Death in the Back Seat

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."

But HPD maintains that it has followed standard procedure in investigating Gonzalez's death. "There is nothing that was cleaned up that wasn't preserved as evidence," says police spokesman Jack Cato. "That's why you have cameras and video recorders. It's a bunch of poppycock for them to say that we have washed away the evidence."

Cato says the patrol car was sanitized and put back into service within hours after officers from the department's crime scene unit photographed the pattern of blood splatters on the back seat. Likewise, fingerprints were taken from the stolen gun, which later underwent ballistics tests. Gonzalez's hands were tested for evidence of gunpowder residue, Cato says, but Garcia's were not. "Officer Garcia was never a suspect in this case," Cato explains.

Littlepage says Garcia's hands should have been tested if HPD was intent on conducting a thorough investigation. And while police say it's not the department's job to contact a shooting victim's family, Littlepage believes that investigators should have interviewed Jaciel's family members if their purpose was to obtain all available information. (Littlepage admits that Gonzalez, who had been in the seventh grade at Jane Long Middle School, had previous problems with the law. Since Gonzalez was a minor, his criminal record is not a matter of public record.)

Last week, Gonzalez was buried by his mother and brother in Cuernavaca in his native Mexico. This week, the results of an autopsy on Gonzalez's body will be presented to a Harris County grand jury (all deaths of prisoners who die in police custody are reviewed by a grand jury). A source close to the probe, who is privy to the preliminary findings, says the official autopsy report most likely will show that Gonzalez shot himself and that either drugs or alcohol were found in his system.

That should clear officer Garcia -- who has not been available for comment -- of any suspicion of foul play or accidental discharge of his weapon. It may not be the end of his problems, however. Garcia faces an investigation by HPD's internal affairs division to determine if Gonzalez was properly searched before he was placed in the patrol car. The officer remains on active duty pending the outcome of the IAD investigation.

If Garcia did fail to detect the gun, it wouldn't be the first time that a Houston police officer has been so remiss. One HPD official confides that some officers still do a poor job of searching suspects, despite the fatal shooting of officer Guy Gaddis in January 1994 by a prisoner he was transporting to jail.

"It happens," says the official. "Gaddis lost his life because of it. But if they've got the gun in the crotch, sometimes you're going to miss it. It happens.

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