Navy veteran Jim Huffman.

Navy veteran Jim Huffman. (Chelan Douglas Regional Port Authority)

WENATCHEE — “It was a life-changing experience. It was a really horrific crime, which led to complicated grief,” said Jim Huffman, sitting at a table in a downtown Wenatchee coffee shop. “It wasn’t like losing your granddad. When you lose a child, everything changes.”

The Chelan Douglas Regional Port Authority commissioner and Navy veteran spoke with The Wenatchee World about dealing with the gruesome murder of his daughter and ex-wife in 1995, before two rounds of cancer and subsequent treatment several years later. All of it required dealing with grief, he said.

Rita Huffman, 48, and daughter, Mandy, 15, and an Eastmont Junior High School student, were found murdered in their rambler-style home at the corner of Jerome and Sixth streets in East Wenatchee. Their bodies were stabbed and mutilated. Jack Owen Spillman III was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the crimes.

“That put me on my path of recovery,” 76-year-old Huffman said of the grief process following the murders. “It took a lot of steps, as you might imagine; forgiveness being an important part. Through that process, I learned that the hardest area of forgiveness is to forgive yourself. And in that particular circumstance, a lot of guilt feelings associated with not being able to protect my family.”

He said he went through all the stages of grief and managed it in different ways. One of those was supporting the (now closed) Good Grief Center after realizing his daughter’s friends had nowhere to go for help, but rallied around him.

“They didn’t have the kind of support that I was getting,” he said. The center was started in 1997 by Cindy Phillippi, a hospice nurse, and two hospice volunteers, Mary Bates and Susan Braden.

Huffman also had support from Seattle-based Families & Friends of Violent Crime Victims, now called Victim Support Services.

“For me, it was a matter of accepting the reality, because your brain doesn’t want to go there. And so I wasn’t really able to move forward in my grieving until I accepted the reality of what happened. And one of the wake-up calls was, I was driving home... when OJ Simpson was tried and the court system acquitted him and so my desire for some form of justice was really shaken at that point.

“I was able to get through that,” he continued. “The grief process is not linear. You cycle through various stages, forgiveness being... a really important part because in order to not carry all of the negative feelings that came from that, I tried to keep focused on the positive things that I could do.

“That past experience really informed how I dealt with dealing with cancer,” he said.

In 2014, Huffman was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

While at the Waterville district fair (NCW Fair), he said he started passing blood in his urine, which indicated something “wasn’t quite right because there aren’t too many things that have that kind of reaction.”

“Fortunately, bladder cancer is pretty easy to treat, depending on what stage you’re in,” he said. “I was just at a stage two.”

He said surgeons removed two polyps, which followed with a regimen of chemotherapy.

“Strangely enough, the treatment... is BCG, which is bovine tuberculosis bacteria, and they inject that directly into your bladder,” he said. “Getting there is the hard part. It basically burns the lining out of your bladder and it regrows. It’s painful and I went through that every six months for about three years... Other than the treatments, there was no pain involved.”

“I’ve exceeded the life expectancy in more ways than one,” he said, which was five years.

Then, in 2021, Huffman was diagnosed with esophageal cancer.

“I was having trouble swallowing, and that was my first indication,” he said.

He had MRIs and CT scans. An MRI uses strong magnetic fields to take detailed images and can show abnormal tissue, while a CT scan uses X-rays to provide pictures of tissues, organs, and skeletal structure.

Before surgery, Huffman consulted with Dr. Nicolas Kummer at Confluence Health, who recommended radiation and chemotherapy to shrink the 7-centimeter tumor. After five weeks of treatment a few days a week, the tumor became undetectable on MRIs. He lost some, but not all, of his hair.

Huffman said he met with Dr. Jason Loewen at Confluence Health to discuss operability. A surgical procedure cut out the cancer and one-third of Huffman’s esophagus, and used more than a third of his stomach tissue to repair the esophagus, Huffman said.

“It’s really complicated,” he said, adding he had no pain.

“A meal for me is about that much,” he said, making a fist to show the amount he can eat at one time, about 1 cup.

The day after surgery, Huffman said he tested positive for COVID-19, a false-positive reading. “Because I was already in the hospital and I tested positive, that created a whole new chain of events.”

He was moved from the ICU to the COVID ward, where he had no visitors, and only staff in full personal protective equipment (PPE) attended to him. But internal bleeding led to another surgery and due to his positive COVID test, doctors were concerned about his blood supply.

“We didn’t know enough about COVID at that time to have anything definitive,” he said.

He tested negative for COVID a couple days later, but concerns about a false-negative result led doctors to treat him as if he were infected. He was kept in the COVID ward for 10 days, he said, which included treatment with remdesivir as a precaution.

“I was feeling guilty for taking up the bed in the COVID ward,” he said.

Freedom from the hospital finally came, but Huffman no longer had a valve between his esophagus and surgery-shortened stomach, limiting the types and amount of foods he could eat. He said he still can’t eat most bread, meat or drink alcohol, for instance, and has had periods of lactose intolerance. He also had a year of immunotherapy treatment and was on steroids, but found the latter made him intolerable to friends and some family.

“My wife was very understanding,” he said of Christine Huffman, whom he married in 2021. “I really want to give credit to my wife. She’s been a rock for me... She’s been with me through this part of my journey. She takes care of my meds, which get complicated (seven pills in the morning and three at night).”

Huffman said he struggles getting enough calories, but drinks two protein drinks daily he buys at Costco. He started dropping weight rapidly following the laparoscopic surgery, but some medications such as doctor-prescribed THC helps give him an appetite and sleep, he added. Medication also help give him a sense of swallowing, something he lost following the surgery.

“I’m slowly getting more energy back,” he said. “It was a real significant energy drain initially.”

Problems, solutions

Huffman, born in Cottage Grove, Oregon, and raised in the Wenatchee Valley, said he began smoking while in bootcamp for the Navy, in which he served between 1968 and 1972. The only time away from the valley was in military service and college for a bachelor’s in environmental studies. He retired from the Chelan County PUD after 30 years in 2000.

Smoking gave him a break he wouldn’t have had otherwise in the military, but also played a part in getting cancer, he said. He quit in 1980 when his daughter was born. Additionally, he was exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) while serving in the military.

He said he could have pinned down how and when he was exposed to chemicals, to have the military pay for his medical bills, but his medical insurance was good and it was “less painful” to use it than fight the government for coverage.

“I learned from her,” he said of his daughter, Mandy. “One of the processes of grief is you get to the point where the memories, the good memories, surpass the pain and the anger, which is really where I’m at now. I’m not fatalistic, but I kind of believe in a life hereafter. And so, you know, I feel confident that I’ll see her again ... I have to live my life to be worthy of that afterlife.”

His advice to parents: “live up to the expectations you have for your children. That’s a guiding principle for me. That’s why I get a charge out of doing the port work... to provide economic opportunity for young people.”

Reflecting on his healing process, Huffman said his family’s murders put him “in a world that you’ve never been exposed to or ever even thought of before,” but the Victim Support Services was “like a guide in the wilderness.”

In turn, Huffman began advocacy work for many other families of homicide victims in Eastern Washington in 1996, including those of 22-year-old Liberty Video store clerk Christina “Chrissy” Clements, who was murdered in 2001.

“I’ve had to step away from that (advocacy in 2017),” he said. “It’s emotionally draining and you can only do it for so long.”

He hopes others who’ve experienced trauma can step up, and said he may consider coaching advocates. He added that more professionals are available now, too.

“Folks that have had experience with trauma are good candidates for following through with professionals,” he said.

“In all of it, my life’s experiences have made me realize that life can change in an instant and you just have to adapt as you go forward.”

(c)2024 The Wenatchee World (Wenatchee, Wash.)

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