Huffman's Slaying: Strangers Cross Paths and Tragedy Strikes

Times Staff Writers

On the morning of Feb. 27, a few hours before the baffling slaying of actor David Huffman in a Balboa Park canyon, a 16-year-old San Diego High School sophomore accused of car burglary sat crying in an office at police headquarters. After being photographed, fingerprinted and questioned, Genaro Samano Villanueva was driven back to school by police, who turned him over to a vice principal.

On Monday night, Villanueva was in tears again when police arrested him on suspicion of murdering Huffman.

On the second day after the arrest of Villanueva, the once-mysterious stabbing death of Huffman is becoming clearer. As told in interviews and police records, it is a story of the paths of strangers colliding, with tragic results.

A petty crime and a seemingly harmless suspect are described in the San Diego Police Department "arrest-juvenile contact report" filed by Officer Philip Schneider on the morning of Feb. 27.

Burglary Suspect

The crime was a burglary car prowl and the suspect was Villanueva. In the precise format of the police report, Villanueva is described as a 5-foot-6, 125-pound illegal alien from Mexico with straight, collar-length hair, a medium voice and quiet speech.

And under the column that asks about the attitude of the juvenile, Officer Schneider wrote "crying."

Villanueva, who had been in San Diego for five months, allegedly murdered Huffman about 11:20 a.m. on the same day as the alleged car prowl--less than an hour after police had released him to the custody of San Diego High.

Villanueva is in Juvenile Hall with a hearing expected today. The district attorney's office is seeking to have Villanueva tried for murder as an adult.

'A Good Boy'

A family friend, speaking on the condition that his name would not be printed, described Villanueva on Wednesday as "a good boy who who has had minor run-ins with the law, but a good boy nonetheless." A police affidavit signed by Detective Ronald G. Newman indicates that Villanueva had been a petty thief. He had been arrested one other time, on Feb. 1, for car burglary.

Villanueva arrived from Mexico last fall and moved in with his brothers in a small house in the 1700 block of India Street. He enrolled at San Diego High on Oct. 25 but apparently wasn't interested in school. He dropped out later that semester and re-enrolled at the start of second semester.

He was supposed to be in school on Feb. 27. But about 8:30 a.m., Villanueva was instead allegedly trying to break into a van in the 500 block of Date Street, near his home. (The Times on Wednesday incorrectly reported the date of this incident.)

Witnesses said they saw him reaching into the wind-wing window, apparently trying to roll down the main window. They chased him around the corner to the front of a state Department of Corrections office in the 1600 block of India Street, one block from Villanueva's home. Noticing the commotion, parole agents Sal Torres and Rudy Fernandez halted Villanueva and handcuffed him to await the arrival of police, said Howard Loy, director of the correction department's district parole division.

Officers Arrive

San Diego Police Officers Schneider and William Frew arrived. Frew dusted the van for fingerprints while Schneider read Villanueva his rights and took him to police headquarters, where he was photographed, fingerprinted and questioned.

Villanueva, who speaks only Spanish, was questioned by Spanish-speaking Detective Donald Sada. The essence of the interviewed was recorded in the juvenile contact report:

Q-- Why did you break into the van?

A-- To get the radio.

Q --How did you get inside?

A --The window was open.

Q --Didn't you break the window?

A --No, it was open.

Schneider took a screwdriver from Villanueva's back pocket to be impounded as evidence. Screwdrivers are a common tool for car burglars, police say.

At some point during this process, according to Schneider's report, the suspect was "crying."

Schneider drove Villanueva to San Diego High School, turning him over to the custody of Vice Principal Nancy Merino and Joe Elmore, a school district police security officer. Under police policy, juvenile suspects can be taken to Juvenile Hall, returned to parents or guardians, taken to their school or released.

Lt. Paul Ybarrondo, head of San Diego Police homicide unit, said that officers acted appropriately in taking Villanueva to school instead of Juvenile Hall because of the nature of the offense. "If he had been an adult, he probably would have gotten a misdemeanor citation and have been on the streets even quicker," Ybarrondo said.

At school, Elmore described Villanueva as "not at all talkative." When Villanueva was questioned by school authorities, he merely nodded to answer, Elmore said. The school district police officers said he seemed "a very introverted type of kid."

About 10:30 a.m., Villanueva was told to go to class, the police affidavit said.

According to that report, a person now believed to be Villanueva was seen at Balboa Park later in the morning.

Spotted in Motor Home

Jack Beamer, a Canadian visiting San Diego with his wife and another Canadian couple, saw a young man inside his friends' 25-foot motor home parked near the Organ Pavilion. Beamer yelled, in essence, "What the hell are you doing in there?" Without responding, the person looked at Beamer and then walked away "real fast."

Huffman was sitting in his van nearby, playing his bagpipes. He asked Beamer, in essence, "Did that guy break into your van?" Then Huffman started his own van and chased the suspect. He stopped at the side of road, turned on his van's flashing lights and ran after the suspect into tree-shrouded Palm Canyon.

There was a struggle, and Huffman was stabbed twice. A coroner's deputy later suggested that a screwdriver was the weapon and that Huffman bled to death in 30 to 45 seconds.

The Villanuevas' friend theorized that, if the Genaro Villanueva killed Huffman, it was because "he became frightened."

'He Became Frightened'

"The man was chasing him and he became frightened," the friend suggested. "Genaro does not speak English and the other guy was probably talking to him in English . . . He (Huffman) was also bigger than him. It could have been self-defense."

At 5-foot-8 and 146 pounds, Huffman was two inches taller and about 20 pounds heavier than Villanueva. Actor Charles Haid recently described Huffman, a longtime friend, as a "virile, athletic guy with a great sense of righteousness"--the sort of person who would help someone in need.

Huffman's body was discovered by school children on a field trip about 1 p.m., but it wasn't until late that night that the identification was made. For several days, the slaying seemed random and inexplicable.

On March 4, detectives were contacted by the Beamers and their friends. They had read about the slaying, saw a photo of Huffman in a Torrance-area newspaper and recognized him as the good Samaritan who gave chase to the person who had burglarized the motor home.

Composite Widely Publicized

From the Beamers' descriptions, a police composite sketch was produced and widely publicized. Howard Loy, the state corrections official, and his colleague Bruce Van Dyke, noticed that the composite resembled the young man who had been detained for car burglary in front of their offices on the same morning as the Huffman murder. Loy contacted the detectives on Monday.

According to the affidavit, investigators then compared a partial handprint taken from the motor home TV to prints taken from Villanueva following his car burglary arrest on Feb. 27. Experts found 12 points of similarity and no dissimilarities. (The FBI considers 8 points of similarity with no dissimilarities to be a positive match, according to the affidavit.)

Armed with that information, police secured the search warrant on Monday evening and arrested Villanueva at his home.

Police seized three screwdrivers, three green cloth bags, several pairs of tennis shoes, several T-shirts and other items from the home. Witnesses said that the suspect had carried a green cloth bag and wore wine-colored trousers. A gold wedding band inscribed "PH to DH" also was sought but not found. However, Huffman's wife told detectives that her husband sometimes did not wear the ring.

Word of Confession

Police have refused to comment on whether Villanueva has confessed to the crime. However, a spokesman for the San Diego Unified School District said Monday that when police officials sought to notify schools Supt. Thomas Payzant of the arrest, they left a message with his secretary that stated, in part, that Villanueva "has confessed to the murder."

The Villanuevas' friend, who was at the India Street home Tuesday, said Genaro Villanueva did not mention anything about being involved in a slaying. The friend said that, according to his brothers, Genaro Villanueva burst into tears and was crying loudly when police arrested him. Three of the brothers were questioned by police and released, the friend said.

The boys parents, Carmelo Villanueva and Natividad Samano of Mexico City, have not been informed that their son has been arrested on suspicion of murder, the friend said.

He said that Genaro has refused to talk to his brothers since the arrest, and the brothers do not understand why.

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