Fatal fall ended dream of Navy career as pilot

Mystery: After eagerly signing up for more years, John Paul Ruggiero dies at the academy.

August 24, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

In the hours before he died early Sunday, Midshipman John Paul Ruggiero was in an upbeat, even celebratory, mood.

The affable 20-year-old called his father to say how good he felt about having just signed the "2 for 7," the contract committing juniors at the Naval Academy to five years of military service after graduation.

Then he wowed a table of classmates by cooking a shrimp scampi dinner, a specialty he perfected as a cook at an Italian restaurant near his hometown in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.

When he returned to his fourth-floor dorm room that night, his two roommates were asleep, his relatives said this week. He logged on to the Internet and struck up an online chat with a friend. But at 1:30 a.m. Sunday, he suddenly stopped typing responses to his friend's "instant messages."

Nearly six hours later, at 7:15 a.m., his lifeless body was found on the ground, about 75 feet beneath his dorm room window. He appeared to have been dead for several hours.

As Ruggiero's family prepares to bury him today near his home in Gouldsboro, Pa., questions still swirl over how a happy, athletic young man with his eye on a career as a Navy pilot could tumble out a window.

Navy officials said yesterday their probe suggests the fall was an accident, but they have declined to elaborate.

A senior investigator and Ruggiero's father said in interviews that it appears Ruggiero, who was a month shy of his 21st birthday, drank alcoholic beverages that night. But when he drank and how much - and whether it was a factor in his death - remain in question.

An autopsy was completed at Bethesda Naval Medical Center this week. Investigators are awaiting results of alcohol and drug tests.

"In this case, we anticipated there were going to be a lot of questions," said Dr. Glenn N. Wagner, director of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, which, with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, is investigating the death. "How is it that a third-year midshipman goes out a window? Is he drunk? Was he pushed? All those things have to be run to the ground with every possible clue.

"Between the medical investigation, the criminal investigation and a psychological profile, we may be able to answer most of the questions. Do we answer all of them? Rarely."

The layout of the room suggests at least two ways Ruggiero might have lost his balance.

Ruggiero slept on an upper bunk, and the step many midshipmen use to reach theirs is a thigh-high windowsill beneath two large glass windows.

The Bancroft Hall dormitory has no air conditioning. So, those windows are almost always wide open in the summer. Even at 1:30 Sunday morning, the outdoor temperature at the academy topped 80 degrees.

Also, midshipmen often hang sweaty gym clothes out the window, and so it is conceivable that Ruggiero lost his footing retrieving his.

An academy source said the school has scheduled a "safety standdown" for Friday, a refresher course on accident prevention. An academy spokesman would neither confirm nor deny its existence.

Accidental falls from dorm windows are not uncommon at civilian colleges, where late-night partying and roughhousing lead to injuries.

But the Naval Academy's curfews and penalties for drunkenness make its campus less prone to such problems. The only other fall in recent memory occurred in July 2000, when a plebe accidentally plunged from a dorm window in the middle of the day, breaking both ankles and bruising his head.

`Flabbergasted' parents

The Ruggiero case has heightened worry among parents.

"Everybody is basically flabbergasted," said Donald Sweger, president of a Naval Academy parents club in Pennsylvania and whose son is a senior. In addition to concern for the grieving family, he said, "everyone's concerned about it from the standpoint of, `Gee whiz, that could have been ours.'"

Ruggiero is to be buried today, with full military honors, in the cemetery of a church in Moscow, Pa., where he had been an altar boy and lector.

Friends and relatives said the boy they knew as John Paul, JP, or Juan Pablo was an ace student, an athlete and a charming practical joker - a virtual model for the well-rounded student the Academy strives to attract.

He didn't come from a military family. He simply came home one day during his junior year of high school and announced he wanted to fly jets. "Everybody wanted to be Tom Cruise," his father recalled.

At North Pocono High School, John Paul was an officer of the National Honor Society chapter and president of the school marching band. He played alto and tenor saxophone. At about 5 feet 9 and 160 pounds, he ran varsity cross-country and track.

Ruggiero spoke for shyer students. He told Principal Philip J. Answini that his peers had tired of the cafeteria's hot dogs and hamburgers. Answini added a Chinese entree on Wednesdays.

Answini remembers Ruggiero as a cutup. On Answini's birthday, Ruggiero encased the principal's SUV in plastic wrap.

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