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BREAKING NEWS: Beating victim Jason "Cowboy" Huggins dies at age 31

SAN DIEGO -- Jason "Cowboy" Huggins, who suffered severe brain damage after being viciously attacked two weeks ago, died this morning at 4:30 am at Scripps Mercy Hospital, said Huggins' close friend Justin Newman. He was 31 years old.

Within two days of the June 22 attack, San Diego police arrested 37-year-old Joshua Larson in connection with the attack.

Larson, who is accused of bludgeoning Huggins in the head with a rock in a canyon near the 1300 block of Washington Street in Hillcrest, has been charged with attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon. The charges likely will be upgraded to murder now that Huggins has died, police said.

Lt. Ernie Herbert of the SDPD Homicide Unit, which has been handling the case, said that the preliminary investigation revealed that Huggins was attacked during an altercation with someone known to him. The attack is not being treated as a hate crime, Herbert said.

Huggins, whose presence was easily noticed as he stood more than 6 feet tall and regularly wore a cowboy hat, boots and big belt buckle, was affectionately known as "Cowboy" by friends and acquaintances.

Huggins' aunt Jennifer Sanders, who flew into San Diego this week with her husband Mark to be with Huggins, said their nephew picked up his "western style" when he was 13 or 14 while living with his mother in Texas for two years, saying "there are no cowboys in Clarksville," Tenn.

"He came back wearing the cowboy hat and boots and did so for the rest of his life," Jennifer Sanders said.

Born in Clarksville, Tenn., Huggins was raised by his grandmother throughout most of his childhood, with the help of the Sanders. Huggins dropped out of high school during his senior year, but later completed a GED program through the Clarksville school district. Sanders said she fondly remembers attending his graduation.

Sanders said Huggins moved to San Diego nine or 10 years ago.

Friends say Huggins was homeless prior to his death, but was proud of who he was and loved living in San Diego.

"I am true cowboy from TN now living in sunny San Diego, CA," Huggins wrote on his Google.com profile page.

Huggins, who was very open about his life, also posted "I am gay and have HIV too."

In the "Bragging Rights" section of his profile Huggins said "[I] came out of the closet to all my redneck friends back in TN and was accepted because I am still a great friend that never overstepped my boundaries."

Since news of Huggins' attack was released, friends, community members and others sent an outpouring of support. Last Tuesday, more than 60 people gathered outside of Scripps Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest for a candlelight vigil organized by Newman to express their love for Huggins while speaking out against the attack.

Community activist Brian Slater, who helped organize the vigil, said he felt it was important that people attend because of the tragic nature of the brutal crime that "happened in our own backyard."

"We cannot let this go unanswered," Slater said.

About a dozen friends and family members of Huggins gathered in Balboa Park on Tuesday for a barbecue lunch in honor of Huggins.

Newman said he organized the event so that those who cared for Huggins could come together, celebrate him, and have a chance to meet his aunt and uncle.

Sanders said it was a pleasure to be surrounded by Huggins' friends at the cookout.

"Jason's friends were telling tales of his life and were all so loving and supportive," Sanders said.

"He has a very large, close group of friends that cared so much about him. I want all of his friends to know that we truly appreciate the kindness they have shown us this week and appreciate them being Jason's friends and loving him. It means a lot to know how much our nephew was loved."

Sanders said she also was heartened to find out that her nephew lived in such a kind, welcoming city as San Diego.

"We found ourselves treated very well here," she said. "The entire city has been wonderful."

"Scripps Mercy Hospital was also very kind and helpful, everyone from the nurses and doctors to the social workers. Thank you to everyone who has cared for our nephew and been so kind to us."

Sanders said she will be meeting with a funeral home later today to make arrangements for a viewing. She hopes to be able to have a viewing in San Diego for friends, followed by another viewing in Clarksville. SDGLN will post additional details as they become available.