A Tustin retiree, who shot and killed his elderly mother and two boys as they slept, has died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound after leaving a suicide note indicating that he was despondent over failing health, authorities said Tuesday.
Police said the note left by Leon E. Huffman, 60, included detailed instructions for his wife, Betty, to help her put the family’s affairs in order. The wife was at work at the time of the shootings.
Meanwhile, the natural mother of the two boys, who had been under the legal care of the Tustin family since 1981, learned of their deaths at her home in Wisconsin and was en route to California to attempt to get the bodies returned to her for burial, according to the boys’ natural grandmother.
Huffman, who died just after 10 p.m. Monday at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana after undergoing surgery, had used the 911 emergency telephone line Monday morning to tell authorities that he had shot his mother and two boys and was going to kill himself.
Police found Huffman in critical condition at his home in the 1100 block of Mear Lane. Also found were the bodies of Alice Huffman, 86; William Barr, 11, and Frankie Balisterire, 8, in their beds, each with a .22-caliber gunshot wound to the head.
The boys had come to the Huffmans as foster children in 1981. The family assumed legal guardianship in 1984.
Shortly after calling the police, Huffman apparently phoned a relative and told of his intentions, according to Tustin Police Lt. Frank Semelsberger. The relative contacted Huffman’s wife, a Huntington Beach secretary, at work. She went home, arriving there after the police had entered the home.
The suicide note was left on a desk in the front hall. Neighbors on said Huffman had had several heart attacks. An official in the children’s section of the Orange County Social Services Agency, which placed the boys in the Huffman home, said Huffman had undergone open-heart surgery.
Instructions in Note
Referring to the portion of the suicide note that contained instructions for Mrs. Huffman, Semelsberger said, “My feeling is that he wanted to get things in order for her so that she wouldn’t be left with things that were burdensome.”
Semelsberger said Huffman’s call to police before he shot himself may also have been promoted by his fastidiousness.
“I think he wanted us to come in and take care of things before his wife arrived back home,” he said.
Authorities believe that Huffman killed the two boys to spare them the “corrupting influences” of the world.
“There were references in the note that what he was doing was the best thing for everyone,” Semelsberger said. “In his confused state of mind he thought he was saving them from pain. He felt they were free of corrupting influences . . . and that they would get to heaven. That’s my speculation.”
Records Huffman completed to become a foster parent indicate that he retired from his job as co-manager of a state-licensed liquor store in Waynesburg, Pa., and moved the family to California in 1981.
Gene Howard, director of children’s services for the Orange County Social Services Agency, said the Huffmans had not received any psychiatric evaluations after they became legal guardians.
“There didn’t appear any need for that,” Howard said. “They appeared normal and were doing quite well.”
Howard said that the boys’ natural mother, Judy Sones, 28, of Bloomer, Wis., contacted the agency soon after the deaths. Howard declined to say why the children, who were half-brothers, were taken from Sones or to reveal the extent of the mother’s involvement with the children since the Huffmans gained custody.
Dorothy Raschke, 65, mother of Judy Sones, said she and her daughter learned of the deaths from a relative who saw a news account. Raschke, reached at her home in Chippewa Falls, Wis., said she once cared for the boys while living in Anaheim. Raschke said the children were taken from her daughter.
“She had a difficult situation with her first husband and she had a lot of financial difficulties,” Raschke said.
She said Sones tried several times to regain custody of the children. Raschke said she, too, tried to gain custody of the children while she was living in California but was told by authorities that she was too old and did not have sufficient income.
Raschke said she met the Huffmans briefly and thought they were “decent people.” Raschke said neither she nor Sones were allowed to contact the children after they were placed with the Huffmans.
“We’re just in a state of shock,” Raschke said. “We just couldn’t believe this could happen.”
The shootings shocked residents of the Huffmans’ modest neighborhood. Most said the Huffmans appeared to be a happy, if quiet, family. They said the two children were outgoing and loved to play with other youngsters. The boys were in the second and fourth grades at the 600-student Thorman Elementary School, only a few blocks from their home.
Principal William Wingo said school officials had begun counseling students classroom by classroom and would continue the services as needed. Wingo said from 20 to 30 children had indicated they wanted individual counseling.
He said many children wanted to know specific details about the shootings. Many expressed sadness over the deaths of their friends.
“We’ve been telling them it’s OK to be hurting emotionally, that their teachers and other school staff are disturbed by the incident and are going through a mourning process as well,” Wingo said.
Wingo said he is encouraging students to write about their feelings in personal journals. A memorial service is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the school.