Wounds Heal, Memories Linger

Three years later, every day is a good day for the man believed to be the first Maryland victim of the Washington-area snipers.

August 30, 2005|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Some nights, as Paul LaRuffa bustles past the bar en route to the kitchen of his restaurant, he feels the stares and overhears snatches of whispered conversation: That's the guy who was shot.

Other nights, the 58-year-old restaurateur is approached more directly, as with the man who recently brought his son in to meet LaRuffa: Did it hurt? Did you bleed a lot?

Lately, he often hears: Are you going to testify?

"It's almost humorous," LaRuffa says. "There's never a day that somebody doesn't bring it up. But people mean well; they don't ask these questions to be mean."

The proprietor of Margellina Restaurant in Clinton is believed to be the first Maryland victim of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the snipers accused of killing 10 people and wounding six in a killing spree that chilled the Baltimore-Washington region in the fall of 2002.

The next year, Muhammad and Malvo were convicted and sentenced to death and life in prison, respectively. LaRuffa testified in the trials, both held in Virginia.

Last week, difficult memories of that courtroom testimony were revived when Muhammad was transferred to a prison in Montgomery County to await a second trial for the deaths in Maryland. LaRuffa took a break from his daily restaurant duties to talk about his ordeal.

A compact man with an expressive face and strong handshake, he says he's prepared to serve again as a witness if called.

"I think my justice has been done already," he says. "But I'll testify if it helps the victims and their families in Maryland. I'll testify 10 more times if it helps them."

Sept. 5 marks the third anniversary of the Thursday night when Paul LaRuffa closed up his Italian restaurant as usual, got into his car and was shot five times by a robber who didn't even try asking for his money.

Ten days later, when LaRuffa came home from the hospital, police were still wondering about the strangeness of the crime. After shooting LaRuffa, the gunman had taken his laptop computer and briefcase as well as the day's restaurant receipts. Most robbers would prefer to use a gun as a last resort. Was there someone who wanted him dead?

LaRuffa couldn't think of anyone. He could only chalk it up to violence for the sake of violence in an increasingly crazy world.

As he was recuperating, the businessman was more anxious than he'd ever been. He might be exhausted, but as soon as he lay down to sleep, he'd start up, wide awake. Afraid to be alone by himself during the day, he preferred to hang around the restaurant.

"I couldn't sit still at home," he says. "I would hear noises. I would look out the window, walk around. I couldn't watch TV. I was really, really hyper. I was very scared of the dark. When there wasn't a moon and I had to walk 20 feet from my car to the front door, it was really scary."

For weeks afterward, the senselessness of the act and the uncertainty of who had shot him fueled post-trauma nightmares that seemed as real as the shooting.

"I would actually experience it again, actually hear the sound of that first bullet breaking the window," he says. "It was really loud and I'd wake up wondering, `Why didn't my wife hear that?'... That sound was just stuck in my head. ... And then, thank God, it went away."

LaRuffa times the end of his nightmares to the discovery, almost two months later, that he was apparently the snipers' first victim. After Muhammad and Malvo were caught, FBI tests revealed that they were using LaRuffa's laptop.

Malvo's slight physique matched LaRuffa's companions' description of the shooter.

Investigators realized that the pair had used the money stolen from LaRuffa -- roughly $3,600 -- to buy the car they used to travel from shooting to shooting, supply it with gas and feed themselves. They told LaRuffa that his money had basically bankrolled the killing spree.

He was dumbstruck.

"I was following the story of the snipers every day just like everyone else," he says. "The insane thing is that all that time when I was afraid just like everyone else, I had already been shot by one of them. It was crazy."

But at least he was finally safe from his fear that an unknown killer might still be stalking him.

Media requests for his story began to pour in. He talked to Greta Van Susteren, Phil Donahue and Bill O'Reilly as well as local and regional reporters. By the time the snipers' trials began in the fall of 2003, LaRuffa had retold his story scores of times.

He never anticipated how wrenching it would be to relive the experience in court.

"I thought I had it all together, that I could just describe it the way I already had. But being on the witness stand where it's incredibly quiet, quieter than a church and the jury is staring at you -- it was a lot more emotional, very emotional. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."

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