On Monday, June 16, 1975, presiding Judge Fred B. Cramer called to order the trial of James Urban Ruppert for the aggravated murder of 11 members of his family, a case that would eventually result in one of the most bizarre verdicts in the history of jurisprudence.
But not this time. It would take seven years for this case to receive a final verdict, but no one involved knew that, although the smell of retrial was in the air from the beginning. When Ruppert and his lawyers decided to put his fate in the hands of a panel of judges rather than to prove his insanity in front of 12 jurors, they immediately put the case on shaky, untested legal ground.
“We thought they could handle psychiatric testimony better that a jury, said defense attorney H.J. “Joe” Bressler.
No one being tried in a capital case in the state of Ohio had yet chosen the three-judge option, at least not under the current Ohio Revised Code, which contained conflicting provisions as to whether the three judges had to reach a majority or a unanimous verdict in capital cases. One of the provisions was apparently a copy-and-paste portion of the old criminal code that had not been repealed when the new code had been adopted, because no capital defendant had chosen a three-judge panel, the Ohio Supreme Court had never ruled on the discrepancy. So whatever happened, the Ruppert case was about to make history on a number of levels.
The law places the burden of proof on the prosecution to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt as to the charges and the specifications, but with an insanity plea, it is up to the defendant to prove that his mind and ability to reason was so impaired at the time of the criminal act that he either did not know that such act was wrong or he did not have the ability to refrain from doing it.
An acquittal on insanity grounds, however, didn’t mean he was free to go and collect his inheritance. The law required that in a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity, the defendant would automatically be remanded to the Lima State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. From there, he would be confined until a judge of the Allen County Court of Common Pleas (the county in which the hospital is located), the superintendent of the hospital and an appointed alienist (a psychiatrist who specializes in mental competency issues) sign off that his sanity has been restored and his release into society would not be dangerous. Even then, he would be subject to annual review and re-confinement if the panel decided he again presented a threat.
A finding of guilty on the charges but not the specifications that he killed two or more persons would be an automatic life sentence for Ruppert. A finding of guilty on both the charges and the specifications would give the panel the option of imposing life imprisonment or the death penalty.
So it seemed somehow fitting that there be a little more drama to start the proceedings, something like a 32-minute blackout in the Butler County Courthouse.
Hamilton Journal-News reporter Jim Newton and other members of the press were standing in a crowded elevator with Judge Arthur Fiehrer, one of the three Common Pleas Court judges assigned to the case, heading up to the third floor courtroom. As soon as the doors of the elevator closed, everything went black. The doors closed, but the elevator did not go up.
A woman standing near the panel button board of the elevator jokingly insisted she was not guilty. Some of the men joined forces to pull open the doors and walked out into the lobby to discover that the entire building was dark. Judge Fiehrer decided to take the stairs to the third-floor courtroom.
The lights came back on shortly before 8:45 a.m. It would later be reported that a squirrel “jumping about the upper electrical structures” of a city’s substation had caused about one-fourth of the city, including the central business district, to be blacked out. The squirrel died from the effort.
It was indeed the circus everyone expected it to be. People began lining up outside the courtroom door in the early morning hours, but they remained orderly and relatively quiet. The Cincinnati Post reported that most of them were under 30, students with the summer off, as well as “the courthouse regulars,” a group of retired gentlemen who hang out daily on the stone ledge surrounding the well-kept courthouse lawn. As the spectators entered the courtroom, they were studied carefully by members of the sheriff's department. A deputy stopped a man carrying a paper sack, revealing a tape recorder. The deputy relieved him of the device and said he could get it back when the trial recessed. The judges were permitting members of the press, which were occupying the jury box, to have tape recorders with the provision that the tapes would not be broadcast. The elderly bailiff wouldn’t let anyone under age 18 into the courtroom.
Throughout the trial, the old-fashion wooden courtroom was filled to capacity--which was only 48--with spectators while twice as many more waited in the hall outside, some periodically peeking through the worn painted glass of the courtroom door to catch a glimpse of the proceedings, hoping that someone will leave so they can take the open seat. No one ever leaves, though the number of spectators lining up each morning grew each day. On Wednesday, the bailiffs lightened the restrictions and allowed people to stand around the perimeters of the room. By Friday morning, spectators began arriving at the courthouse at 4 a.m., according to one man in line, who complained that even by getting there that early he was not sure he would get inside the courtroom. He was admitted and stood with others throughout the morning session after all the seats had filled. After each morning session, however, the courtroom is emptied, and those who got there early have to give up their seats and return to the end of the line, so except for those who managed to make other arrangements, there’s a different set of spectators for the afternoon session.
Even more people stood outside, waiting to catch a glimpse of Ruppert as sheriff deputies escorted him the Butler County Jail just across Court Street. Journalists call it “the perp walk.” Ruppert unfailingly stared straight ahead, seemingly disinterested, acknowledging no one.
A half dozen or more photographers followed Ruppert and his Deputy Sheriff escorts into the courtroom into the courtroom when the defendant was led in by a sheriff deputy. Flashbulbs snapped furiously until defense attorney Hugh Holbrock asked photographers to be considerate enough to not have any pictures showing Ruppert or being released from his handcuffs. They complied and held back until Ruppert was seated at the counsel's table. Then the flashes resumed, and Ruppert stared straight ahead with nary a flinch or sign of attention.
The trial attracted a cast of spectators even more colorful than the gruff, hard-nosed prosecutor and the flamboyant defense attorney in the cowboy suits. A woman who called herself “Fifi” paraded about the courthouse in hand-made gowns made from wigs of various colors cascading down her back and open at the front to display “her sagging attributes,” as Mary Anne Sharkey the Dayton Journal Herald described them. Fifi said she also attended the Watergate hearings in Washington, D.C., a few years earlier and takes a bus from her Cincinnati home to trials and public events all over the country.
“Past the prime age for wearing revealing clothes, Fifi pounds defense attorneys on the back, proclaiming, ‘You’re doing real well. You’re going to get him off’,” reporter Mary Anne Sharkey wrote.
Fifi had not met Ruppert, but had taken a liking to him, delivering him a copy of the Wall Street Journal to the jail every day, although he’s not allowed any newspapers, and a Lucky Buck lottery ticket once a week.
“I’m taking care of my boy,” she said.
Ruppert’s Aunt Ruby Lee, barred from being inside the courtroom because she is a witness in the case, took up a daily vigil on a bench just outside. The reporters have dubbed her “Aunt Boots” because of her footwear.
“It’s better than climbing the walls,” she said, nervously fingering her beaded purse. “I’m the only relative Jimmy has here… I’m his aunt and I care for him.” During breaks in the trial, she was sometimes joined by members of the Allgeier family--Alma’s mother, two sisters, a brother and a sister-in-law--who would drive to Hamilton from Mt. Healthy every day to hear the testimony. They would take their lunches together on the courthouse benches.
Butler County Prosecutor John Holcomb, still a little skittish about all the publicity even though it had been going on for two and a half months, said that he felt pretty good going into the first day of trial, well-rested but admittedly battling sweaty palms and the “pre-game jitters” that he remembered so well from his days as a high school basketball star.
“We took our places at our table in court and all of the photographers ran up and started taking our pictures and turned the TV light on us and I remember feeling how phony it is,” Holcomb said later. “How are you supposed to act when all those lights are on you? What are you supposed to look like? You can’t sit there and tell jokes cause prosecutor’s aren’t supposed to do that, so you try to pick a spot on the wall and stare stonily straight ahead and try to look tough.”
But he was restless and a little tense and couldn’t stare for long, so he soon started scanning the courtroom. He noticed Ruppert--staring stonily straight ahead into space, as would become his own custom, though his expression was more vacant than tough--while Holbrock laughed and carried on and Joe Bressler kept his head down, somber in his work.
The press took over the jury box and included reporters from the Associated Press, the Dayton and Cincinnati newspapers and television stations as well as the Journal-News reporters.
Despite the power issues and the hubbub of the crowd, the trial started only 10 minutes late. Presiding Judge Cramer called court to order and informed spectators that the three judges expected no comments nor outbursts and admonished that they could not leave while the trial was in progress.
Sending Ruppert back to the Butler County jail for the duration, at his lawyers’ request, the judges then left to visit the scene of the crime, the house on Minor Avenue. Holcomb stayed behind, too, to finish last-minute preparations on the more than 101 pieces of evidence he was about to submit.
A crowd of some 50 neighbors and area residents were at the scene when the judges arrived. The house had been boarded at the front and back doors with large sheets of plywood for over two months. A bold red and black sign on each store read “No Trespassing.” The first floor windows were covered by venetian blinds, shades drawn over second floor windows. Major John Bohlen of the Butler County Sheriff's Department used a crowbar to pry of the plywood covering up the front door with a loud creak and a popping sound.
“One could imagine the dust inside settling over the remnants of terror,” wrote Nancy Baker in the Journal-News. “We found the atmosphere inside oppressive, and everyone who walked through the tiny house walked in silence. The air was still and smelled dirty. It made you want to hold your breath as long as you could. Venetian blinds were drawn tight, and the dimness helped blunt the linger image of horror in the house.”
The house was cluttered, Easter baskets and candy among the debris strewn about the cramped living room with its worn furniture, the threadbare carpet with big pink roses. Police said the home was well-kept but they had torn it apart looking for evidence. Blood stains and vomit were still on the carpet, shredded by investigators, in the living room and the linoleum floor in the kitchen. A collection of plaster religious statues occupied a table near the old television set. Toys were everywhere. The kitchen was crowded with chairs and a sewing machine. Dirty dishes and coffee cups littered the small table, alongside a bottle of salad dressing and a skillet with congealed hamburger, the sloppy joes Charity Ruppert prepared for her grandchildren.
“And down on the floor,” Baker wrote, “a coin--a quarter speckled with dried blood--lay on the scuffed linoleum.”
The judges, likewise, walked through the house in silence.
That out of the way, Holcomb began his opening statements at 10:15 a.m. and laid out his theory that Ruppert “planned, calculated and designed” the scheme to kill his family, purposefully get caught and plead insanity so that he could inherit more than $300,000. He was going to prove that James Ruppert was an expert shot and had been practicing just three days before the massacre.
It was “murder for money,” he said.
The defense, as Holcomb expected, deferred making opening statements until the state had presented its case.
So for the rest of Monday, all of Tuesday and until the middle of Wednesday afternoon, Holcomb and his team methodically laid out the case against Ruppert, beginning with the testimony of Hamilton police Patrolman Robert Minor, the first law enforcement on the scene and the officer who took Ruppert into custody. The 29 witnesses called by the state included the police who responded to the scene and who first interviewed Ruppert that night, detectives who found books on psychology in the house, agents from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation who processed the evidence, and bankers and brokers who discussed the financial situation of all of the Rupperts. With the exception of Ruppert’s Aunt Ruby Lee, who testified under cross examination that there was a family history of mental illness, there was no mention of insanity, conspiracies or a torturous family life.
Real estate man Jim Cecere gave appraisals of the three Ruppert homes: $40,000 for the Walter Avenue house and $19,500 for their previous residence on Hill Avenue, which they were renting out, and $14,000 for the Minor Avenue house. A General Electric payroll supervisor testified that Leonard had five life insurance and pension plans totaling $200,000 in death benefits, including policies for Alma and all eight children. Leonard’s supervisor said that an automatic group insurance plan Leonard enrolled in was based on three times his annual salary of $20,800 and that he also participated in other programs involving coverage for his wife and each of the eight children, other policies on his own life, and various pension and investment programs including savings bonds, stocks and mutual funds. Home State Savings Association also testified Tuesday that Leonard and Alma Rupert had a certificate of deposit totaling $7,870 dollars.
A preliminary tax report filed with the County Probate Court and entered into evidence estimated the value of the slain family’s estate at $343,000, with $225,000 of that coming from life insurance.
Aware that he was in the national spotlight and not wanting to look like a rube, Holcomb made sure he and his team presented the case professionally, and it went like clockwork, although there were elements of drama when the personalities involved peeked through. At one point, Bressler “disdainfully” (Holcomb’s word) threw a witness’ signed statement onto the prosecution’s desk.
“He kept on with his cross-examination and about five minutes later he decided he wanted that statement back,” Holcomb said. “He walked over to my table and he says, ‘Give me that statement!’
“It just made me mad and I slapped my hand down on that statement. It made a loud noise and I said, ‘Whenever you want something from me, you say please.’
“And he said, “Please, may I have the statement, sir?’
“So I said yes, and I gave it to him.”
While the prosecution questioned the bank officials, the defense loaded the judges’ bench with books and court citations to bolster their frequent objections.
“They’re all the same,” Cramer said, pushing a book aside. “How many times do I have to overrule your objections?”
“Until I get my way,” Holbrock quipped.
While questioning Louis J. Hofstadter, Hamilton attorney and expert in probate law, Holcomb asked the judges to take notice of two sections of Ohio Revised Code, including a section titled “murderer not to benefit”, which prohibits a person convicted of aggravated murder or murder from inheriting or taking any part of the estate of a person killed.
The defense counsel, making one of its many objections, argued that an expert witness can only inform a court not familiar with the law.
“This court right here is composed of the highest expertise of any court in the country,” Holbrock said.
“We don’t want to hear any speeches,” Holcomb grumbled.
Cramer thanked the defense counsel for the compliment, then said, “The rules permit the court to inform itself in this manner in its discretion. However, the court is not necessarily bound by the witness’ testimony.”
He overruled Holbrock’s objection.
The final witness for the prosecution was James Mense, the insurance man, who testified about visiting Ruppert in jail, and Ruppert asking his advice on whether or not to hire a “name” lawyer, one with a reputation for going into a case “with two strikes against them,” when there is a foregone conclusion that the client is guilty, but they get him off anyway. In his summation, Holcomb argued that Mense’s testimony proved that Ruppert was concerned about getting the money from his brother’s and mother’s estates. “Most men charged with 11 counts of aggravated murder would be glad to make any kind of deal they could make,” he said. “This man doesn’t want a deal, though… Any deal he makes, he loses. He loses the money. He loses the fortune.”
Throughout all of the testimony laying out the case against him, Ruppert sat emotionless, expressionless, and impassive except for one fleeting moment. The reporters, from their vantage point in the jury box next to the defense table, had a clear view of Ruppert and certainly kept a close eye on him, but he never seemed to move or flinch during the testimony or response to any of the people moving around him, his blue eyes fixed on the floor or wall straight ahead of him. He rarely moves from his standard sitting position with his legs crossed at the ankles, his hands resting in his lap. Only when his Aunt Ruby testified that there was a history of mental illness in the family--an aunt and a cousin who had been in mental institutions and two other cousins who were suicidal--did a single tear well up in Ruppert’s eye, but not so much that he acknowledged it or tried to wipe it away. His demeanor, as psychiatrists would soon testify, was due to the delusion of the conspiracy and his constant state of being on guard. It was the same reason that no one else knew about the conspiracy. Either that, or he was just that cold inside.
Ruppert remained impeccably groomed throughout the trial, freshly shaven every morning, his hair always neatly parted and combed, clean clothes brought to him every day by an aide from Holbrock’s office. His shirts, one reporter noted, were all short-sleeved. Sometimes, he goes without a tie and opens the shirts at the neck. His trousers usually match the shirt. They are usually a solid color, maroon, blue or tan. His socks are dark and he wears the same brown and tan shoes every day with brown-striped shoelaces.
After the state rested its case, the defense made a motion for acquittal. The state failed to prove, Bressler argued, that Ruppert knew about the existence of any insurance policies or the wealth of his brother and mother, nor that Ruppert had done anything in advance to plan the shooting.
“You have to infer that the defendant knew of his wealth,” Bressler said. “You have to infer that that the defendant planned this and there is no evidence to indicate either of the two. You have to add one inference on top of another to establish the state’s motive in this matter, therefore we ask for a motion of acquittal.”
It only took the three judges 15 minutes in recess to agree to overrule the motion, saying the court had enough evidence to convict. Cramer acknowledged that the prosecution didn’t prove a motive, but said that a motive wasn’t a necessary element for conviction, but would be necessary to prove “a calculated and designed” murder.
It was now up to Holbrock and Bressler to prove their case for insanity, but because their first witness--a Harvard psychiatrist--wasn’t going to be available until Friday, the court took a day off of the case.
Holcomb wasn’t about to take any time off, however. He put his partners to work on lining up the rebuttal witnesses, people who knew Ruppert from Frisch’s, the 19th Hole, the stockbrokers, etc., who would all say he looked and acted like a normal guy. He sent his buddy Glenn Ebbing, the HPD detective assigned to the prosecutor’s office, to double-check Ruppert’s stock market wins and losses, and to follow up on other witness statements. Holcomb, for his part, began brushing up on his psychology and psychiatry, armed with a copy of every article Dr. Lester Grinspoon of Harvard Medical School ever wrote, gathered up for him by the lawyer Jim Irwin who lived down the street from the Leonard Rupperts, preparing himself to go up against the high-profile psychiatrists the defense had hired to say Ruppert was insane.
Thursday evening, Ebbing came to Holcomb’s office with “a bombshell” that made the prosecutor’s skin tingle. Ebbing had been to visit Martha Carr, one of Billie Ruppert’s closest friends, and found out that she and James Ruppert had been writing letters back and forth.
She had apparently started the exchange, because the earliest letter, which she gave to Ebbing, from May 9, Ruppert wrote that he regretted that she wouldn’t be able to come and see him--“Thanks for asking”--but he’s only allowed three names on his visitor’s list and it is filled.
Most of the letters were concerned with questions about her job and family, but in the third letter, dated May 31, Ruppert asked for a favor: “Just a note to ask you to please bring me the items listed on the enclosed card. You can bring these items any hour of the day and leave them at the control room, the window marked information just inside the front door here at 123 Court Street. Just tell the deputy at that window to give them to me right away. Tell him that I said for him to pay you out of the money in my property. You can probably get most all those things at Ontario’s and the barbershop there in the Plaza Shopping Center. Matches at Super-Value store near the Ontario Store….”
His list, written on back of the card:
2 boxes of pad matches - 50 pads per box
1 pair of sponge rubber insoles - men’s size 8
1 container of Mennen shave talc
1 scalp massager, they cost about .75 and can be bought at barbershops and other places - they are plastic about three inches in diameter and have many prongs on the underside that massage the scalp.
“We’re going to call her as a rebuttal witness,” Holcomb said of his plans. “She doesn’t think that he did it and she thinks he’s normal. Those letters aren’t the work of a crazy man.”
That alone was a pretty good discover, Holcomb thought, but that wasn’t the really good part, the bombshell.
Carr told Ebbing that the week after the murders she went to the Goody Shop for lunch. The Goody Shop was a long-standing Hamilton fixture, run for more than 30 years by Gus and Edna Skalkos, now an elderly Greek couple, and was near the Ohio Casualty office where Carr worked.
“Mrs. Skalkos told her when they were talking about these murders--(Martha Carr) told her that she was a real good friend of the family--and Edna Skalkos said, ‘Why, those boys were in here Saturday morning!’”
Mrs. Skalkos said the “taller boy” ordered breakfast and took some back to James in a booth and they ate their breakfast together. While they were eating Leonard “kept making motions with his hands like he was bawling Jim out, like he was giving him hell about something although they were talking low and she couldn’t hear what he was saying,” Holcomb said.
“That’s my bombshell,” he said. “That’s the one I’m going to drop in their lap. Because what happens sure as hell is that Jim’s financial trouble with his stock market transactions and now he went to this brother for another loan and his brother’s giving him hell saying why don’t you save your money and put it in the bank instead of blowing it in the stock market.”
In his opening statement Friday morning, Joe Bressler called the events of Easter Sunday the act of a man “unable to control his own being,” who had been insane for 10 years. To support the claim, the first defense witness was their heavy-hitter: Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who described James Ruppert as a classic, but rare, case of psychotic paranoia.
Grinspoon outlined Ruppert’s biography as it was told to him during a four-hour interview in the Butler County Jail, describing the dirt-poor surroundings as a small child and his ill health, the way his family would abuse and torture him, beating him with a rubber hose, how his mother taunted him for not being the daughter she always wanted and made him dress and wear his hair like a girl. He told about his mother’s sexual advances on her teenage son and how as a result he was impotent by the time he was 26. Grinspoon related how Ruppert told him of the conspiracy against him that began in 1965 when he made an obscene phone call to a librarian, a conspiracy spearheaded by his mother and carried out by his brother and the FBI in an attempt to ruin him by proving he was a homosexual and a communist. Grinspoon told the court about Ruppert’s belief that he brother was sabotaging jobs and his Volkswagen. He described how all that and more came to a boil at an Easter family gathering when his brother tauntingly--to Ruppert’s mind, anyway--asked “How’s the Volkswagen?” And how Ruppert, who was getting ready to go target shooting and had all of his guns with him, opened fire on his brother, and then methodically gunned down every member of his family and would have killed anyone else who might have happened to be in the house at that moment.
Grinspoon scoffed at the idea that Ruppert was faking it.
“The idea that he is feigning insanity is only slightly less impressive as a delusion as the conspiracy is as a delusion,” he said. “I had no question in my mind that he was telling me the truth about this conspiracy as he believed it.”
He went so far as to say he wished he could take Ruppert back to Harvard to use as a textbook example of true paranoia, an extremely rare affliction to this degree.
“That made me so goddamned mad I couldn’t see straight,” Holcomb spoke into his journal the next day as he recalled his version of the cross-examination, which he was very proud of and disappointed that none of the newspapers picked up on his brilliance. “So I thought that I would just get right down to brass tacks with this Ivy League pompous son-of-a-bitch. I thought he was nice before he had to pull that Ivy League bullshit on me and he ended up being a smart aleck bastard, pardon my language.
“Anyway I thought I’d get right with it with him and I said: ‘Doctor would you repeat that last answer please so I get it absolutely straight?’
“‘Well I’m not sure I remember it exactly,’ he said.
“I said, ‘Well let me help you. You said that that is only slightly less impressive an illusion--’
“He said, ‘Let me think a second--That is only slightly less impressive an illusion than the delusions of the defendant.’”
[The trial transcripts and newspapers reported Grinspoon using the word “delusion” throughout. The use of “illusion” is Holcomb’s recollection.]
Confident that he had the psychiatrist on the defensive, Holcomb plunged ahead.
“Doctor, I don’t mean to be offensive but state the exact terms of your employment with the defendant,” he said.
Holbrock jumped out of his seat to object, but Cramer overruled, so Grinspoon explained he got $600 a day plus expenses, and billed for two days and two round-trip airline tickets, and spent a total of four or five hours interviewing James Ruppert in jail. In his questioning, Holcomb also pointed out that Grinspoon interviewed Ruppert several weeks after the killing, and that all of his opinions of the defendant were based on just those interviews and previous psychiatric reports and not interviews with relatives, co-workers, neighbors or acquaintances. It was “S.O.P.”, the doctor said, to make the judgment strictly on what the defendant tells him and other psychiatrists.
Holcomb asked about the history that Ruppert gave him specifically with regard to homosexuality. He only committed one homosexual act, the doctor replied.
“And then I asked him if he gave him any history about what Ruppert did the day before Easter,” Holcomb said. “And he related about being in a bar drinking that night.”
“What did he tell you about the daytime?” Holcomb asked.
“Did you ask him?”
“Doctor, did the defendant realize the purpose of your examination and that you might be called into court to testify as to his mental condition?”
“Might a man who faces the death penalty if convicted exaggerate the symptoms of abnormality during a psychiatric exam?
“Yes, that might be true but I don’t think the defendant was.”
“Doctor are you on the belief that a person’s every act is determined by forces over which he has no control?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Well, it would be your belief then that a person does exercise some free will?
“Yes--however, let me qualify that: Not when a man is as sick as this defendant.”
Holcomb started getting excited. The Ivy League doctor was trying to bait him into a discussion of psychiatry, and area where “he
could beat my brains out,” but was instead taking Holcomb’s bait. He planned to hang the doctor with his own words.
“Isn’t it true, Doctor, that the inability of trained psychiatrists to agree on diagnostic classifications has been shown time and time again?”
“Yes, to a certain extent.”
“Isn’t it true that this disagreement increases with the fineness of the differentiation attempted and the number of psychiatrists involved? In other words, when you once determine that a man’s psychotic and then you try to fit into what category that psychosis is, like paranoia, schizophrenia, that type of stuff, doesn’t the disagreement increase?”
“No, absolutely not.”
Holcomb was so excited he could barely contain himself, but he remained calm, taking his time as he walked over to the counsel table and opened up his briefcase. One by one, he removed copies of all of the articles Grinspoon had written and “just flopped them in a stack.”
It took a couple of minutes, because the one that he wanted, he had purposefully put on the bottom of the stack just for this display.
Leaning across the table looking at Mike Gmoser, Holcomb waved the document at him and said in a loud enough voice that the people in the first row could hear: “I’m going to shove his illusion up his ass.”
Back to the witness stand, he continued, “Doctor, of the 81 articles you have written I’ll direct your attention to one you wrote in June, 1965, ‘Autonomic and Psychomotor Correlates of Premorbid Adjustment in Schizophrenia,’ which appeared in Volume 27 of the “Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine.’ Do you remember that?”
“Doctor, I’m going to read the first paragraph of that statement to you:
“‘The inability of trained judges to agree on the diagnostic classification of psychiatric patients has been repeatedly demonstrated. Disagreement increases as a function of the fineness of the differentiation attempted and the number of judges involved. The immediate consequences of diagnostic unreliability are heterogeneous symptoms among patients bearing equivalent diagnoses and common symptoms among patients bearing disparate diagnoses. Thus a given diagnosis conveys minimal information concerning individuals so classified, and empirical studies based on such designations are correspondingly difficult to evaluate.’
Holcomb then asked three clarifying questions with an emphasis on the last sentence about a diagnosis conveying “minimal information.” He caught a glimpse of the judges and noticed how Cramer peered expectantly over the top of his glasses, amused and impressed by Holcomb’s style, aware that the prosecutor was having a ball.
“Now, did you write that paragraph?” Holcomb asked the doctor.
“No, I didn’t actually write this paragraph, but I co-authored that article so I guess I have to take responsibility for it.”
Grinspoon then read the paragraph out loud himself, in a very loud and fast “rat-a-tat-tat,” Holcomb said later. And while Grinspoon spent the next two or three minutes explaining why that paragraph had no relevancy to this case, Holcomb just stood with his back to the witness box, slowly shaking his head. When the doctor was finished, Holcomb turned around, took the copy of the article from him and said, “Thank you very much, Doctor. Have a pleasant trip back.”
Holcomb said he felt like a million bucks when he saw the smiles on the faces of the other two judges as he sat down. Afterward, his mentor Dick Wessel came up and shook his hand enthusiastically.
“John, I just want to tell you that that was the most masterful cross-examination that I’ve ever seen,” he said as he pumped Holcomb’s arm.
It meant a lot to Holcomb because the eight years that he and Wessel worked trials together, Wessel was the cross-examination and expert-witness man. Holcomb, he said, was “the razzle-dazzle,” who would make the jury cry. So he was so touched by the complement that he choked up.
The defense’s other witnesses echoed both the history and the diagnosis of the Ruppert case, including the court-appointed Dr. Howard H. Sokolov, a consultant with the Butler County Forensic Center, said Ruppert’s psychosis would be hard to detect in normal situations because the defendant is a “very reclusive person. For the first half hour I talked with him I had no indication he was psychotic.”
Sokolov called the murders “a rage reaction in which there was so much pent up emotion and that emotion was based so much on charged thinking that I feel it was consistent to an explosion of psychotic rage.”
Before court adjourned for the weekend, the judges heard the strange testimony of Valeta Spears, who met Ruppert for the first time at Frisch’s about five months prior to Easter as he sat among the regulars and engaged in general conversation.
About three weeks before Easter, she testified, she was talking to Ruppert when he put his fingers to his lips for her to be quiet.
“I’m listening to Castro,” he told her. When Ruppert saw that she was startled by the remark, he grinned, leading her to believe that he was joking.
The next night, she asked him, “What did you hear from Castro?” and laughed, but he did not, and seemed disturbed that she should make light of the subject.
Holcomb asked her if she made the connection between Ruppert’s strange behavior and any kind of mental problem.
“No,” she said. “I thought he was either using ESP or something.”
Sears also said Ruppert often told her she should put her money into stocks.
Dr. Philip Mechanick from the University of Pennsylvania was the next in the parade of psychiatrists to testify, taking the stand first thing Monday, June 23.
Mechanick gave similar testimony as Grinspoon and Sokolov, saying that Ruppert simply “exploded” when Pinky made his “simply inquiry” about the Volkswagen.
“It was as if those words were code words,” he said in testimony that not only mixed metaphors, but tossed them like a salad and pureed them for good measure. “It was an automatic response, like scratching an itch… He went for the guns in a psychotic rage like a man drowning grasps for a straw.”
That, he said, was an example of Ruppert’s unrealistic way of thinking.
“I have never had a car that operates right,” he said. “There is always something wrong, but I don’t attribute it to anything but the manufacturers who don’t make very good cars.”
He said that after the initial burst of rage that left 11 bodies dead or dying in the kitchen and living room, “He treated the children like injured horses, and he had no comprehension of what was right or wrong at the time.
“The only thinking or contemplation which he described to me (during the incident) was when he heard the moaning and the groaning of the children, at which point he thought that he should put them out of their pain…. The very nature of his thought processes make that clear. That if it’s right to assist a suffering child by putting the child out of his misery, that’s as wrong as anything I can imagine. That’s treating the child like an injured horse, which you can shoot. I can conceive of no way of picturing that as any kind of reasonable comprehension of what is right.”
Also like Grinspoon, Mechanick said it was impossible for Ruppert to be faking his psychosis.
“Even a well-trained psychiatrist could not simulate this condition,” he said, as “the totality of Ruppert’s responses, facial responses, tears, flushing, blanching, all those things, don’t admit of training” as Ruppert could not know in advance “exactly what would be the appropriate response” to questions.
He said he diagnosed Ruppert as “psychotic with paranoid tendencies” who could probably not be cured in a lifetime in an institution.
Dr. Henry Bachrach, a clinical psychologist also of the University of Pennsylvania, said Ruppert showed “a fearful, suspicious and passive quality in his personality,” a kind of “Caspar Milquetoast.”
Bachrach had examined and tested Ruppert without knowing the charges against him, “but from the test results, I knew it was a violent crime and probably murder (because) his thinking was so permeated with violence.”
One of the tests Bachrach gave showed a picture of a boat with smoke, but no smokestack.
“I asked him what was missing,” Bachrach said. “He said, ‘The little windows with people peering at each other.’ The normal response should be smokestack.”
Holcomb challenged the interpretation. “That picture of a boat may be easily recognized in Philadelphia,” he said, “but not in Hamilton, Ohio, which is a dry dock.”
“I assume that school children in Hamilton know what a boat looks like,” Bachrach replied.
The psychologist also said that from his battery of tests he discovered that Ruppert’s opinion of women is that “they lead you on but they never come through.”
“But isn’t that the experience of all mankind?” Holcomb quipped, causing a ripple of laughter in the courtroom.
Hamilton psychiatrist Dr. C. Donald Stevens, who spoke with Ruppert just the previous Thursday when court was recessed, testified that “the conspiracy is all-consuming in Ruppert’s mind.” Ruppert told him he believed that Dr. Stevens himself was involved in the conspiracy.
“He told me that since the trial began there’s been an FBI agent posing as a reporter,” he said.
As to Ruppert faking insanity, Stevens said it wasn’t possible for someone to fake it so seamlessly. “He could have expressed all kinds of hallucinations and answered test questions differently,” he said. Ruppert can’t be faking mental illness because he doesn’t believe he is mentally ill. “He thinks there’s something wrong with everybody else.”
For his cross-examination of Stevens, Holcomb had another bit of sleight of hand up his sleeve. He had a previous insanity case--the Roscoe Barnett case in which a man was charged with murdering his landlady--with Dr. Stevens in 1967 and remembered his testimony in that case was that there is no test you can give a patient in the present time that can determine the state of mind or mental condition at any previous point in time.
First, he asked Stevens if at the time of the murders if Ruppert knew the difference between right and wrong. Stevens said he couldn’t answer that question, he did say that it was “an irresistible impulse.”
Holcomb turned from the witness and started walking back to the prosecution table, telling Fischer, “Hand me the Roscoe Barnett transcript.”
Fischer handed him what was obviously the transcript of a legal case with long brown covers on it. Holcomb made a big production out of opening it up and reading from a piece of paper he had stuck inside it, because it wasn’t really the transcript for that case. One didn’t exist because Barnett was found guilty of first degree murder, was sent away for life and never appealed so there was no reason to type one up.
Looking inside the big, imposing volume, Holcomb asked, “Isn’t it true that there is no test known to psychiatry which you can administer now which accurately can determine a man’s mental state at any previous given point in time?”
“That’s right,” Stevens agreed.
On Tuesday, Dr. Glenn Weaver, the psychiatrist whom Ruppert had seen in the early ‘60s to help with his masturbation problem, related a dream that Ruppert had written down in November, 1961.
“In my dream,” he wrote, “I was seated at a long table (about 15 ft.). I had been condemned to death (for no known reason) and my friends were gathered around me… There would be no mention of the way I would be put to death but each time I would think of it (in dream) I pictured myself being electrocuted… Each time it came to me, I was happy at the thought that the end (destiny of either heaven or hell) was so close.”
The mourning crowd around him, however, made him afraid at the uncertainty of whether there was life after death and more uncertainty if he would go to heaven or hell. In the dream he had two minutes to make his appeal to the court or accept his fate, and he was having a hard time making the decision. He could have a few more years of life, or he could have an eternity. But what kind of eternity would that be?
He awoke before he could make the decision, however, and at first felt happy that it was only a dream.
“Then I immediately fell into a very deep sadness and cried loud and very hard, begging God’s forgiveness for all that I’ve done wrong, and feeling happy that I wasn’t really dying in sin.”
And Weaver’s take on whether Ruppert was faking his psychosis: “This is too well organized.”
The conspiracy was the reason Ruppert moved from job to job, Weaver said.
“He felt he was giving them the slip by leaving,” he said, “Everything would be okay for a while and then he would see indication that people at work were in on it, then the next thing you’d know, he’d take off.”
The sixth and final psychiatrist to testify was Dr. Leigh M. Roberts, a psychiatrist with the University of Wisconsin Medical School and a specialist in forensic psychiatry, who said that the fear of a conspiracy is reflected in the way Ruppert sat impassively during the trial, staring straight ahead and very rarely appearing to be listening as witnesses testify.
Roberts, who spent four hours testifying (Holcomb would say he believed Roberts testimony was in lieu of the defendant testifying himself), said he believed that if Ruppert had not had a gun in his hand Easter afternoon, the mass shootings would not have occurred. He said if Ruppert had had to go upstairs to get the gun after his brother’s comments about the car, the shootings would not have occurred.
“He is in great fear of his life,” Roberts said. “It’s not that he doesn’t have feelings. He’s expressive and articulate outside the courtroom, but because of his intense fear of the proceedings here, he feels he must maintain his passiveness.”
Roberts said that even though Ruppert felt his mother was at the center of the conspiracy, he remained living in her house because “Hamilton was as safe to him as anywhere else” because the conspiracy had spread throughout the country, and agreed with earlier testimony that if Ruppert didn’t have the guns on him when Pinky made “that unfortunate remark,” the tragedy would not have happened.
On the other hand, he said, if there had been 10 more people in the house, they also would have been shot to death.
Bressler asked him if the psychotic rage had affected Ruppert’s shooting ability.
“If anything, it would have heightened his response,” he replied. “He was probably able to fire more rapidly than ever in that condition.”
In his cross-examination, Holcomb dropped a question that hinted at part of his rebuttal strategy.
Roberts had testified that Ruppert wasn’t worried about money despite being unemployed and owing his mother $3,000 and his brother $1,000, that he felt he was doing OK on the $77 a week he got for unemployment benefits. He said Ruppert had been “reasonably successful” on the stock market and had enough in savings to tide him through brief periods of unemployment.
“Doctor, did James U. Ruppert tell you he had invested over $28,000 between the years 1971 and 1975 with Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith alone and lost it all?” Holcomb asked by way of parting.
“No,” was the only reply.
The defense then rested without calling the defendant to the stand, so Holcomb started to get his rebuttal witnesses lined up, but when he got back to his office, he found a message from Mrs. Skalkos saying that she didn’t want to testify, that she couldn’t swear that it was the Ruppert brothers in her restaurant.
Wednesday morning, Holcomb started the session with Guido Terzo, who had known Ruppert for about seven years as they both frequented the Hayden-Stone brokerage office, described Ruppert as “very gentle, very friendly, very intelligent” and a man who was “well-read” and “even-tempered.”
“He is of more sound mind than I am,” he said.
William Furnier, also a brokerage acquaintance and a retired clerk from the Hamilton Municipal Court, said, “I would say he is a regular type citizen, well groomed at all times, always immaculately dressed.
William Lakemen, who met Ruppert three years earlier at the same brokerage, said, “I thought he was normal. Everybody liked him and thought he was a nice fellow.” He said that Ruppert liked to sell short, which he thought was a risky method of playing the market.
Lester Tuttle, Ruppert’s stock broker, said that Ruppert seemed “very normal, average individual… he wasn’t a flighty person at all.”
Jill Clontz, Hayden-Stone operations manager, said Ruppert was “always polite, always friendly” and sane.
Dean Cavett knew Ruppert both from the brokerage and from Frisch’s Big Boy, said he thought Ruppert was sane.
Their testimony was greeted with frequent objections by the defense, and during the cross-examinations, there was just one question: “Were you trained as a psychiatrist.”
Each answer was a variation on “No.” Lakeman drew a laugh from the spectators when he said, “No, no. I’m just a regular guy.”
Holcomb called Detective Paul Line, who grew up with the Ruppert brothers, to the stand to ask about “the pigeon coop,” the boys’ relationship and their relationship with their mother.
“Leonard was the older brother who watched after Jim,” Line said. “If we teased him in pretty strong words, Leonard would tell us to back off.”
He described Billie as “overprotective” toward James.
Holcomb called a principal from Badin High School--the parochial school that superseded Hamilton Catholic High--to introduce Ruppert’s school records, but the judges sustained the defense’s objection. Holcomb was OK with that. “I interpret that as signifying the court’s in our corner so far and they don’t want error in the record that would require reversal of the case by a Court of Appeals,” he said.
Holcomb’s final witnesses for the day were Edna Skalkos--his “bombshell”--and Martha Carr.
Although Mrs. Skalkos has balked at testifying, Holcomb had a summons drawn up and gave it to a detective to serve that morning, ordering him to bring the elderly woman directly to the court, and she complied, carrying the summons into the courtroom with her.
When she took the stand, she told Holcomb she was sorry she had to come.
“Well, you’re not sorry to see us, are you?” Judge Cramer asked.
“No, I’m glad to see you and the other judges,” she said and held up the summons. “It’s just that I didn’t want to testify, but I was told if I didn’t I would go to jail.”
Mrs. Skalkos said she didn’t know who the Ruppert brothers were when they were arguing in her coffee shop that Saturday before Easter, but recognized them when their pictures in the paper the following Monday, but she couldn’t swear to it.
She said the smaller one, James, ordered doughnuts and coffee, but the bigger one walked up to the counter and said cancel that order and got two large orders of sausage and eggs.
She testified that the larger of the two, meaning Leonard, was gesturing with his hands like in a “so what” attitude or an “I don’t have any more money” attitude, and the smaller one just sat staring at the table.
On cross-examination Holbrock jumped up and in his wild-eyed, loud-mouthed voice, said, “Didn’t the prosecutor come down there and harass you and tell you what to say and try to put words in your mouth?”
“No, he didn’t,” she replied.
Holcomb was nervous--“scared to death” he told his Dictaphone--about Carr’s testimony. After she had given him the notes that made Ruppert seem like a nice, normal, shy fellow, she called him on the phone after reading some of the testimony from Grinspoon and others in the newspaper.
“It’s all true,” she said. “Billie Ruppert used to prance around the house naked and say the body was nothing to be ashamed of.”
But he needed her testimony, so he was careful in his questioning, and Carr testified that she had known the family for many years, had lived upstairs from them at one point. She said James was “quiet and shy,” but that he and his brother had always gotten along well. The defense didn’t ask about Mrs. Ruppert’s nudity, much to Holcomb’s relief.
Court was adjourned at 11 a.m. Wednesday until Monday, June 30, taking a four-day weekend so the judges could attend a state-wide judge’s convention in Cincinnati and giving Holcomb a chance to prepare the final stage of his rebuttal. Little did he realize that he would soon have another bombshell to drop on the case, a woman who could blow Ruppert’s entire cover as an impotent, beaten-down victim of his mother’s sexual abuse. It was right out of Perry Mason: The surprise witness.
Holcomb’s immediate concern was to make sure he could prove Ruppert lost $28,000 on the stock market now that he said it in court, so he called Detectives Sergeant Dick Carpenter, who had been in charge of the searches on the house. Ebbing and Assistant Prosecutor Mike Gmoser went back to the scene and delivered another paper bag of books and papers, which included an application for food stamps that Charity Ruppert had filled out.
“This is going to lend a lot more weight to my argument,” Holcomb said. “Here’s an old woman on food stamps with no money and it’s the most logical thing in the world that she tells her 40 year old son if you have enough money to go out and drink every night you have enough money to help me pay the rent. I think that will make a devastating argument.”
Among the scraps of paper in the bag was a note in Charity Ruppert’s handwriting, apparently a phone message for James: “Marty Shepard, 9:45 p.m. - Tear up that traffic ticket he has fixed it. He just saved $17.00. I thanked him. Wednesday p.m. May 27th.”
“Wouldn’t it be something,” Holcomb mused, “to find out that James U. Ruppert went to the conspirators, the police, and had a traffic ticket fixed?”
Even better, however, was a card from Hamilton Police Department Detective Don Noes, and on the back, also in Charity’s handwriting, was “June 25, 1974, about 2:45 p.m. “
Holcomb got Noes on the phone right away. Noes didn’t remember being there off-hand, so checked his daily records and found that he indeed did go to 635 Minor Avenue to investigate a vandalism complaint filed by James Ruppert. He then dug up the original complaint, made at 11:30 p.m. on June 22, 1974 to Patrolman S. Collins: “Mr. Ruppert reports that sometime between 4:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., 6/22/74, someone used and unknown object to dent in the passenger side hood of his blue 68' VW sedan, Ohio license 1685 MA while it was parked in front of the 19th Hole, Hamilton Plaza. Mickey Cornett is the barmaid at the 19th Hole. Ed Carlson is her boyfriend. Mr. Ruppert believes that Mickey put her boyfriend up to damaging Mr. Ruppert’s car. Two days ago Mr. Ruppert took sides in an argument between Mickey and another patron at the 19th Hole.”
That report was “dynamite,” Holcomb said, but also a “two-edged sword.”
“The side that hurts us is that it shows the guy, arguably, as paranoid,” he said. “He thinks somebody is trying to hurt his car and he thinks that Mickey Cornett put her boyfriend up to doing it.”
On the plus side, however, (1) the damage is real, not just a part of Ruppert’s imagination, and (2) when he found the damage, he didn’t think his brother did it, and (3) he called the police, who were part of this so-called conspiracy.
“And fourthly, he didn’t tell his damn psychiatrist about this,” Holcomb said. “So I think all in all it’s much more in our favor than against us.”
So he sent Glenn Ebbing after Mickey Cornett to check out the story, and she agreed to meet him in a bar in Millville, a village two miles out of town. Holcomb and Dan Fischer stayed late at the office working on other aspects of the case and waiting for Ebbing to get back. Around 12:30, he finally showed up with a six-pack of Hudepohl, and the three of them each drank two while Ebbing filled them in.
Mickey Cornett denied the incident Ruppert related in his statement. She said she never had any argument with any patron in front of Ruppert. As far as that goes, she said Ruppert never sided with anybody in anything at the bar. One time, one patron drew a gun on another and everybody in bar hit the deck except for Ruppert, who sat there at the end of the bar sipping his Wiedemanns.
After the trouble subsided she said that everybody asked Ruppert why he didn’t run, why he just sat there. “If my time is up, my time is up,” he said. “There’s no need to do anything about it.”
Mickey Cornett told Ebbing that they should talk to some girl named Wanda who was going out with Ruppert at the time of the incident. Holcomb was stunned by this bit of news, so he dug out Cornett’s original witness statement she made on April 2 where she told Don Noes: “I know of no close friends that he had but on two or three occasions which would be a while back a woman would call him at the bar and he would talk to her and I think her name was Wanda but I don’t know the last name and I don’t know what their conversation was.”
A little chagrined that they would have over-looked that, Holcomb told Ebbing to find this Wanda, “and damned quick.”
“This Mickey also said that this Wanda had worked there three or four days,” Ebbing said, “That’s how she met Ruppert. Then she got fired and Ruppert got upset about that.
It was going on 1 a.m. and the bar would still be open, so Ebbing got Tom Farrell, the owner of the 19th Hole, saying, “I need some information on a girl named Wanda who worked for you for three days.”
“There isn’t any Wanda ever worked here for three days,” Farrell said.
“I don’t care about the days, pal, or whatever kind of arrangement you had,” Ebbing said. “I need Wanda bad.”
“Well, I’m sure I don’t know where to find her,” Farrell said, pushing back a little.
“Pal, I want you to understand it good,” Ebbing said. “I need her bad. You call me in five minutes and tell me where I can find her.”
Sure enough, five minutes later Farrell calls back and told Ebbing that Wanda lived in the Ada Lee Trailer Court. They tried to make some phone calls to track her down further, but after calling a wrong number and waking some old-timer out of his bed, they decided to call it a night.
Ebbing called the Holcomb house and had Judy wake up the big guy. “Tell him I’ve found the girl.”
When he got there, Ebbing, Carpenter and Gmoser were waiting for him, and presented Wanda Bishop.
“She is plain,” Holcomb said. “She’s poor. She has false teeth. Her eyebrows are shaved off. She’s 28 years old. She’s thin. She’s obviously a hillbilly, had no education. Instead of saying ‘fight,’ she says ‘fit.’”
The story she told, Holcomb believed, would shoot a hole into Ruppert’s insanity plea and let all the air out of it.
She said her name was Wanda Mae Bishop and she lived at 1118 S. 12th St. in Hamilton for two months. She met Ruppert eight months ago at the 19th Hole Cocktail Lounge where she was tending bar. He came in about 7 p.m. “He’s just a quiet person that’d just sit there and stare at me, talk to me (about) really nothing at first till I got to know him. Then after I got to know him he started talking to me about his family, the things he didn’t have and his job and money and quarrels with his family. Things like that. His Volkswagen. His brother. He said he used to go with his sister-in-law and after he broke up with her that his brother started going with her and they got married. He did always talk that his--about his brother’s Volkswagen, things like that. He said that him and his mother never could get along. They always quarreled on him for a long time about her financial problems, money, jobs. He told her she didn’t want him married nor she didn’t want him at home. He said that before he started staying at his Mom’s he was living in an apartment but he didn’t say where at. I always thought he had a nicely turned face, personality, quiet, nice turned person. After that, he would come in every night, six days a week, usually around 5 p.m. and would sometimes leave around 10 but sometimes would stay until 2:30. He started sitting in a booth with her of months after she met him and would “Roam his hands around on my privates.”
Q: And did you let him do that?
Q: And what would he do when you would stop him?
A: He’d start doing it again. Right over and over and over.
Q: And did he ever ask you out?
A: Yes, he has.
Q: And when did he, when was the first time he asked you out?
A: It’s been, well, I’d say about two months or so before Easter Sunday.
Q: And what did you say when he asked you out?
A: I said no.
Q: And did he ever tell you where he wanted to take you?
A: To a motel.
Q: Did he tell you for what purpose?
Q: What did he say exactly?
A: He just said it, how he said it was go to a motel. I want to have sex.
Q: And what did you say?
Q: And then what did he do then?
A: He got well a little sad about it. He didn’t act like, he didn’t get angry. He just acted like he was upset about it ‘cause I wouldn’t go.
The next time he was in the bar, he didn’t speak to her. But as time went on, he apparently got over it, and the Friday night before Easter, she got him to give her a ride to pick up her car at her mother’s house.
Q: Was your mother home that night?
A: Yeah. But she was in bed. So I got in my car and he followed me out to the trailer park that night and that’s the only time we was ever out together.
Q: Did he go into your trailer?
Q: What time was that?
A: That was after the bar closed.
Q: And what did you do when you got to the trailer?
A: Sit and watched TV.
Q: What night was that on?
A: That was on a Friday night.
Q: What was on television?
A: I can’t remember.
Q: And was it a movie or --
A: Some kind of a movie but I can’t remember what it was though.
Q: How long did he stay?
A: About an hour or two.
Q: Did you talk at that time?
A: No mostly just sit and watched TV.
Q: And did he kiss you at that time?
Q: And what happened?
A: Well I kept pushing his hands off I think he got tired of trying and left.
Q: Did you like Jim?
A: Yes I did.
Q: And did he like you?
A: He says he did.
Q: And why didn’t you have sex with him?
A: Because I didn’t believe in it.
Q: You didn’t believe in sex or you didn’t --
A: Not with him because I was married and I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t married.
Q: OK. You wouldn’t have sex with Jim unless you were married to Jim?
A: That’s right.
But on Saturday night, she and Ruppert went back to their booth in the bar to talk privately.
BISHOP: He tried to have sex with me.
Q: He tried to have sex with you?
Q: Actually tried to?
A: Yeah, right there in the bar.
Q: And what did you do then?
A: I told him no.
Q: What did he do?
A: Just tried to you know, pull my bra up you know and run his hands up and I kept pushing his hands back and he kept putting them back. Tried to run his hands all down my legs, between my legs and I kept pushing his hands away and told him to quit and he said let’s go to a motel and I said no and he said for sex and everything else like that.
Q: Well what was everything else like that? If you can remember.
A: Well, he just , well he was wanting to have sex so bad I could tell the way he was holding his hands so bad, he kept wanting me to go, wanting me to go. I kept saying I don’t want to go. Right over, he kept trying to get me to leave with him. Kept kissing me and everything. Wanting me to leave with him. And I just wouldn’t go.
Q: Did you kiss him back?
Q: Was it an emotional kiss or just an ordinary kiss or what kind of a kiss was it?
A: Well his kisses well I don’t know how you describe it, like sex like kisses.
Q: Pardon me?
A: Sex-like kisses, you know.
Q: Sex-like kisses?
Q: And when you turned him down and you pushed him away what did he do then?
A: He kindly got mad.
Q: How did he get mad?
A: Well, he wasn’t angry. He just said, you know the look on his face was real sad. ‘Cause I refused him.
Q: And what happened then?
A: Well he sat there for a while and then he got up and went back to the bar and sit. Well a little bit after that I went back up to the bar and sit with him.
It was about 1 a.m., Bishop said, when Bishop sat down with Ruppert at the bar. She said he started a conversation, talking about “his job, his family, his mom, things like that.” He said he didn’t have any money that his mom had more than he ever had, and that she didn’t want him living there and they “quarreled and fit” all the time.
“He had a problem at 635 Minor and he was going to take care of it,” Bishop said. “He had to.”
Q: Did he say when he was going to take care of it?
A: That night.
Q: And what did you take that to mean?
A: That he was just going to get in a fight.
Q: With who?
A: With his mother.
Q: And what happened then?
A: Well, he sat there for a while and drank and then he said he had to go… I asked him, “Where are you going?” He said, “I’m going down on Minor.” Then he came back in about a half an hour or so back later and he just have been into it with his mom or something, and he just said him and his mom was quarreling… He said that his mom told him that if he couldn’t find a job that he’d have to leave… He said he told her that he was laid off and he didn’t have no means of support, you know, no financial money or nothing like that to go buy him a place to stay.
Q: And what did, did he say anything else about that?
Q: Did he say anything about his brother?
A: No just about his Volkswagen that’s all.
Q: Did he say anything about his brother’s Volkswagen?
A: Yeah. He just said his brother had a beautiful Volkswagen.
Q: Did he say his brother had a van or a VW?
A: Volkswagen. He didn’t say whether it was a van in no sense of the words, in a sense of a words he did.
Q: You say in a way he said it was a van?
A: Yeah. Well one time he told me it was a regular Volkswagen. The next time he told me it was a van.
Q: What time did he leave?
A: He left at 2:30.
Q: And what time does the bar close?
Q: Did he get up first to go or did you?
Q: Did you kiss each other a couple of times in the parking lot?
A: Yes we did.
Q: OK. I want to ask you just one other question. At that time, so I understand this correctly, you were in love with him?
A: Yes, I was.
Holcomb was so sure that this witness would be the nail in Ruppert’s coffin that he decided to hide her out for the weekend, then spring her on the court as his first witness Morning. There were a million ways this could go wrong. Ebbing had been checking the records at the Municipal Court and some of those people might have Holbrock’s ear. Or maybe she’d decide to go to the 19th Hole and let the cat out of the bag. Maybe some of the neighbors might convince her she didn’t want to get involved in this and hide her out in Kentucky somewhere until it all blows over.
“So we decided just to put the snatch on her,” Holcomb said, and made arrangements through a Hueston Woods State Park ranger, a fishing buddy of one of Holcomb’s investigators, to hide her out in a cabin there, on the other side of Oxford, 15 miles from town in the middle of nowhere. They enlisted the wife of a deputy sheriff who was also an Oxford police dispatcher, to babysit. Holcomb gave the babysitter some money to take the poor woman shopping.
“This poor girl didn’t even have any decent clothes,” Holcomb said.
After they got situated in the cabin, the officers said they would go out and get a couple of sacks full of groceries. They asked Bishop what kind of steak she wanted, and she told them she didn’t know. She’d never had a steak before.
“What we plan to do is march her right into that courtroom at nine o’clock Monday morning and hit them right between the eyes with her,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb and his team spent the rest of the long weekend wrapping up loose ends and going over testimony with witnesses. On Friday, Gmoser went to Merrill-Lynch in Cincinnati to talk over Ruppert’s accounts with some executive down there while Holcomb and Fischer went to see Dr. Charles Feuss, director of the Cincinnati Mental Health Institute at Emerson North Hospital.
Holcomb and Fischer both held Dr. Feuss in high esteem.
“Feuss says that he agrees with Grinspoon’s articles that psychiatrists disagree so much and he says that the reason they disagree so much is because psychiatry is an art which is attempting to use scientific methods and it just doesn’t work,” Holcomb said.
Feuss also told them that Ruppert’s dream about being executed meant “absolutely nothing.”
“The only time a dream has any significance is if it’s a recurring dream,” he said. “Yesterday I went to see that movie called ‘Jaws’ and last night I laid in bed and dreamt all night that sharks were biting me in the ass.”
They squared away Feuss’ testimony that Ruppert is in a paranoid state and borderline psychotic, that he knew what he was doing and knew the difference between right and wrong.”
Since Holcomb’s cross-examinations of the defense psychiatrists, he thought he better get squared away with Feuss and asked how much he was charging.
“John, I’m charging you exactly the same amount of money that the judges in your county pay court-appointed psychiatrists,” he replied.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Holcomb exclaimed.
Gmoser had slightly less good news. They had estimated--and brought up the number in court--that Ruppert had lost $28,000 on the stock market, but Merrill-Lynch’s accountants’ figures showed it closer to $22,800. “Close enough,” Holcomb said. “It’s still devastating.”
Holcomb met Dr. Dan Thomas, his psychiatrist from Dayton, Saturday afternoon and with Ebbing went over testimony with Mickey Cornett late Saturday night. Then he and Gmoser went to Hueston Woods Lodge to go over testimony with Wanda Bishop.
“I can’t imagine how they overlooked her,” he dictated on Monday morning. “It’s like handling a stick of dynamite that can blow somebody else up but if you are not careful it will blow you up too.
“She just scares the hell out of me. I’m going to have to handle her with kid gloves. Not that she’s not honest. I believe she is honest. I know she’s honest. But one thing’s for sure: She is honest to God illiterate and dumb.
“She doesn’t know what conversation is but she knows what talk is. She calls Ruppert ‘Rufford.’ I keep saying ‘Ruppert’ and she says ‘Rufford. That’s how I knowed him.’ If she comes across like this in court she is liable to kill us.”
So for two hours he kept drumming the magic phrase into her head: “His mother said if he had enough money to lay out and drink seven days a week he had enough money to help pay the rent or else he could get out of the house.”
But come Monday morning, he was “actually trembling and shaking… so afraid of what she might say or what she might not say.”
As soon as the three judges entered the courtroom and took their seats at the bench, Holcomb walked over to the door and gave Dick Carpenter the signal. Carpenter then called on his radio to Glenn Ebbing, who was sitting with Wanda Bishop in a police car across the street in the jail parking lot. “A great hush of anticipation” filled the courtroom, Holcomb said, for the three or four minutes it took before Bishop came marching through the door, so dolled up that it took Holcomb aback. Wearing the clothes that the deputy’s wife bought for her and a brand-new hairdo “she didn’t even look like the same person,” he said
The surprise witness made exactly the splash Holcomb anticipated. She “went over like a million dollars,” he said with relief later that night, describing the scene while it was still fresh in his mind. The afternoon Journal-News’ ran a banner headline “Ruppert’s girlfriend testifies” with a photo of Wanda Bishop as high up on the page as it could go, her new coif even with the A1 mast touting “The Exciting Newspaper serving the Golden Triangle of Southwestern Ohio”. The afternoon Dayton Daily News story headline, not banner but still above the fold, announced “Ruppert Trial Rocked By Testimony of Woman.”
The lede paragraph in both papers quoted Wanda Bishop saying that the night before Easter today Ruppert “that he had a problem he had to take care of right then and there.” Both papers hit the points that Holcomb wanted to make, how Ruppert left the bar for a while to get in a fight with his mother and how she told him that if he had enough money to go out and drink seven nights a week that he could pay rent or move out. And they both reported that she said she was in love with James Urban Ruppert, the man whose insanity defense hinged on the fact that he was impotent with women. The Dayton paper even described her new ensemble, purchased at Grant’s Department Store in Oxford during her makeover weekend in sequester.
Holcomb said that during her testimony the defense frantically went through their index card file of background witnesses and couldn’t find her name anywhere. Joe Bressler’s first question during cross-examination was to ask Wanda if she had made a statement to the police. She said she had, then Holcomb stood up to say that the statement was made to him, not the Hamilton Police Department. He explained to the court that the statement was the product of his work during the four-day recess and was not available for prior discovery. Bressler asked for a recess to review the statement, and the judges and all of the counsel went into Cramer’s office to play the tape from Holcomb’s Dictaphone.
“Holbrock started raising hell with Mike Gmoser because several times during the tape it clicked off and on,” Holcomb said. “Mike made a professional statement that he didn’t add anything and he didn’t delete anything from the tape. Holbrock lit into him and said that he didn’t think that was good practice and that we should have followed his practice of just letting the tape run regardless of what was said.
“I’d heard enough of it and right in front of all three judges I said, ‘Hugh I don’t give a good goddamn what you think – I could care less.’ We then walked out of Cramer’s office and I heard Judge Marrs go “hmmm,” clearing his throat. I know he feels the same way about the guy. The guy’s half dingy himself.”
Bressler’s cross-examination was brief. She said she went with Ruppert “off and on” before she permanently separated from her husband three or four months ago. She said she worked for the bar for four days, then quit, but started coming in as a regular about five times a week after that. She said Ruppert did not tell her what kind of work he did but that his job took him from state to state. She said Ruppert had bought her a couple of drinks during the time she knew him, but he often sat alone at the bar, but she would not describe him as a “loner.” When Bressler asked her why she didn’t go to the police after she heard about the murders, and she said she did but they didn’t want to talk to her, then offered that she also called Holbrock’s office to tell them what a nice man Ruppert was.
Holcomb called Mary Ellen “Mickey” Cornett to the stand, partly to corroborate Wanda Bishop’s testimony, but to also give further insight into Ruppert’s “normal” behavior.
Cornett said that Ruppert had been coming into the bar four times a week for the last two years, usually arriving around 3:30 or 4 p.m., usually alone. She said that because she works the early shift and usually left by 7:30, she only saw Wanda Bishop once or twice a week. When Ruppert first started coming into the bar, Cornett didn’t like him much, thought he tried to act superior, but after she got to know him better found him more likeable. She said he was especially friendly with the women and they would put their arms around each other when they talked.
One day, he said, “Mickey, let me be your psychiatrist and analyze your problems.”
“I didn’t know I had any problems,” she told him.
Holcomb called witnesses to get the incident with the Volkswagen getting dented outside the 19th Hole, and called up Det. Dick Carpenter to show some of the documents he found in Ruppert’s house and car, tax returns and the like. When Holcomb tried to get the book “The Naked Ape” entered into evidence, Holbrock dramatically objected. Judge Cramer commented that the judges might have to read the whole book to see its significance to the case.
“Do you mean to tell me that if this book was found in the house, this man read it?” Holbrook said, first pointing at Ruppert, then making a dramatic gesture to point across the room. “Your honors if that is the law of this country, I’ll jump out that window.”
At that, both Judge Marrs and Prosecutor Holcomb pointed toward the window, gesturing that he should go ahead. Cramer said that someone had done that years ago. He allowed all of Carpenter’s detritus, except for the book.
Before Monday’s session was through, Holcomb got in the first of his psychiatric experts, Dr. Robert J. McDevitt, who examined Ruppert on behalf of the court.
Like the other psychiatrists, McDevitt said he would diagnose Ruppert as paranoid and schizophrenic, but took issue with the idea of “automatic rage,” noting that Ruppert was smart enough to have planned the killings with the insanity defense in mind.
“Based on the material he gave me,” he concluded, “he certainly did know right from wrong.” Ruppert knew why he shot his brother and mother, but “he was not able to explain why he shot the others. I have a hard time accounting for the killing of the other nine.”
On Tuesday, Dr. Dan Thomas told the court he did not believe the Easter shootings occurred as a “matter of reflex” as other doctors had testified. He said the firing, reloading and firing did not take place in a “robot-like” manner. Thomas also refuted testimony that Ruppert changed jobs often to get away from his conspirators. Ruppert would have felt the same way about the restaurant, the bar and the library.
Thomas testified that his interview with Ruppert was frequently interrupted by the lawyers and other psychiatrists in the room, and at one point a lawyer took Ruppert aside to talk to him in private. Although Holbrock didn’t object, he threw his eyeglasses down on the defense table and said in an audible whisper, “He’s a liar.”
Bressler’s cross-examination of Thomas got heated as the lawyer and the psychiatrist became engaged in a debate over the definition of terms like “psychosis,” “paranoia,” “paranoid state” and “delusion,” with Thomas insisting that paranoia isn’t a psychosis. Bressler read from books with titles like “Modern Clinical Psychology” to challenge the doctor’s opinions, but he wouldn’t shake. Bressler accused Thomas of “a bald-faced lie” when he spoke about the interruptions in his interview with Ruppert.
Bressler hammered the witness so hard that Holcomb finally strongly objected to his tactics and asked that the defense council be admonished by the court. Cramer told Bressler he was being “impertinent,” and Bressler apologized.
Thomas and psychologist Dr. Victor Thaler both said they diagnosed Ruppert as “paranoid personality,” but likely not a true psychotic because he too freely related his fear of the conspiracy against him.
“That kind of thing is usually not easily gotten out of a true paranoid,” Thaler said. “True paranoids are very rare and I have found only one in my career.”
After a noon recess, Holcomb called his “big gun” to the stand, Dr. Charles D. Feuss Jr., a Xavier University faculty member and a frequent expert witness in sanity trials, most of the time being employed by the defense.
He testified this time, however, that while Ruppert suffered from a paranoid state, which he described as “a gray area” of psychosis. He said if he had treated Ruppert on the day before the shootings, he would have treated him as an out-patient. Wanting to put the children out of their pain, he said, was an indication that Ruppert was aware of what was happening.
During cross-examination by Bressler, it came out that Bressler had taped recorded Dr. Feuss without his knowledge or consent following his examination of Ruppert.
“I did not know I was being taped,” he protested. “I feel this is very unethical. I was talking to two ethical gentlemen, I thought. I was not under oath. I don’t know what I would have said if I had known I was being taped.”
Visibly shaken and angered by the revelation, Feuss apologized to the court for his outburst.
For Tuesday’s final hour of court, Holcomb called a series of witnesses who knew Ruppert at the bar, on the job, or from Frisch’s, all testifying that he was friendly, intelligent, quiet guy. Laura Swisshelm, a local realtor and a regular at Frisch’s, said the last time she saw Ruppert was on Good Friday, two days before the shootings. She said that Ruppert told her he had met a woman he wanted to marry, but he didn’t say where he met her or what her name was. Indeed, “I don’t think he even knew her, the way he was talking,” she said under cross-examination.
There were still 15 people on the prosecution’s witness list when court was adjourned Tuesday afternoon, so it came as a big surprise to everyone when Holcomb rested his case shortly before 10 a.m.
Holcomb gave two reasons for ending it early.
“We’re at the high point in our trial right now and the only thing it can do is get worse,” he said. “We end on a high note. Secondly, most important of all we are going to force the defense to go ahead with their sur-rebuttal right away because these judges are tired of hearing this damn thing now and they are not going to want to give them all day Wednesday and then start their sur-rebuttal on Thursday because I know that they will be anxious to get this thing over with by the Fourth of July weekend.
“We know that they have to destroy Wanda Bishop and every hour to us is precious, because they are going to run up and down the alleys and in the joints and find some people to discredit her,” he said.
So on Wednesday, he called his four best witnesses, including a woman with photos from a party that was held at the 19th Hole in which James Ruppert was clearly in the background kissing a woman, destroying the image of “the lonely little misfit that sits in the corner,” Holcomb said. “He’s right in there swinging with the rest of them and looks like he does pretty good for himself.”
So he was done by 9:30, after calling 38 rebuttal witnesses.
The defense attorneys asked for a continuance as they had not expected to start calling witnesses until the afternoon, but the court, as Holcomb suspected they would, ordered them to press ahead, and the defense called nine witnesses before resting its case at 11:50, just in time for lunch.
Just as Holcomb predicted, most of the witnesses were out to get Wanda Bishop, starting with Thomas Farrell, owner of the 19th Hole, said she was not in the bar that Saturday before Easter. He said he’d only seen her in the bar once or twice since he’d fired her several months earlier. He said he never saw Ruppert with a woman, that he always came in alone and he always left alone.
Donna Gabbard, the 19th Hole bartender who replaced Wanda Bishop when she quit, said she only saw Bishop in the bar one time and never with Ruppert. She said she never got any phone calls for Ruppert at the bar, contrary to Bishop’s testimony that she called there every night. Gabbard’s mother happened to live next door to Wanda on S. 12th Street and had done some babysitting for her. Bishop “doesn’t have a reputation for truthfulness,” she said, but she did have a reputation for being “a trouble causer.”
Another 19th Hole regular Jane Halcomb testified that she and her husband were in the bar when it closed the night before Easter and did not see Bishop there, but they did see Ruppert drive off alone.
Elmer Bishop, 20, her much-younger estranged husband who said he’d just been served divorce papers the previous Friday. He said that he was with his wife and children in their trailer home at the Ada Lee Trailer Park the night before Easter, that they watched television until 2 a.m. and then went to bed. He also said that he overheard Wanda calling the 19th Hole shortly after she heard about the murders to see if Ruppert had still been coming in there. He told the court that Wanda had five children by her three previous husbands. He said he met Wanda three years earlier when he worked on her car. She couldn’t pay him with money, so they “took it out in trade.” When asked for clarification on cross-examination, he said, “She went to bed with me.” She was married to someone else at the time. Elmer said knew Wanda had cheated on him, too, but Ruppert was not one of her lovers.
“I couldn’t shake him on cross-examination,” Holcomb said. “He stuck right to the same thing, but the guy has to be nuts. He has to be a damn liar because we have other witnesses who have seen Wanda and Ruppert together.”
Elmer’s mother Eliza Bishop confirmed his story, saying they were all at home that evening because their car needed repairs. She also told the court that Wanda couldn’t be believed.
The defense also called Shirley Klem of Mt. Healthy, who said her family was “the best of friends” with the Leonard Ruppert family. Klems testified that the last time she saw Alma, about a week before her death, she was concerned about the hard feelings her husband had for his brother.
“She said Pinky did not like his brother,” Klem said. “She could not understand why he disliked his brother so much.
On cross examination, Holcomb asked Klem if the reason Leonard was mad at his brother is because his brother was 40 years old, not working, sponging off his poor mother on a fixed income, getting ready to go on food stamps, and out carousing around all the time.
“Isn’t that why Pinky was mad at him?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s right,” she answered.
Even if Wanda Bishop’s testimony had backfired, Klem just verified the gist of her message anyway, Holcomb thought, and so he felt the trial ended on a positive note for the prosecution. Although he was dog tired, he grabbed a couple of Cokes and a sandwich, sent everyone out of the office and started working on his closing argument at 3 p.m., and without another break, didn’t leave the building until 3 a.m.
“I guess it was kind of detailed but basically I went over and over and over it, wanted to get all the things down that I wanted to say but if I said everything that needed to be said I would have to argue all day,” he said. “There is no way I could get it into the two hour limit that the judges have set.”