Grand jury clears man of 3 bank robberies
Dismissal urged over apparent ID mistake
By Andrew Wolfson
The Courier-Journal

Troy Rufra: ''I got an early Christmas gift.''

Authorities have dismissed the last pending charges against American Express financial adviser Troy Rufra, who in an apparent case of mistaken identity faced as many as 80 years in prison for allegedly robbing four banks.

After a prosecutor recommended dismissing the cases, a Jefferson County grand jury on Thursday returned no indictment against Rufra for three robberies in St. Matthews. The chief deputy prosecutor in Clark County, Ind., got a judge to dismiss the fourth robbery charge earlier this month.

Rufra, 30, who was suspended from his job at an American Express franchise in September but was reinstated this week, said: ''I feel incredible. It looks like some prayers got answered and I got an early Christmas gift.''

His boss, Martin Walters, the co-owner of Walters & Associates, the franchise, said: ''We are happy that he's back and happy for him because this has been a tough couple of months for him.''

Walters said American Express Financial Advisors, a Minneapolis-based unit of American Express, ordered Rufra's suspension to protect the company's reputation and brand name. But Walters said he kept paying Rufra's salary -- and promised to take him back when he was exonerated -- because he believed Rufra was innocent.

Rufra was charged with four robberies of supermarket bank branches that took place between June 19 and Oct. 28. But police and prosecutors on both sides of the Ohio River began to re-examine the charges after Rufra presented an airtight alibi for a fifth robbery in November and Jefferson County police Detective Larry Duncan concluded he was innocent of all five.

''We are very grateful to Detective Duncan and the commonwealth's attorney's office for helping clear Troy's name,'' said Rufra's lawyer, Gus ''Skip'' Daleure. ''They investigated hard and came to believe what we knew was true all along -- that Mr. Rufra didn't commit these crimes.''

Rufra was implicated after a teller at a Fifth Third Bank branch inside a Kroger store on North Hubbards Lane in St. Matthews said she saw him shopping there on Sept. 24 and identified him as the man who had robbed her three weeks earlier.

Rufra left before police arrived, but St. Matthews detectives were able to get his name from a debit card he'd used to make a purchase at Kroger and his photograph from a store security camera.

Detective Larry Alvey said he showed the single photo to the teller and three others who been working at a U.S. Bank branch inside a Winn-Dixie store on Breckenridge Lane in St. Matthews on the two days it was robbed. They all said the man in the picture was the robber.

But leading national authorities on eyewitness identification told The Courier-Journal that Alvey may have prompted the tellers to mistakenly identify Rufra as the perpetrator by initially showing them only his photograph. Such one-on-one identification procedures, in which police show a witness a single suspect or his picture, are considered so suggestive that their use has been severely curtailed by the courts.

The experts said Alvey compounded that mistake by telling detectives in Jefferson County and Jeffersonville that the tellers had identified Rufra from an array of photos that included his mug shot. They did do that, but only after they already had seen the single surveillance photo of Rufra from Kroger. Alvey told the newspaper he didn't realize either procedure would undermine the IDs.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Khalid Kahloon presented the case to the grand jury Thursday afternoon. Kahloon said he told the panel that ''this is a case that needs to be dismissed -- that we don't have sufficient evidence.'' He said he told Alvey in advance about his intention and Alvey said the decision was Kahloon's call to make.

Alvey and St. Matthews Police Chief Norm Mayer didn't return phone calls yesterday.

Prosecutors could reinstate charges against Rufra if new evidence arises, but neither Kahloon nor Bill Grimes, the Indiana prosecutor, say they expect that to happen.

Kahloon said he couldn't say whether he thinks Rufra is innocent, but the prosecutor said he had no reservations about recommending the dismissal. ''I felt very comfortable in doing what I did,'' he said.

Kahloon said earlier this month that he would urge a grand jury to dismiss but that the case wouldn't be presented until late January.

Rufra, whose only previous conviction was for drunken driving, insisted from the outset he was innocent. He maintained it was ludicrous that he would rob the U.S. Bank branch, where he did business occasionally and had a $15,000 line of credit, or the Fifth Third branch in Kroger, where he bought lunch once or twice a week. The eyewitness-identification experts said the tellers may have remembered Rufra's face from when he patronized those stores.

American Express allowed Rufra to be reinstated this Monday with extra supervision. He will return to normal status as soon as the office receives paperwork reflecting the grand jury's action, Walters said.

Walters said Rufra was the first American Express financial adviser, of 10,000 nationwide, ever charged with bank robbery. Steve Connolly, a spokesman for American Express Financial Advisors, said he also believed the charges against Rufra were a first.

Rufra and his lawyer feared he might have to wait for the robber to strike again before he could clear his name. ''We were prepared for a long battle,'' Daleure said.

Rufra, who is married and lives in Lyndon, said he still is upset about being charged in the first place. However, he added: ''It feels awesome to be back at work. I'm glad to be doing something rather than sitting at home doing nothing.''

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