The murder trial for Joshua Ruoff got under way last week after three days of intense jury selection, due to a reluctance on the part of those summoned to spend two weeks of their summer being exposed to the grim and gruesome evidence depicting how on May 17th, 2016 on a grow out near Dos Rios, a pot pharmhand, Timothy Sweeting, had his skull bashed in by a bat-wielding coworker and how the body was later found in a shallow grave by Sweeting’s dog.
Summertime has always been the preferred season to release horror movies, and this trial promised to be especially horrific, so it was somewhat baffling why all the people in the jury pool were so intent on avoiding duty in this case. But after three full days of hypochondria, hyperbole and downright flimsy excuses for hardship discharges, a jury was finally seated and the trial began.
The beginning of a horror film often includes previews, brief glimpses of some of the more ghastly spectacles to come, and this trial began the same way, with opening statements from the prosecutor, Assistant DA Richard Welsh, outlining the People’s case, describing an idyllic scene, secluded house in a woodland setting, where you could almost hear the lulling lilt of midsummer pan-pipes and birdsong in the background, as Ruoff begins sending text messages to his girlfriend and the grower he was working for, both of whom he appears to be trying to impress with his homicidal intolerance of his coworker, Tim Sweeting; and then defense lawyer Jan Cole-Wilson of the Office of the Alternate Public Defender, began telling the jurors that her client was a bipolar Jekyll & Hyde-type who suffered from blackouts after a few beers, and how he woke up after the grisly murder covered in blood like a werewolf on the morning after a full moon, and said, “Oh, please God, not again!”
Ms. Cole-Wilson said her client suffered from low self-esteem, due to a father who had physically and verbally abused him, and she explained how this led her client to self-medicate, abusing alcohol, smoking pot, and popping pills (Xanax). Having set the stage with such highly effective and readily recognizable props as bipolar disorder, alcohol abuse, low self-esteem and, horror of horrors, a bad father, who had “beat” her client when he was a child -- once with a dowel and another time with a fishing net, and then (gasp!) called him “a little shit!” Joshua Ruoff’s father didn’t come to the trial, but his mother and sister were there for him, bless their souls, seated well away from the family of Timothy Sweeting.
Assistant DA Welsh, began the State’s case by calling the first responder to the scene, Deputy James Elmore, who arrived at the house around 7 pm, the day after the murder. Two neighbors were there when Elmore arrived – the grower, John Overend had called from Lake Tahoe and asked them to go see what was going on at his grow site and house just off the Charlie Hurt Highway – and Deputy Elmore detained these two men while he had a look around, found a lot of blood and evidence of a hasty cleanup, but no corpus delicti, no proof of murder, but enough blood to suggest a lethal assault, so he called in the homicide detectives. An earlier call had come in but it was vague and didn’t seem especially urgent – the caller, Mr. Overend hadn’t yet realized how serious the situation had become – until Elmore came on duty for the night shift by which time (and we could almost hear the first gloomy strains of Chopin’s funeral dirge in the courtroom) the two neighbors had arrived and had a look around and relayed messages to Overend that something really bad must have gone down, nobody was around the usually cheerful and busy place, even the dogs were gone, everything was quiet as a tomb, and Ruoff’s room had been cleaned out.
The neighbors, Todd Corbin and Franco Cavazzi, had gone inside and seen things that made them shudder, and found a shotgun in one of the bedrooms, which they brought out and put it on the kitchen table. Also on this table there was a bong and a beer bottle, pot trimming scissors, a zip tie, and on the counter top, another beer bottle, a jam jar, and an English muffin inside a toaster oven.
On cross, Ms. Cole-Wilson tried to suggest that the two beer bottles were evidence that her client had been drunk out of his mind, and that crack cocaine could have been smoked in the bong. In the short time I’ve been involved in the drug scene in California (over 50 years, now, since I came to San Diego in 1967) I’ve never seen or heard of anyone using crack, and the only reason I bring it up is that defense must be awfully desperate to try and suggest such a remote thing – something dredged up from a TV show about street crime in Philly or Hell’s Kitchen, no doubt.
Ms. Cole-Wilson pointed to something in the photo of the items on the kitchen table, asking if it were not a straw for ingesting (snorting) cocaine, methamphetamine, or crack?
“No,” Deputy Elmore said. “It was a zip tie.” The only drugs found at the scene were weed, and a few empty beer bottles.
A criminologist, Barbara Anderson, from the Department of Justice in Sacramento, was called. She had found Mr. Ruoff’s bloody thumbprint on the outside of the front door, and in another photograph, we saw the trail where Sweeting had been dragged from in front of the couch where he had been sleeping, around the couch and out the front door. The trail was clearly marked because bleach had been used to clean up the blood trail, and it had taken all color out of the carpet. The deck had also been bleached and hosed down, but blood was still in the cracks between the deck boards, and splattered all over the exterior walls from using the hose to spray it off.
Ms. Anderson had also found Ruoff’s fingerprints inside Sweeting’s vehicle, which had been driven off the property and parked alongside a field about a half-mile away. It had been a hurry-up job, getting rid of the evidence, and the next witness was Dr. Colleen Mulligan, Professor of Forensic Anthropology at Chico State.
Timothy Sweeting’s dog was inside his vehicle, and by the time it was found, Mr. Overend had arrived from Tahoe. Overend took charge of the dog and he was at the house a couple of weeks later, on June 2nd, when this dog dug up Timmy Sweeting’s hand in the yard and was snapping and growling at the other dogs who lived there to keep them at bay.
Incredible, you may say, but dogs have amazing noses.
According to Dr. Alexandra Horowitz of UCSD, “We might notice if our coffee’s been sweetened with a teaspoon of sugar; a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar diluted in a million gallons of water: two Olympic-sized pools full.”
Mr. Overend went out to see what the commotion was and found the pale white hand of Timothy Sweeting, dug up and licked clean by his loyal dog, waving at him from the ground, like a drowning man going down for the proverbial third time. Overend called the sheriff, and Dr. Mulligan and her team were brought in to excavate the grave and exhume the remains of Timothy Sweeting.
Dr. Colleen Mulligan told the jury that she had dug up approximately 35 murder victims during her career, and that the graves were uniformly shallow pits, hurriedly dug and smoothed over. Dr. Mulligan explained that the team first set up tents and screens of graduated sizes of mesh for evidence collection, and the dirt over the grave shaft was carefully scraped off and sifted through these screens. The crew, dressed in Tyvek suits and booties with latex gloves took turns sifting and digging, in order to bring “fresh eyes” to each task and not miss anything. And the closer to the body they get, the smaller the tools they use. By the time they got to what Dr. Mulligan called the “halo of the body” the team were using gardening trowels.
The body halo in a grave shaft, Mulligan explained, is caused by fluids that seep into the dirt as the body decomposes, and this halo hardens into a crust as the fluids dry. The danger, as the team gets closer to the body, is breaking this crust and puncturing the bloated corpse – well, we can understand why this would be avoided, at all costs – but it must have been an unpleasant piece of work even without the puncture. The grave shaft, as it was termed, was detectable because the dirt was not as packed as the surrounding ground, which was packed, would be, and so it was possible to mark the walls of the shaft from above.
The unearthing of the body had been recorded in photographs which were put up on a screen in front of the courtroom. As the body became more and more visible – with the crust of dirt around it (it looked sort of like a mummy from Egypt) we noted that Mr. Ruoff was no longer watching the screen, he was hanging his head and appeared to be doodling distractedly with the pen and pad he lawyer had given him, instead. It was one of those moments of acute embarrassment I readily recognized, like the time my brother found one of my early attempts at writing and was reading it to his friends. Nobody likes to have their shoddy handiwork exposed to the public.
Sweeting had been buried face down in a grave too small for him. It was less than five feet long, and under three feet deep. Only one of Sweeting’s arms was under his head, the left, so the right arm was closer to the surface. This was the hand our heroic dog had unearthed, probably the one that had so often scratched the dog’s ears, rubbed her belly and patted her head.
Over at the sifting screens, a wadded up and partially burnt scrap of paper was found. It was a receipt from a store in Covelo. The time and date stamp on this receipt was matched with the store video of the person who made the purchase, and it turned out to be, you guessed it, Mr. Ruoff.
Dr. Jacqueline Benjamin was called. She was the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Timothy Sweeting. Like Dr. Mulligan, Dr. Benjamin is a stunning and vivacious young beauty, but honestly, can you imagine taking one of these women out to dinner? As Dr. Johnson said, “I’d as soon have Jack Ketch to dinner.” We may suppose neither Mulligan nor Benjamin are given to talking shop over dinner, however, on the stand, what they have to say is so patently unappetizing as to quell any and all desire to get to know either one of them intimately. For one thing, Dr. Benjamin’s job description necessitates what Dr. Mulligan’s crew so ardently avoided – that is, breaking through the crust, or halo, and puncturing the corpse, so as to get at the cause of death. After 16 days in the ground during summertime: “Eeeeyew!” The cause of death in this case was blunt force trauma to the head, but, incidentally, Dr. Benjamin, who is wonderfully thorough even in such appalling conditions that most of us would be tempted to just get it the hell over with, that she found out a curious addendum to the post mortem: Young Mr. Sweeting had also had his throat cut – before (peri-mortem) or after (anti-mortem) was hard to say, but she was one hundred percent sure it had been completely cut from one side to the other, and, there had been multiple incisions.
This information put defense in a state of nervous excitement. How could Dr. Benjamin be sure the neck hadn’t caught on something, like a nail on the deck it was dragged across, and torn open? No, the doctor was sure a knife or scalpel had been used, it was no accidental tear. The cartilage had been cut and the hyoid bone had been either cut or broken. Most likely cut.
The Jekyll & Hyde defense was not being substantiated very convincingly. We have a total of five beers, if we count the empties, two bottles, one on the counter, one on the table, and three beer cans in the recycle bin, with at least three grown men living in the house. No drugs other than pot, and Ruoff, like the others, had a doctor’s recommendation, a 215 card, from Medi-Can in Ukiah, a wonder-drug prescription to assuage his emotional debilities, from the PTSD of being spanked once or twice when he was a kid – but nothing to really support a state of mindless blackout, because there were just too many things, starting with the text messages, which started several days prior to the murder, and ending with the admittedly hurried, but by no means mindless attempts to get rid of the body, wash up the blood trail, get rid of Sweeting’s dog and vehicle, grab his gear and get the hell on up out of town, run back home to Momma in New Hampshire, lie low, let it all blow over, and hope they never find the body.
If not for the dog, Ruoff would probably still be a free man, drinking beer and smoking weed, thumbing his nose at the homicide detective out in California who later said he stood right on Sweeting’s grave and would have never known it.
The trial will continue next week, with an eyewitness scheduled to take the stand Monday.
Please email me. Tim was one of my best friends