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Off-Duty Deputy’s Version of Man’s Slaying Disputed : Crime: Family and girlfriend of John Huffman have initiated an independent inquiry into his shooting death in a scuffle outside a Rowland Heights restaurant.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In front of John Huffman’s casket, amid flowers and pictures of the 29-year-old man laughing with his father and friends, stands a 14-line poem written by his girlfriend, Deena Hughes. Two of the lines read: “You called me your Eve, said I was sent from above. So I’ll grieve only after I’ve seen justice for you, love.”

Hughes and Huffman’s family are disputing official accounts of how Huffman died, and the family has hired a Newport Beach attorney to oversee an independent investigation into the matter.

Huffman, a car salesman and former championship amateur wrestler from Rowland Heights, was shot and killed about 9:30 p.m. during a scuffle with off-duty Sheriff’s Deputy Thomas Kirsch on Aug. 14 after the two men fought outside Whitney’s Steak House in Rowland Heights.

Huffman died of a single gunshot wound in the chest 45 minutes after the incident. That much is undisputed.

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The official statement, according to Sheriff’s Department spokesman Rich Erickson is this: Huffman, who was drinking heavily and creating a disturbance, challenged Kirsch to a fight while both men were at Whitney’s Steak House.

Hoping to avoid a confrontation inside the lounge, Kirsch agreed to walk outside with Huffman, who, without provocation, knocked the deputy to the ground. As the two men struggled, Kirsch reached for his gun and it accidentally fired, hitting Huffman once in the chest.

Huffman’s family and friends find much to argue with in that account. Huffman, they say, was deeply religious; he cared for his two Rottweilers as if they were children and held absolute respect for police officers, the family says.

They question why Kirsch introduced a deadly weapon into a fistfight with a man who apparently did not know his opponent was an officer.

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Huffman never initiated fights, said his sister, Eva Thayer, though he had been known to fight from time to time.

But bartender Johnny Nunez at Bennigan’s in La Puente, where Huffman came by two or three times a week, said Huffman had been asked on several occasions not to come back because, he said, “When there was trouble, (Huffman) was usually involved in it.” He added that Huffman also stepped in to stop fights.

Hughes, who was with Huffman at Whitney’s the night her boyfriend died, said he was not drunk that night and was not creating a disturbance. She said that they arrived at the dimly lit steakhouse between 7:45 and 8 p.m.

About 20 minutes after they arrived, Hughes said, a man who identified himself as “Tom” sat down on a nearby bar stool, and Huffman struck up a conversation.

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Tom, who was actually Kirsch, it was determined later, said he owned an air conditioning business. Hughes said she wasn’t paying much attention as the two men chatted. “The last thing I thought was that there was going to be a fight,” she said.

Soon after, Hughes said she left to get Huffman’s pickup from the parking lot.

When she pulled up to the front door, she saw Huffman lying face down in a pool of blood, with Kirsch standing over him, she said.

Detectives say no witnesses have claimed to have seen the shooting. Kirsch, a 24-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Department who is assigned to the arson/explosives detail, has been relieved of duty while department investigations are conducted.

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The district attorney’s office is also investigating.

Kirsch could not be reached for comment.

An autopsy on Huffman was completed last week, but the results have not been released.

Sheriff’s Lt. R. David Dietrich said Kirsch agreed to step outside with Huffman because he was going to identify himself as a sheriff’s deputy. "(Huffman) didn’t give him a chance,” Dietrich said.

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Huffman’s family questions why Kirsch did not identify himself as a deputy inside the bar and why he allegedly told the couple that he owned an air conditioning company. Dietrich said it’s not unusual for off-duty police officers and deputies not to tell other people what they do so they can avoid police-related discussions.

According to court records, Kirsch was sued in 1983 by the family of a 15-year-old boy who claimed that Kirsch hit the boy on the back of his head with his pistol outside a West Covina restaurant.

The lawsuit was settled in December, 1985, when Kirsch and the Sheriff’s Department agreed to pay the family $15,000.

Court records also show that Huffman was arrested in June, 1986, on suspicion of being under the influence of cocaine. Huffman was sentenced to one year’s participation in a diversion program.

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In addition, Huffman was ticketed by the California Highway Patrol in August, 1987, on suspicion of driving without a license, driving while his driving privilege was suspended or revoked, and driving an unregistered car.


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