Police Probe Child Suffocation Case

Monday, August 21st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BLYTHE, Calif. (AP) — With a history of traffic offenses, drug charges and fights, the Stiffler family is well known to police. But the most recent emergency involving the clan was like none other.

On Aug. 13, Riverside County sheriff's deputies found the body of Damien Stiffler, 3, who had allegedly been suffocated with a pillow by his 6-year-old sister and another 5-year-old girl.

In the wake of the child's death, the family and authorities in Blythe, a desert town between Los Angeles and Phoenix, remain mystified how children so young could have allegedly performed so heinous an act.

``To understand what went through these girls' minds, well, I just can't,'' said sheriff's Detective Kent Krisell, one of the first investigators on the scene. ``It's unthinkable.''

Damien's father, Gerald, served a short jail term in 1995 for being under the influence of drugs. A similar case is pending against the boy's paternal grandmother, Mary, according to court records.

Gerald Stiffler has also been arrested for domestic violence, with two cases pending, records show. Damien's mother, Sophia Stiffler, filed for divorce in July and was arrested for battery the same month, but the charges were dismissed.

Still, there was little indication the alleged sins of the elders had marked the children.

``There were never any knives, pillows, never anything,'' Mary Stiffler said. ``They had their little fights and stuff, but never anything close to this.''

``I love my kids and I try to do right by them,'' added Gerald Stiffler.

Family members recalled the Sunday of the boy's death as being much like any other during the summer.

The children began the day at Mary Stiffler's home, a weathered one-story structure surrounded by hay and cotton fields and flanked by unused chicken coops and a broken washing machine.

Damien, his 6-year-old sister and the 5-year-old daughter of family friend Linda Toon were playing outside while Mary Stiffler, Toon and Damien's 12-year-old stepsister were inside.

Mary Stiffler, 53, said she checked on the children after 10 a.m. and all was fine.

The 12-year-old was helping make breakfast when Gerald Stiffler arrived, intending to take the children with him, the girl told the Press-Enterprise of Riverside. Soon afterward, she said she saw the two girls push Damien's head into a mud puddle.

``I told them to get off and wiped the mud out of his eyes and mouth and I went back inside,'' she said.

As Gerald Stiffler was preparing to leave, he couldn't find his son. After a brief search, the 12-year-old ran into the house with Damien's limp body in her arms. She had found him lying on his back about 20 feet behind the house, with a pillow over his face, authorities said.

Stiffler, 33, tried but failed to revive his son. The boy was pronounced dead less than an hour later.

Mary Stiffler said the girls later told her they tackled Damien, and while one girl put a pillow over his head and sat on it, the other sat on his legs until he couldn't get up.

``Whenever Damien was getting picked on he called his Sissy,'' Gerald Stiffler said, referring to the 12-year-old. ``Maybe they put the pillow on his face so he couldn't call for her. I just don't know.''

``I don't know what happened that day, I just don't know,'' added Sophia Stiffler, who filed for divorce last month. ``I just know that my baby is gone and I can't get him back.''

Damien, who loved Teletubbies and professional wrestling, was buried Friday after a private ceremony.

The 5-year-old girl and her four siblings are in state custody, said Dennis Boyle, the director of the county's social services department. Damien's 6-year-old sister and her siblings remain with family members, Boyle said.

Riverside County District Attorney Grover Trask has told the Press-Enterprise that, because of their ages, no charges will be filed against the girls. California law prohibits children younger than 14 from being charged with murder.