HOUSTON — A deputy performed only a brief pat down, not a full search, on a handcuffed teenager who shot himself Wednesday in the backseat of a patrol car on the campus of North Shore Senior High School, officials admitted Thursday.
The young man was wearing baggy jeans over baggy basketball shorts, which may have helped him hide the large handgun he used in his attempted suicide, according to investigators.
Earlier Wednesday morning, another student had notified Precinct 3 deputy constables, who serve as the school’s security guards, that the 17 year-old had sent a text message indicating he might hurt himself.
A deputy found the teenager in a bathroom and tried to talk to him and lead him to a waiting ambulance, officials said, but the distraught young man wouldn’t agree to leave the room.
"The student became agitated, refused to comply, at which point the deputy called for assistance, put the student in handcuffs and did a quick pat down," said Capt. Jon Moore with the office of Harris Co. Constable Precinct 3. "At that point, the two deputies took him out of the building as quickly as possible and put him in the backseat of the car."
As the deputy drove the teenager to the ambulance parked elsewhere on the school grounds, he heard a gunshot.
The teenager had shot himself in the back of the head, school officials said. He was last reported in critical condition at Ben Taub Hospital.
Handcuffed suspects may seem under control, but in the Houston area they have a tragic history of grabbing hidden guns and opening fire.
In 1994, a handcuffed robbery suspect riding in the back of a patrol car shot Guy Gaddis, a Houston police officer, in the back of the head. In 2006, HPD Officer Rodney Johnson was shot to death by a handcuffed man in the back seat of his patrol car. In both of those high-profile cases, officers had overlooked weapons carried by the killers.
Moore said deputies sometimes cannot conduct full searches on combative suspects before loading them into patrol cars. In this case, he said, the young man refused to cooperate with deputies trying to talk him into leaving the school peacefully.
"They were concerned for his safety and the safety of other students in the school," Moore said. "So they wanted to get him out of the location because they did not know for sure what the situation was. So when they handcuffed him they did a quick pat down. At that point, it appears they missed the weapon."
The deputy is still on patrol duty, Moore said, as internal affairs investigators probe the incident.
Harris County Sheriff’s Office homicide investigators were also called into the case, but they said it appeared no crime was committed.
"I wish it shouldn’t have happened," said Jayair Chatman, a North Shore High student. "But I know that the police were just trying to make sure that he was okay and make sure that he wasn’t trying to hurt himself."
Those who knew the senior, who we are not identifying due to the circumstances, said he had been having relationship problems. He is reportedly well-known among classmates and on the baseball team.
Meantime, North Shore Senior High officials are trying to keep things as normal as possible Thursday. Eight counselors and one psychologist were on campus and meeting with students. Counselors were also stopping by each class where the wounded student would normally be.