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18 Years After an Officer’s Death, the Pain Is Still Fresh

In this week when our thoughts are centered on giving thanks, I’d like to take a moment to remember Richard T. Steed. It was 18 years ago this week he lost his life trying to help someone he thought needed him.

Steed is the only San Clemente police officer ever killed in the line of duty.

San Clemente has properly tried to honor him. The Richard T. Steed Memorial Park in the hills east of downtown is a beautiful 40-acre sports complex. A plaque at the entrance, from the San Clemente Peace Officers Assn., explains who “Rick” Steed was. At dedication ceremonies in 1989, Steed’s father, Henry C. Steed, said: “Rick would have loved this.”

Steed was 30 years old and had been on the San Clemente police force for close to three years. Everyone knew him as a good cop, very bright, very mature. He and his wife, Kathy, had not had a chance to start a family.

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On Nov. 29, 1978, Steed responded to a call about a man injured in an alley behind a downtown hotel. The man was James R. Hoffer, a 23-year-old transient. Hoffer had walked into the nearby Sun-Post newspaper office and said he’d cut himself and needed help. He ducked into the alley after that with a towel wrapped around his hand. Inside it he had hidden a loaded gun.

It was a medical aid call, the kind that police officers make every day. When Steed got out of his squad car to offer assistance, Hoffer suddenly opened fire.

The first bullet struck Steed in the chest. It somehow went through the top of the bulletproof vest Steed was wearing and pierced his heart. Hoffer fired a second shot as he fled, hitting the officer in the arm.

Hoffer was soon found with some minor self-inflicted knife wounds. He responded after his arrest: “I didn’t mean to shoot him. I’m hurting.”

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It’s a broken record from those who commit violent crimes. OK, he’s dead. But I’m hurting. I’m the victim.

Steed’s family and his fellow San Clemente officers did not even have the satisfaction of seeing his killer sent to prison. An Orange County Superior Court judge found Hoffer not guilty by reason of insanity, and on good grounds. Hoffer had a history of mental illness. Once, in a confused state of mind, he had severely beaten his sister.

Hoffer was sent to facilities for the mentally ill: first Atascadero State Hospital, then Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino County. He remains there today.

I went down to the county courthouse in Santa Ana to try to look up Hoffer’s file. It was a frustrating experience. Hoffer petitioned for release in 1988 and was turned down by an Orange County jury. But most of the records related to his formal request of the court were marked confidential and unavailable.

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There was enough information in the record to indicate that the doctors at Patton didn’t consider him suitable for release at the time. And year after year of progress reports indicated almost no improvement in Hoffer’s behavior. His file is riddled with incidents of violence at Patton, use of marijuana and repeated mention of his refusal to attend group therapy sessions. A waste of his time, Hoffer explained.

Strangely, Hoffer has made no requests for another court hearing the past eight years. A Patton spokeswoman, Cindy Barrett, told me that she was free to say only that his doctors at Patton do not recommend his release. Nor has he requested one on his own.

“He tends to minimize his own responsibility,” according to one record compiled for his 1988 release hearing. At that trial, Hoffer admitted he’d become a white supremacist since transferring to Patton. But he insisted he’d be a safe white supremacist if released from hospital confinement.

Hoffer did say at his 1988 hearing that he was sorry for shooting Steed. He was fighting demons at the time, he said. I doubt Hoffer has any idea how much he’s affected the lives of others--family, friends and officers who knew Steed.

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Steed’s death came at the end of a series of twists of fate that night. Experts say the fatal bullet must have gone over the top of Steed’s bulletproof vest as he leaned forward, thinking Hoffer, on the ground, needed his help. Also, Steed wasn’t even in the territory he’d been assigned to cover.

Tim Ferrill, now a sergeant with the Long Beach Police Department, was a young San Clemente officer then. He explained to me what happened:

“I was in a two-officer unit that night. We were a very small department then. Only a few of us were on that night.

“Rick answered a call in our territory because my partner and I were busy on another call. But then we took a call to go to his territory, because he was still busy taking that call on our turf. We were still tied up on the call on his side when the medical aid call came in--back on our side. Because we weren’t free to take it yet, Rick said he’d take the medical aid.

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“That was Rick. He was really a great police officer, always willing to help.”

It was Ferrill who reminded me that we shouldn’t forget Richard Steed. He contacted me several months ago after a column I’d written about a lengthy appeal for the killer in another police shooting--the county’s very next one in fact after the Steed killing. Ferrill’s touching letter made clear that Steed’s slaying would haunt him forever.

Because he was in a two-man unit that night, Ferrill wrote, “it makes me think the results would have been different if my partner and I had responded [instead of Rick].”

But it was such a small police department. They were all busy helping each other.

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More from Sgt. Ferrill’s letter:

“Even though I have been a cop for over 20 years now, when I hear of an officer being killed in the line of duty, it still tears me up inside. I’ve long ago lost track of how many police funerals I have attended.”

I’m told that one officer from Steed’s shift has left flowers at his grave site each year on the anniversary of his death.

San Clemente no longer has its own police department; it contracts with the county Sheriff’s Department now. But I’m told that almost everyone who worked in that small department still remembers the exact date of the Steed shooting, and where they were that night.

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Wrap-Up: Early Friday morning, the anniversary of Steed’s death, the sports complex bearing his name was buzzing with happy youngsters playing softball. I noticed a few stopping to read the plaque, and maybe some of them made the connection to the date’s significance.

There’s a passage on that plaque that says so much in so few words. It’s from the Book of Matthew: “Blessed are the peacemakers . . . “

Jerry Hicks’ column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Readers may reach Hicks by call-ing the Times Orange County Edition at (714) 966-7823 or by fax to (714) 966-7711, or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com


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