- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 30, 2000

BLYTHE, Calif. The sun-baked, affable residents here don't mind the 116-degree summer heat, the large itinerant population and the drowsy pace that borders on lethargy.
But when two local children, ages 5 and 6, smother a 3-year-old in a mud puddle, the 21,000 or so residents take stock of their town pride.
"We look at this and say, 'Gee, is this the tragedy of the inner city reaching Blythe?' " says Gary Grimm, freshman football coach at Palo Verde High School and a city council member.
This case, though, would be one for the books in any city or town almost more of a natural disaster than a killing. The perpetrators are believed to be the youngest ever to confess to homicide.
"It is a murder," said Mark Lohman, a spokesman for the Riverside County Sheriff's Department. The district attorney's office cannot charge the two confessed killers and punishment is not even a possibility, he added.
"The youngest we can prosecute here is 14 years old," Mr. Lohman said. "Our hands are really tied. And now we have to decide what to do with a 6- and a 5-year-old who kill."
The death occurred outside a rural home that is part lean-to, part trailer, where Gerald Stiffler Jr. lived with his five children, including his second son, 3-year-old Damion.
His children and some others were playing in the yard that Sunday morning in mid-August when there was an "accident," according to Mr. Stiffler, and now Damion rests in a tiny white casket at Palo Verde Cemetery in the shade of an oak tree.
"[My 6-year-old daughter] thought it was a game they were playing," the 33-year-old father said. "But the other child didn't get off his head. They see this on TV, but then they hold a kid in the mud and he don't get up."
So Mr. Stiffler's brown-haired daughter and a 5-year-old playmate stuck a pillow over the head of Damion, the little boy who was excited that morning to go to his grandfather's trailer for pancakes.
There were two adults inside the house at the time, including Damion's grandmother, Mary. They heard nothing.
Damion never got up, as Mr. Stiffler noted. The death jolted the sensibilities of almost everyone in town.
Mr. Stiffler, his estranged wife Sophia, and a host of relatives carry criminal records that would exclude them from the higher ranks of Blythe society; offenses range from spousal abuse and child molestation to misdemeanors such as failure to appear and possession of a switchblade.
The impact of the death crosses class lines and imparts unrest among the arid palms and dry quiet that define this highway oasis, which sits at the junction of the Colorado River dividing California and Arizona.
The town melds corporate convenience titans like Taco Bell and Best Western motel with small-town meeting places like the Courtesy Coffee Shop and the Horny Toad bar.
Two state prisons account for one-third of the town's population, which has tripled overall in the past five years.
Despite the enhanced tax base and burgeoning population, Blythe also has a formidable poverty rate.
"We've got a white underclass here and some people call them 'Bush Okies,' " said Mike Presley, funeral director at Frye Chapel and Mortuary of Blythe. "But this is a first. We look at other cities and say, 'This kind of thing can't happen here.' "
But, he added, the Stifflers are not rude people; "nice" is how he described them, switchblades or not.
Mr. Presley has been here 14 years, but this really hit him.
"Wow," he finally musters after a long, thoughtful pause. "What a mess."

'It was not an accident'

Damion Stiffler loved to watch WWF wrestling, collected Pokemon cards and rode a red tricycle. His doe eyes got big when he smiled and his energy was as boundless as a baby's future.
"I had just started getting close to him," said his grandfather, Gerald Stiffler Sr. "I'm really going to miss the little guy."
Mr. Stiffler, 57, is a registered sex offender who just recently completed parole. He works the late cashier shift at a local gas station and lives in a trailer at the back of a wrecking yard about two miles from his namesake son.
Grandfather Stiffler's living room is dominated by his grandchildren's toys; a stack of Legos, stuffed dinosaurs, a weathered computer.
Mr. Stiffler and his wife, Mary, still love to talk about their family life, with their grandchildren always at the top of the conversation.
"Damion loved the girls, he was always hugging them" said Mrs. Stiffler, 53, who was arrested in June for possession of methamphetamine.
She said that the adults in the house that fated morning herself and friend Linda Toon would periodically glimpse out the window to make sure the kids were all right.
"We were in that habit," she said.
The home abuts a 240-acre former cattle farm that now appears to grow dirt. The kids were playing in a dusty area directly behind the house, amidst browning grass and strewn toys.
Damion's mother was not there, nor did she want to be. Sophia Stiffler had filed for divorce from Gerald Stiffler Jr. in June, citing the spousal abuse that has landed him in jail.
But her son's death is rooted in neglect, not a confluence of haphazard events, she said.
"It was not an accident," said Mrs. Stiffler, who has lived all of her 25 years in Blythe. "I don't know what happened out there, but there were three adults in the house and not one was watching the kids."

Children taken away again

In 1998, Riverside County Department of Public Social Services removed the Stifflers' children after finding questionable conditions.
For the next four months, the couple took classes on parenting. The children were returned to the home until last week when child protective services, with an escort of four uniformed sheriff's deputies, arrived at Mr. Stiffler's house and took away his four living children.
Mr. Stiffler said the children were seized because he failed a urinalysis that is a condition of his custody.
The social services agency is taking some heat for Damion's death, acknowledged Kevin Gaines, assistant director of the agency.
"There can't be much of a response to that," Mr. Gaines said. "Even though the family had demonstrated some dysfunctional aspects, the exchange between the parents and the children has always been very loving. And it looked like, from the social worker notes, that the kids got along very good too."
Homicidal kids, he noted, can be anywhere. And the town's limited job market can't help but foster family trouble in some way, he noted.
But the town has a crime rate without the danger; you can still walk down Hobson Way, the city's main thoroughfare, at 2 in the morning with no concerns.

Just a sleepy desert town

"You can't ask for a better town," said Floie A. Barrows, a 40-year Blythe resident who manages a local travel agency. "Everybody is friendly with each other."
"The Incident," as some people refer to it now, was committed among a class Mr. Barrows referred to as "ordinary people."
"And it's unfortunate that some people will mark this town through contact with that incident."
It is truly a sleepy desert town that is home to a mind-bending murder or accident, depending on who you believe.
Mary Stiffler, Damion's grandmother, poses perhaps the most perplexing question that is remarkable in its simplicity.
Sitting at a wood Formica kitchen table, where Damion used to sit and chortle at his grandfather's jokes, Mrs. Stiffler wondered:
"Who ever looks out the window to see if their kids are killing their little brother?"

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