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The Strange Death of Jesus Huerta

2015-04-28

Shortly after 2 AM on November 19, 2013, a police officer was transporting Jesus Huerta, a 17 year old male, to police headquarters after arresting him on an outstanding trespassing warrant.  He was said to be carrying a backpack full of stolen items.  Jesus was handcuffed with his hands behind his back, and was sitting in the back of officer Samuel Duncan’s squad car.  According to Mr. Duncan’s report, he heard a loud noise and jumped out of the car.  It rolled a short distance and came to rest after striking a van.  Again according to Mr. Duncan’s report, he then discovered that Mr. Huerta had shot himself in the mouth with a .45 pistol, killing himself instantly.  He was still sitting in the back seat with his hands cuffed behind his back, and the pistol was lying on the floor, on the passenger side.

According to a supplement to the police investigation, when Mr. Duncan jumped out of the squad car, two other officers were present and heard him say he though his passenger was shooting at him.

According to the autopsy report, there was a gunshot wound that extended from the left lower lip just left of the midline, through the mouth and grazing the tongue, through the hard palate and brain, and exiting the upper back of the head just left of the midline.  The anterior wound was measured at 7.5 inches from the top of the head and the posterior wound was 1.5 inches from the top.  In other wounds, the bullet traveled in an upward direction through the head, almost parallel to the middle.  In addition, on the right front of Mr. Huerta’s jacket, there was a perforation that was covered with soot on the outside, indicating that the bullet had passed through the jacket after exiting the pistol and before entering the head.

Finally, there was a small 1/8 inch laceration on the back of Mr. Huerta’s right index finger.

The bullet was found lodged in the roof of the patrol car, on the right side at the junction of the back and front seats.

There was gunpowder residue on the gloves Mr. Huerta was wearing, and no residue on Mr. Duncan’s hands.  The pistol had disappeared after last being recorded in a Georgia pawnshop in 1991.

The pistol was a Haskell (Hi-Point) .45 caliber semi-automatic single action that weighed 2 pounds empty of ammunition.  It sold for $200 new and was considered a very inexpensive weapon.  I was unable to locate any further description of the particular pistol, but there is a photograph in the supplementary investigation report.

The video recorder for the patrol car was turned on at the beginning of Mr. Duncan’s shift, but it automatically turned itself off when he exited the car and he did not turn it back on to record Mr. Huerta’s period of occupancy.

The family said that they had called 911 at 2 AM because Mr. Huerta had left the house after mentioning killing himself, and they were afraid for him.  The police treated the situation as a runaway; they quickly located him and a friend on  a street corner.  The two gave false names, but were shortly identified; Mr. Huerta was arrested when an outstanding misdemeanor warrant for second degree trespassing was found.  The other was eventually arrested for impeding a police officer after his right name was found.  Mr. Huerta was being transported a mile to the police building and had arrived at the parking lot when the incident occurred

These wounds, the perforation in the jacket, and the fact that the autopsy surgeon received the body with the handcuffs still on in the posterior position, all suggest that Mr. Huerta could not have pulled the trigger, at least not with his finger.  It is remotely possible that Mr. Huerta had the pistol in his jacket pocket and that it fired accidentally, perforating the jacket before entering his head.

However, there is the question of how Mr. Duncan could search Mr. Huerta (and he was observed to have patted him down and checked his pockets) and not find a relatively large, heavy (well over 2 pounds loaded) pistol in his jacket pocket.  The final disposition was that Mr. Duncan was administratively sanctioned, 40 hours pay, and Mr. Huerta was said to have committed suicide with the undiscovered pistol.

If Mr. Huerta did shoot himself with the pistol in some way other than by holding it in his hands and firing it, there is the question of how he got gunpowder residue on his gloves.  If he did fire it in the usual way, how did he reach his final position with his hands behind his back and the gun on the floor?

The absence of a video recording of the incident, even though the squad car was equipped with a standard recorder, makes the entire incident that much more mysterious.  The recorder had switched itself off because the car had been shut off for more than fifty minutes, to save the batteries.  When the car was restarted, it was necessary to manually restart the video recorder, a design feature that lends itself to problems such as this.

This incident underlines the usefulness of video recordings, although this wasn’t a case where a body camera would have helped.  Nonetheless, the installed video recorder, if it had been running, would have gone a long way towards understanding this baffling case.

 

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