HENDERSON, NEVADA POLICE FIND AN OBVIOUS SUSPECT
June 8, 2003
Feb. 6, 2002, was David Phillip Ruffa's 40th birthday. He and his mother and stepfather picked up his only child, three-year-old Sean, from the Henderson, Nev. home of his in-laws, where his estranged wife had been staying, and took the child to Peter Piper Pizza.
"I said, 'Let's pretend that instead of your birthday, it's little Seanie's birthday," the grandmother, Mary Ruffa Kravetz , recalls. "So we did, and he had such a good time."
That evening, they dropped the child off at the home of his mom's sister, Shaoru Garner — though she was away on a Pacific cruise and the only person home was her father, Louis Liu.
"He hated to leave the baby alone with that man," Mary Ruffa Kravetz explains. "But we had to, under the court order, so we did."
That night, Shao Lei Ruffa got off work at 12:30 midnight from the Gold Strike Hotel and Casino in Jean, Nevada, where she worked in the casino cage, telling her boss, Robert Abramson — according to a statement Mr. Abramson later gave Henderson police — "I'm going to meet my husband at Joker's Wild at 1:30 and if anything happens to me, you'll know where I am."
"She didn't say it in a way where she seemed frightened," Mr. Abramson clarified, adding that Shao Lei had been speaking about the possibility of reconciling with her husband.
Public defender Bret Whipple interjects, "We all know it's wrong for a married woman to date another man. If she were meeting someone else, wouldn't it be natural for her to say it was her husband?"
Shao Lei apparently called her father to say she'd be home late. But she never arrived.
When Shaoru Garner and her husband Scott arrived back in Los Angeles from their cruise on Feb. 8, they were surprised Shao Lei was not there to meet them. They called home and were told by Mr. Liu that she was missing. Scott Garner, who works as a Henderson volunteer rescue worker, then called Detective Gerard "Gerry" Collins of the Henderson Police Department to report this — and, interestingly, to speculate that he believed Shao Lei was dead, and that David Ruffa had killed her.
Detective Garner quickly focused his investigation on David Ruffa.
He surely made a good suspect. He spoke of plans to reconcile with his wife as soon as her father — who had lived with them from the start and was the main source of conflict in the three-year marriage — returned to China, as he was scheduled to do on Feb. 12.
But the in-laws and Shao Lei's attorney told a different story, of a heated child custody battle, of a violent husband who Shao Lei hoped the court would order into an anger management class. What's more, Shao Lei had once sworn out a detailed domestic violence complaint against her husband, contending he tried to strangle her ... though the case was later dropped.
Ruffa and his mother contend the spats were all about the father, Louis Liu, who drank, and who David contended he had caught in compromising situations, which David interpreted as indicating a tendency toward child molestation.
"I haven't had any story that the father was an alcoholic," replies Shao Lei's divorce attorney, Maria Milano. "I know that (David Ruffa) made false allegations to CPS that her father was sexually molesting the child; an investigation was done and there was nothing that corroborated his charges that there was some kind of sexual abuse. ... I've seen the child and to me there don't seem to be any signs that he's been abused or sexually molested in any way. ... The child had lived with him for years and years and he had never made any allegations until after the divorce proceedings were underway."
And then there were the other "priors." Just before he turned 18, David and two high school buddies in Catonsville, Maryland decided to take revenge on a girlfriend who had split up with David, by driving by her house and shooting the place up. (David says it was "just the car," and that it wasn't really attempted murder, as the police charged, because he knew no one was home at the time.)
David went to prison.
When he was in his mid-20s, David Ruffa got in trouble with the law again, in southern California, where he was charged with kidnapping, tying up, and terrorizing his live-in girlfriend, a former police officer. (Hey, good choice.) He went to prison again.
David Ruffa explains away all his problems with the law: Police pressured these women into writing out formal complaints, even as the ladies insisted they still loved David and didn't want the cases to proceed; "I'm sure politics and money are involved" in the way the authorities keep going after him, he insists. His refusal to accept personal responsibility for any of his misfortunes does not inspire confidence.
Ten days later, Shao Lei's 1991 white Chevy Blazer was found parked on a side street in Henderson. Her body was in the back. She had been strangled. Someone had then poured gasoline over her and the inside of the car, put the gas can in the front seat, lit a match, and walked away.
But the arson failed — the fire sputtered out, leaving the evidence intact.
A couple of folks known to police came forward, asserting David had spoken to them earlier about hiring them to kidnap his baby from Shao Lei. (The defense questions their credibility. But according to attorney Milano, Shao Lei also said David threatened to kidnap their child.)
Henderson police put David under surveillance, in the Sam's Town RV park where he was staying with his mother and elderly stepfather, five miles northwest of where Shao Lei was found. David proceeded to leave the state, and was eventually found — and arrested — working for his sister's boyfriend back in his home state of Maryland.
When Detective Collins tried to get him to submit to a mouth swab to see if his DNA matched the samples found under Shao Lei's fingernails and in a water bottle found in the car — presumably from her attacker — David Ruffa refused.
"He fought the DNA testing tooth and nail, which to me is an indication of guilt," reports assistant D.A. Greg Knapp.
At that point, I would have arrested David Ruffa.
But that's precisely where this case gets interesting. David Ruffa says he only objected to allowing Detective Collins to conduct the DNA test, since he was convinced the cop had it in for him. And there's this little problem. After the court required David Ruffa to submit to a DNA test, the results came back ... "excluded." It wasn't David Ruffa with whom Shao Lei had struggled before her death.
This isn't just like checking your blood type, mind you, where the test simply tells whether you do or don't belong to a large group of people who might have done the crime.
DNA is believed to be unique to the individual. And the North Carolina DNA lab chosen by Henderson Police to do the DNA test reports the person whose skin or blood was found under Shao Lei Ruffa's fingernails — the person who had also shared her water bottle — was a male. That male was not her infant son, the tests revealed. And that male was also ... not David Ruffa.
What's more, David Ruffa has an alibi. He and his mother both say he went to sleep that night in the loft bunk of the wobbly RV — the family couldn't afford jacks to stabilize the vehicle — that he shared with his mother and stepfather. His mother stayed up late, watching TV and reading, and his stepfather's bed covered the floor to the point where he couldn't have left "without stepping on my dad," Ruffa asserts.
The old vehicle would wobble and shake if anyone moved around. David Ruffa had no phone and no car keys — he could not have taken a call from his wife, or driven away in his mother's burgundy 1990 Oldsmobile without asking her for the keys, they both assert.
A witness saw a man exiting the victim's white Chevy Blazer where it was parked in front of 1324 Spague — near Boulder Highway and Sunset in Henderson — on the night Shao Lei was apparently killed. A large man dressed in a light T-shirt despite the cold bought a gas can matching the one found in the front seat of the car — and a dollar's worth of gas — at a nearby Exxon Station on Boulder Highway late that night. But the witnesses were unable to identify David Ruffa — who stands 5'9" — as the man who exited the car or bought the gasoline.
Whoever killed Shao Lei Ruffa apparently stole her cell phone, which was used to place a 45-second phone call to her brother-in-law Scott Garner's home phone from the vicinity of Sunset Road and Stephanie Lane in Henderson at 8 p.m. Feb. 12, officials at Verizon Wireless told Detective Collins. There's a possibility David Ruffa was still in jail at the time, on unpaid traffic warrants which Detective Collins discovered when he first questioned him in the case.
(The Garners lost their only child, 14-year-old Scott Garner, Jr., among the teen-agers killed when topless dancer Jessica Williams drove off I-15 and struck down a road crew of teen-age offenders three years ago, David Ruffa and his mother both explain. The settlements from that incident and from a separate on-the-job injury to Scott helped pay for their Pacific cruise. And now they have sole custody of little Sean, who has become their replacement son, in Ruffa's view.)
David Ruffa contends police who strip-searched him when he was hauled in by Detective. Collins on those traffic warrants within days after Shao Lei's death would testify he had no scratches on his face or body, though Shao Lei — no shrinking violet at 5'7" and 170 pounds — was consistently described as "physically strong" and had obviously struggled with her assailant.
Running into a noted trial attorney during an out-of-state trip two weeks ago, I recounted the David Phillip Ruffa case to this point. She responded "And this guy doesn't get any compensation for the year he spent in jail, right?"
She obviously assumed David Ruffa had been released, just as he would be in any of the fictional "Crime Scene Investigation" TV shows we watch at home in the evening, once the DNA evidence came back indicating that a new search must be launched to find the real killer.
I quickly set her straight.
"You don't understand," I said. "David Ruffa is still in jail, and he's still scheduled to go on trial in Clark County Court, Department 14, on Aug. 18, charged with the kidnap and murder of Shao Lei Ruffa."
Next time: Prosecutors explain why the DNA evidence doesn't bother them — "We don't just have one theory, we have a variety of alternative theories of the case," explains Assistant D.A. Greg Knapp. And the defense identifies another suspect — one that Henderson police knew about and ignored — asking the court to order what would be a precedent-setting DNA test on a second man.
THE SUSPECT THE POLICE IGNORED
June 15, 2003
Last time, Clark County prosecutors were about to explain to us why the fact that the government's own DNA tests have excluded David Ruffa as the man who strangled and killed his estranged wife, Shao Lei Ruffa, is of no great concern as they keep him locked up in the Clark County jail — where he's been for more than a year — and proceed with plans to put him on trial for murder on Aug. 18.
"Obviously, I would have liked it if it had come back positive," explains Assistant D.A. Greg Knapp. "But the way the information is pled is that he might have been acting in concert, an aider or abettor. He may not be the one who actually put his hands on her. The theory we have of criminal liability is by aiding or abetting or by instructing an accomplice. ... We don't just have one theory, we have a variety of alternative theories."
David Ruffa ridicules this list of alternative theories. "I was out of work at the time. I had no money. Who would I have hired? Where are they?"
More to the point, is this what we want? Fellow citizens facing life in prison based on prosecutions that resemble a Chinese menu — the jury chooses one theory from column A, and if the defense manages to prove it couldn't have happened that way, the jury is then instructed to choose an alternative theory of the crime from column B?
Aren't prosecutors supposed to charge us with a specific bad act, and then prove it? Once the evidence indicates they picked the wrong guy, should they really be at liberty to ask judge and jury to "lock this character up for a couple of years anyway, for being a generally bad apple, since we already went to all this trouble"?
Do police or the prosecution now intend to run DNA tests on the father, Louis Liu — who departed for China shortly after his daughter was killed — or on the dead woman's uncooperative alleged former boyfriend, or on anyone else?
"No. We don't have any co-defendants or persons of interest at this point," prosecutor Knapp told me late last month. "Nothing points in that direction at all. The defense is free to run a comparison if they want to. ... But it would be hard for any of us to ... The father is in China. But there's nothing in the investigation that would make anyone else a suspect, any more than you or I. If the defense wanted to say Vin is a suspect, they can throw that smoke up in the air, too."
No other suspects, the prosecutor says. But police developed leads that Shao Lei — separated from her husband and staying with her sister in Henderson — had been seeing a male co-worker at the Gold Strike, in Jean, where she worked.
Avelino Siga was a pit boss there at the time, though he now works as a craps dealer at Arizona Charlie's, and may hold down a second job at another local Las Vegas casino. (Though I spoke to his pit boss at Arizona Charlie's on June 4, Mr. Siga — who also goes by the name of O'Nil — did not return my phone messages left at either place of work.)
The defense team believes Avelino Siga is the unnamed co-worker with whom Shao Lei's boss, Robert Abramson, says she broke off a budding affair, telling him (according to his police affidavit) "No more boyfriend, 'cause all men want is sex. If I just wanted sex, I'd just go with my husband because that's the only good thing — that's the only thing he's good for."
"And he lied to police," reports David Ruffa's public defender, Bret Whipple. Avelino Siga "said he worked till 3 or 4 that morning, but it turns out he took an 'early out' and went home about 1 a.m." Mr. Siga told police he needed to leave early to pick up some furniture — but it appears he didn't actually pick up the furniture till 8 a.m.
The defense team approached Mr. Siga, to ask if he'd submit to a mouth-swab DNA test, which might exonerate him in Shao Lei's death. Twice he said he'd consider it, making an appointment to get back in touch with Mr. Whipple's office. Twice he failed to call or show up.
So on Wednesday, June 4, Bret Whipple went to court and asked District Court Judge Donald Mosley to order the government to conduct a DNA test of Avelino Siga.
"I understand your client's DNA does not match that found under the victim's fingernails," Judge Mosley replied. "That explains very readily your request. The only problem I have here is I don't know of any law ... any lawful authority to do it."
"That's our position exactly," said the track assistant D.A. in the courtroom that day — Greg Knapp did not appear personally. "Defense has other means to obtain this DNA. ... They can follow the guy around, wait for him to throw away a cigarette butt or something."
The prosecution really said that. Imagine getting that chain of evidence admitted into court. "And you're sure this is the very same cigarette butt the fellow flicked away? There weren't any other cigarette butts in the toilet bowl that day?"
I wanted to ask Henderson Police Detective Gerry Collins how he felt about these developments — whether he now regrets not casting a wider net, investigating other possible suspects (if only to rule them out) rather than focusing so quickly and exclusively on David Ruffa. But when I called him June 4, he would only say, "I don't talk to the press." Instead, he referred me to Henderson Police public relations spokesman Shane Lewis, who referred me in turn to Henderson Police public relations spokesman Keith Paul (nope, can't imagine where we might trim THEIR budget), who told me the whole Henderson Police department is officially not talking.
Public defenders rarely win acquittals. Let's face it. Most of their clients are guilty — the best they can usually hope for is to poke holes in the state's case, plead extenuating circumstances and get the jury to come back with a conviction on a lesser charge.
Not this time. Bret Whipple makes no secret of his delight at the prospect of going into court on this one. "The bargains they're offering — he could get out after a year in jail. Well, with the priors, four years," he says.
(Greg Knapp partially confirmed that. "There's always options for negotiation and this is a case that I'd like to see negotiated," he told me.)
"Now, as an officer of the court, I'm obliged to deliver those offers to my client," attorney Whipple continues. "But I don't have to recommend he take them. ...
"It wasn't my client. The DNA belongs to a male other than him. Someone took a drink out of the water bottle in that car, either before or after killing her, and the DNA evidence proves conclusively it wasn't my client."
Wednesday morning June 4, answering Judge Donald Mosley's demand that the defense explain what legal grounds the court could use to order a DNA test of Avelino Siga, Whipple told the court, "Your honor, he had the motive and the opportunity. He had a romantic relationship with the victim. Avelino Siga lied to police."
But it's someone else who will go on trial for Shao Lei Ruffa's murder on Aug. 18. That honor belongs to her husband, David Ruffa — a man who has already sat in jail for more than a year, unable to make bail, unable to see his little son grow up, the man who the government's own DNA experts have ruled must be "excluded" as her killer.
Is David Ruffa a great guy — likely to be your kid's next Sunday school teacher? No. I have no idea how many times he lied to me during our little two-hour jailhouse chat, but I'm certain he lied to me when he said he'd earned two college degrees — one B.S. in Engineering from the University of Maryland, and a second, in Geology, from UC Berkeley.
"No, he never graduated from college," his mother told me the next day. "he always wanted to work. He was not that interested in school; he liked to work with his hands."
And while David Ruffa told me he had no problem finding and keeping work, Shao Lei's divorce attorney, Maria Milano, reports "The records I received show that he was fired from many jobs, he was dismissed or else he was a no-call/no-show and was dismissed. Her employment was steady, she had a troubled pregnancy but she worked right up until she went into labor. But the records we got showed he had some jobs that lasted a month; he was being fired from jobs. ... Their house was foreclosed upon, money that her mother had given them for the down payment."
Still, when the state wants to put a man in prison for the rest of his life, they assume a heavy burden of proof — they're not supposed to win based on character flaws, stupid lies, and a checkered past.
"They've become vested in the Ruffa prosecution," is the way Bret Whipple explains it. "They're not supposed to become vested. They're supposed to look for the truth."
A LAST-MINUTE SNITCH?
Meantime, the defense still worries about the kind of final trump card which the government so frequently throws into trials at the last minute, these days.
"I don't talk to anybody about my case in here," said David Ruffa when I visited him in the lockup on June 3. "Mr. Whipple even gave me cards I was passing out, explaining that I don't talk about my case, but they were confiscated."
Fellow inmates go through his case materials whenever he goes to take a shower, David Ruffa is convinced, hoping to learn enough to cut a deal for themselves by offering to take the stand and testify that the defendant offered them a jailhouse confession. "It's acceptable practice in here because it's done so often."
Attorney Whipple says that in prior cases he's even had last-minute jailhouse snitches take the stand and claim that a defendant made a jailhouse confession to them, where the details of their rehearsed story tracked exactly with the order of paragraphs in a newspaper story summarizing the state's case in the daily paper a short time earlier.
"They'll change to a new theory of the case at the last minute," just as prosecutors did in the celebrated trial of Sandy Murphy and Rick Tabish (charged in the death of Vegas casino heir Ted Binion), predicts Chief Special Public Defender Phil Kohn. "They will come up with new evidence at the last minute," agrees Deputy Special Public Defender Whipple, citing other examples of jailbirds who go to court to testify against one fellow inmate after another — serial snitches — hoping to finally earn themselves that cherished "Get Out of Jail Free" card.
"There's really no basis for this man Avelino Siga being a suspect," replies prosecutor Knapp. "What kind of direction are we going in as a country if we're just pulling people off the street to find a suspect? You see these cases in England where they run DNA tests on an entire village, but in this country to detain someone we need these things call search warrants, and to get a search warrant we need probable cause and a judge has to sign off on it," Mr. Knapp said June 12. "If I had more evidence to develop Mr. Siga as a suspect I'd be rushing out there, but there just isn't any.
"On the DNA evidence, if it had come back as Mr. Ruffa's that would have been great. But the DNA under her fingernails could have been from any number of sources. I thought I should bring it to light in all fairness; I don't want someone sitting in jail years from now going, 'There was evidence that could have helped me and they didn't bring it out.' But the case is pled as 'He did it or directed it' - there could have been someone else in the back seat or whatever. ... I think I'll sleep fine because I'm not hiding a single thing. ... But I can't stand for the proposition - for the defense trying to cloud up the waters and violate everyone's privacy just to throw more clouds in the water."
And how would the prosecution react if some jailhouse snitch were to come forward at the last moment, claiming to have heard a jailhouse confession from David Ruffa?
"It depends on who it came from and the details of their information," prosecutor Knapp replied. "It doesn't happen that often. We'd have to look at it, because it's not an easy case by any means; it's not a slam dunk."
Friday, July 22, 2005
Husband convicted in death despite DNA mismatch
By GLENN PUIT
A Henderson man was convicted Thursday of murdering his wife even though another man's DNA was found underneath the victim's fingernails.
David Ruffa, 43, was found guilty of first-degree murder, kidnapping and arson in what was widely viewed as an old-fashioned, circumstantial murder case stemming from the 2002 death of his wife, Shao Lei Liu.
Ruffa's sister, Jane DeLauter, stood crying and sobbing in a hallway of the Clark County Courthouse.
"How do you find a man guilty when someone else's DNA was found underneath her fingernails?" she said. "How does this happen? Where's justice?"
Clark County prosecutors presented evidence during the nine-day trial that Ruffa had repeatedly talked about killing Liu, 37. Shortly after Ruffa made the comments, she turned up dead.
Liu was killed during a custody dispute over the couple's then 2-year-old son. Ruffa told several witnesses that he wanted to kidnap the boy.
On Feb. 7, 2002, the night of the slaying, Liu told co-workers at the Gold Strike in Jean that she was going to meet her husband at Joker's Wild. Ruffa also told friends that he was going to meet his wife.
He later claimed that she never showed up.
About 10 days later, Liu's body was found in her burned-out sport utility vehicle near Boulder Highway and Pabco Road.
When asked to give a DNA sample to authorities after the slaying, Ruffa refused. But when the courts compelled him to give a sample for comparison with DNA evidence found underneath Liu's fingernails, he was excluded as the source.
Clark County prosecutors Frank Ponticello and Linda Lewis declined to comment on Thursday's verdict until after a sentencing hearing Monday. Ponticello told jurors in his closing arguments, however, that there was no evidence that the DNA under Liu's fingernails was from her killer.
Ruffa has a history of domestic violence, although the jury that convicted him did not hear about it.
According to a report in the Review-Journal that appeared just before he turned 18, Ruffa was involved in a shooting at the house of an ex-girlfriend. He was also once charged with kidnapping, tying up and terrorizing another girlfriend.
According to the report, Ruffa went to prison for the crimes.
Post Script: Ruffa was sentenced to life in prison.
||Truth in Justice