WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. To police, Steven Hirschfield was violent and out of control when he clambered aboard a patrol boat sent to rescue him in the San Diego Bay during a gay pride party.
The 37-year-old bodybuilder, shirtless and wearing sneakers, seized an officer's stun gun and beat him in the face, they say, before he was fatally shot while reaching for the officer's weapon.
Their account has left his grieving family in disbelief. Family members suspect Hirschfield, whom they described as deeply artistic and loving, was a victim of homosexual bias and a police cover-up.
"He is not violent. I have not seen him hit anybody in my life," his sister, Kristine Hirschfield, said at a news conference Friday. "It doesn't make any sense."
The family plans to file a federal lawsuit claiming Hirschfield's civil rights were violated and conduct its own investigation into his death.
"Steven Hirschfield had everything to live for. So this myth that you are hearing that Steven was attacking a police officer is completely at odds with the type of person that Steven Hirschfield was," family attorney Brian Claypool said.
"The manner in which this police officer handled this situation is consistent with somebody who might hold some preconceived notions against gay people," Claypool said.
Hirschfield was a dancer in the Circuit Daze harbor cruise, a July 19 dance party attended by about 900 revelers as part of the weekend's gay pride celebrations. The crew called the Harbor Police Department just after 11 p.m., about an hour into the cruise, to report a man overboard.
Hornblower Cruises general manager Jim Unger said earlier this week that Hirschfield refused to accept a flotation device from a crew member. When a harbor patrol boat arrived, Hirschfield initially refused to climb onto the swim deck but then hauled himself onto the bow using a hanging rope, said acting San Diego police Lt. William Stetson.
Once on the boat, Hirschfield grabbed Officer Wayne Schmidt's stun gun and beat him in the face before reaching for Schmidt's pistol, according to harbor police Lt. John Forsythe. Officer Clyde Williams then fatally shot Hirschfield in the chest. Schmidt was treated for face and leg injuries.
The San Diego Police Department and district attorney are investigating the shooting. A toxicology report is pending.
Claypool questions nearly every point of the police account, including how Hirschfield got in the water. Police say witnesses told investigators Hirschfield jumped voluntarily from the deck of the 222-foot yacht Inspiration, but Claypool said he might have slipped.
He wonders how a violent confrontation with police could have occurred, given that Hirschfield's body showed no bruising, only scratches consistent with climbing aboard the boat. Hirschfield would have been exhausted after falling 30 feet from the yacht and treading water for at least 20 minutes in the chilly harbor, Claypool said.
Paramedics were delayed, he claimed, suggesting that police might have been concocting a story.
He said he planned to ask for DNA tests of the stun gun to determine whether Hirschfield touched it.
Claypool also said Hirschfield was shot in the back, but the San Diego County medical examiner has listed Hirschfield's cause of death as a gunshot wound to the chest. Investigator Paul Parker said he could not to confirm whether the wound was an entry or exit wound because Hirschfield's death is still an open homicide investigation.
John Gilmore, a spokesman for the San Diego Unified Port District, which oversees the harbor police, said the agency had "received no new information to render our initial report inaccurate. We are standing by that now, but it was preliminary."
He declined to respond directly to Claypool's accusations.
The family is appealing for witnesses to come forward.
"We'll get to the bottom of this," said Hirschfield's father, Alan, standing beside his weeping wife, Nicole.