internal investigation into the shooting death of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta, who was shot in the back of a squad car as it pulled into police headquarters in November.
Preliminary findings show a rookie cop, Officer Samuel Duncan, who was on the force only 16 months, missed a large-caliber handgun when searching Huerta.
Huerta’s parents reported him as a runaway on Nov. 19. His sister told police that he had been suicidal in the past, but that wasn’t communicated to the officers looking for him, said Internal Affairs Captain Laura Clayton.
When he was found, Duncan made only a “cursory search” of Huerta and did not find the black semi-automatic .45 caliber handgun concealed on his body. He was taken in on an outstanding arrest warrant for a second-degree trespassing charge. While in the back of the vehicle, the handcuffed teen reportedly managed to shoot himself.
Officers say the backseat was clean and had been checked before their shift.
Duncan said he heard metal scraping on the hard plastic of the seat, but thought Huerta was just trying to get rid of drugs he might be carrying.
The attorney for the Huerta family, Alexander Charns, told ABC 11 in a statement that the family doubts he was armed.
"This DPD 'Update on Preliminary Findings' is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, a whitewash wrapped in a cover-up and basted in denial. The tiny truths in there are intertwined with half-truths and misdirection, the facts are not readily identifiable. The chief's shell game with the facts continues," said Charns.
"He was frisked and found to have no gun. The gun most likely was in the back seat when [Huerta] was placed there," he added.
The family also raised questions about how Huerta was able to take the gun out and shoot himself if his hands were handcuffed. Police say it is possible, with a certain degree of flexibility.
"Not only can it be done, it has been done in other jurisdictions," Deputy Police Chief Anthony Marsh. "The fact that it occurred is suggestive (that he could do it). ... All the evidence suggests, very strongly indicates, that he basically died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the back of a police car."
The Durham investigation is separate form the ongoing investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation, which has not been made public.