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Coming to grips with the Jason Bitz case

The 23-year-old was fatally shot by an off-duty Santa Ana police detective on Halloween morning. The detective is back at work after declining to be interviewed by the department — and Bitz's family is still struggling to cope with his death.

November 27, 2011|By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times
  • Krista Bitz, 24, brother of Jason "JJ" Bitz, 23, sits next to a memorial placard she made for him. On Halloween morning, Jason Bitz was shot to death by an off-duty Santa Ana police detective who thought he was trying to steal a van. ""I just want JJ back, thats all I want, said Krista. JJ was not a threat to anybody."
Krista Bitz, 24, brother of Jason "JJ" Bitz, 23, sits next to… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

One thing everyone can agree on is that Jason Bitz wasn't perfect. He grew up rough, often moving from motel to motel with his mother and sister. The 23-year-old also had been arrested on charges of drug possession and driving a stolen vehicle.

On Halloween morning, the young man, who still looked like a teen and whom friends and family called "JJ," was shot to death by an off-duty Santa Ana police detective. The detective, whom authorities have declined to identify, had walked out of his home when he saw Bitz trying to steal a van outside his home in Lakewood, he told police.

The van had been lent to Bitz by the owner's son, the owner and his son told The Times. The detective told sheriff's deputies investigating the shooting that Bitz had reached for his waistband before the detective shot him, but Bitz was unarmed.

Friends and family believe Bitz got a flat tire while driving the van, parked it and returned early Monday morning to fix it. Ignacio Garcia, the van's owner, said he thinks Bitz might have gotten into an accident.

Bitz asked friend Mike Toth, 47, to drive him back to the van in the morning.

In an interview, Toth said he stayed in his car while Bitz went to the van. Toth said he saw a man who was walking his dog approach Bitz and start yelling at him. Soon after, the detective crossed the street and yelled something.

"I saw him coming from across the street, pointing his gun," Toth said. According to Toth, Bitz raised his voice back at the officer, said he wasn't breaking into any cars, told him to put the gun down and dared him to shoot him. Then he ran.

"I didn't think he was a cop," Toth said. "He had pajamas on."

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. Eddie Hernandez said investigators have confirmed that Bitz borrowed the van but that he appeared to be using a screwdriver to get into the vehicle. "We're still not sure why he didn't have the keys," Hernandez said.

After the confrontation, the detective got in his car and chased after Bitz, authorities said. At some point, he got out of the vehicle near Rynerson Park, a few blocks from his home, and Bitz somehow got in the front seat, according to what the detective told a deputy at the scene.

Bitz, the detective said, reached for his waistband, prompting the detective to fire four shots. Bitz was hit multiple times in the chest and arm, Hernandez said. There was no weapon at the scene, he said.

Other than what he told police at the scene, the detective has so far declined to be interviewed by the Sheriff's Department, Hernandez said.

The detective involved in the shooting is back at work after having been placed briefly on administrative leave, said Santa Ana police spokesman Anthony Bertagna.

Bitz's family, meanwhile, is still struggling to cope with his death.

"I just want JJ back, that's all I want," said his sister, Krista Bitz, 24. "JJ was not a threat to anybody."

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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