Federal official interested in Jesus Huerta's shooting death in Durham police custody

Durham Mayor Bill Bell was poised to meet with the chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission on Thursday.
December 31, 2013 4:41:25 AM PST
The mysterious death of 17-year-old Jesus Huerta in Durham police custody is now getting the attention of a federal official.

Police say an officer placed the teen in the back of a patrol car November 19 after he was arrested on a second-degree trespassing charge. As the car pulled into the police department parking lot around 2:30 in the morning, the officer reported hearing a loud bang and he jumped out of the moving car, which then rolled into parked vehicles.

Huerta was found dead of a gunshot wound in the back of the cruiser. Police have said gunshot residue was found in gloves Huerta was wearing and no residue was found on the officer's hands. It has also said the gun did not belong to a police officer.

Where it came from remains unclear. Durham Police Department policy calls for prisoners to be searched before they're transported. Huerta's family has called for more information to be released, but the Durham Police Department has refused - citing an ongoing investigation by the SBI.

The Huerta case has triggered multiple protests in Durham, two have which have turned violent as protestors clashed with police.

In addition to thousands of petition signatures requesting an FBI probe, it appears the chairman of the Civil Rights Commission has taken a personal interest in the case.

"My door is open," said Durham Mayor Bill Bell. "They initiated the contact and I asked them to let me know when."

Bell was poised to meet with Martin Castro, the chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission on Thursday, but that meeting has been cancelled.

Bell told ABC11 there has been a string of emails from Castro. Bell said the meeting would have been a personal visit - not on behalf of the commission - and it's unclear what piqued the chairman's interest.

"I don't have the slightest idea," said Bell. "Obviously, it's gotten national media attention. I don't know if anyone has written specifically to this agency asking for that."

It may not be the only federal agency interested in the Huerta case.

Weeks ago, the teen's family marched right up to the gates of the FBI field office in Cary to hand deliver thousands of petition signatures, which called for a top to bottom investigation of the Durham Police Department.

An FBI spokesperson told ABC11 that no decision has been made on whether to investigate.

Bell said he'd like to see police say more about the case.

"We can't afford not to release as much information as we can," he offered.

Bell and other city leaders say they stand firm in their request for a complete picture of what exactly happened.

The Durham Police Department's internal review is still pending along with the SBI's report.

"You're always going to have some issues that come up," said Bell. "I think what's more important is how we handle these issues. Obviously, this particular issue, in my opinion, hasn't been handled the best in terms of communicating to the public in terms of what occurred and why it occurred."

Adding to the tension, a makeshift memorial for Huerta has been removed by police. His family said it is outraged.

Police offered this explanation: "The memorial for Mr. Huerta was allowed to be placed in the police department parking lot as a courtesy to his family; however, it was not our intent to allow it to remain indefinitely.  The memorial was removed by department staff over the weekend after it was allowed to remain on site for slightly more than a week."

Bell said the police department could shed more light on what exactly happened this week or next week.

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