Death in the Back Seat

However it went down, Jaciel Gonzalez shouldn't have died

Anytime a 15-year-old kid whose hands are cuffed behind his back is shot to death while riding in the back seat of a police car, someone has some explaining to do.

Those were the circumstances surrounding the death of Jaciel Gonzalez, who suffered a gunshot wound to the head earlier this month after being arrested for allegedly stealing a bicycle. According to the Houston Police Department, the handcuffed Gonzalez shot himself, either intentionally or accidentally, with a stolen .38 caliber snub-nosed revolver that he somehow was able to remove from a clip-on holster he wore inside the front of his pants. The shooting occurred while Gonzalez was in the back seat of a patrol unit driven by officer H.M. Garcia.

In all probability, the official explanation is true. HPD's media handlers have been more than happy to play for anyone interested a video of a Channel 45 report that purports to illustrate how a limber teenager such as Gonzalez could have squirmed around to pull a gun out of the front of his pants while his hands were cuffed behind his back. Attorneys for the Gonzalez family have yet to be convinced. But even if their doubts are disregarded, it's obvious that the death of Jaciel Gonzalez should never have happened. It's also obvious that officer Garcia is lucky to be alive.

The trajectory of Gonzalez's death began just before 7 p.m. on Saturday, June 8. Police say two people traveling on the Southwest Freeway spotted the youth driving erratically in a car that appeared to be on fire. After Gonzalez pulled the car over to the side of the highway and took off on foot, the witnesses used a cellular telephone to call police as they followed the teenager to the freeway's intersection with South Shepherd. There, say investigators, Gonzalez hopped on a bicycle parked in front of a computer store and pedaled off down the street.

As Gonzalez was making his two-wheeled getaway, the witnesses flagged down Garcia, a first-year officer, who spotted Gonzalez and gave chase. When Gonzalez ditched the bike, the officer got out of his patrol car and managed to chase down and tackle the youth. The officer handcuffed Gonzalez and put him in the patrol car. He would later tell investigators that he patted down Gonzalez before placing him the back seat. If so, he didn't do much of a job of it.

Before taking Gonzalez to jail, police say, Garcia spoke with another bicycling youngster who claimed to know the owner of the bike Gonzalez had commandeered. With Gonzalez handcuffed in the back seat, the officer followed the youngster down Hazard Street in search of the bike's owner. According to the police report, the two witnesses who had spotted Gonzalez on the freeway followed in their car behind the patrol unit.

As the small caravan reached the intersection of Hazard and Milford in the Southhampton neighborhood, the witnesses, the kid on the bike and officer Garcia all heard a loud pop from inside the patrol car. "The handcuffed suspect had shot himself in the head," says the police report. It goes on to say that the investigation into how the gun got into Garcia's car and who it belonged to is continuing. It's an investigation that attorneys for the Gonzalez family had hoped to participate in. But so far there has been no substantive communication between the department and the family of the dead teenager.

"The police have never even called the family," says attorney Zoe Littlepage, who represents the Gonzalezes in a lawsuit filed this week against the city of Houston and Garcia. The suit accuses HPD and the officer of negligence and contends that Gonzalez was brutalized and that his wrist was broken during his arrest.

Littlepage claims the teenager's family, who live in the Galleria Oaks apartments on Richmond, only learned of Jaciel's death upon contacting the county morgue after the teenager failed to return home that Saturday night.

"Really, all the family wanted to know in the first place was what happened," says Littlepage. "But at the hearing there were a lot of suspicions raised."

That was a hearing conducted last week by District Judge Scott Brister, in response to Littlepage's request for a temporary restraining order preventing HPD from altering or destroying any of the evidence in the Gonzalez case. The lawyer also asked the judge to order the police to allow her own forensic expert to be present for the testing of any evidence gathered in the investigation.

The city argued strongly against Littlepage's motion, which Brister initially granted but later denied. Assistant city attorney Murray Malakoff said the Gonzalez family has no legal right to the police department's evidence because "a crime investigation is privileged." And even if it were not, Malakoff informed the judge, the patrol car already had been cleaned and the fingerprints had been wiped from the stolen gun. That revelation outraged Littlepage.

"They believe they have the right to tamper, destroy, alter whatever they want," Littlepage says. "I don't understand how a 15-year-old kid dies in custody and they don't think the family deserves to know the whole story."

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