Joshua Ruoff’s trial for the murder of Timothy Sweeting ended in a verdict of guilty of first degree murder last Friday, despite his lawyer, Jan Cole-Wilson, telling the jury they couldn’t do it, that they would have to let her client off on the lesser included charges of second degree murder, or voluntary manslaughter.
On Monday an eyewitness to the brutal killing, Tyler Marchok, described it all to the jury, how he had got up around midnight to make a snack and Ruoff had come into the kitchen with a baseball bat on his shoulder, and officiously opened the toaster oven, turned over Marchok’s English muffin, told him it would cook better that way, and went back out to the living room where he attacked the sleeping Sweeting with the bat.
Earlier that day, Marchok had gone into Covelo where he picked up a 12-pack of beer for Ruoff. Along with the re-supply beer he’d drunk earlier, Ruoff said he’d gone into a blackout state where he didn’t know what he was doing, nor yet had any memory of what he was alleged to have done.
“Didn’t you think that was odd?” Ms. Cole-Wilson asked on cross-examination. “That my client came in and handled your food?”
“We often cooked together, all of us pitching in to get dinner,” Marchok answered. Marchok was a young man of slight build; his voice was thin and high, too timid to say it was more intimidating than odd; but it's not cool to say that in Dude Land. “Yes, it was a little odd,” Marchok conceded.
“Wasn’t it more than ‘a little’ odd’?” Cole-Wilson insisted. This was Ruoff’s defense, that he had drunk himself into a complete blackout state, that he wasn’t himself and remembered nothing of the killing, and therefore the murder he’d committed wasn't first degree murder.
Mr. Marchok, for his part, seemed reluctant to admit that he was scared shitless of Ruoff, who was of bigger build than the other guys on the grow, and that he, Ruoff, was asserting his dominance in an operation where a lot of money was in the offing and young men of initiative would be getting a bigger hunk of the action than those weaker fellows lower down the pecking order.
It is not at all uncommon to find a pretense of share-and-share-alike egalitarianism at a marijuana grow. In fact, it is the general rule, so deeply ingrained in many cases that the top dogs, the bully boys even believe it themselves – and Ruoff was the bully boy, the boss while the grower, John Overend, was away in Tahoe, like he was the day Ruoff blacked out.
Yes, Josh Ruoff was bigger that the other guys, he’d been there the longest; and even his dog was the biggest, the baddest pit-bull on the site – so bad it had to be muzzled to keep from tearing up the other dogs. Yes, Josh Ruoff was moving up in the hierarchy, making plans to move Timmy Sweeting out, set him up in an adjacent field with his bitch dog – a dog Ruoff didn’t want around because it was in heat. Ruoff didn’t want Sweeting around either, thought he was lazy, didn’t like his housekeeping habits, and other things about him. So Josh Ruoff wanted to move Sweeting out to a nearby field, start another 25-plant grow, and take in more profits.
“It was definitely doable,” Ruoff said of his expansion plan on the stand. “A win-win situation.”
But it was John Overend’s decision, and Overend didn’t seem to be in any rush to implement Ruoff’s plans.
So the pretense was kept up, the idea that everyone got along just fine. All the witnesses were quick to say so. Especially Ruoff. He made sure to say how well he got on with the others, even with Timmy Sweeting. Ruoff’s problem was not with Sweeting as Sweeting. It was that he, Ruoff, was bipolar, he’d been abused as a child and was an alcoholic as a result, and when he drank he went into blackouts wherein he wasn’t aware of his actions; so it wasn’t really his fault. If anyone was to blame, maybe it was Josh Ruoff’s father, who he painted as a ruthless disciplinarian.
Joshua Ruoff’s father did not come to court, but his mother and younger brother and little sister were there. One had the impression that Mother had run Dad-The-Disciplinarian off, and we learned that Josh Ruoff had left his New Hampshire home for California to establish himself out West and eventually bring his little brother – who was on parole – and bring little bro out West with him.
Ruoff told the jurors during his two days on the witness stand that he’d gone to this Covelo place where all his old high school buddies were growing pot and partying, but he’d gone as a place to sober-up and turn his life around.
If this sounds absurd, it is at least consistent with the other absurdities Ruoff laid on the jurors. Things like blacking out on LSD – a ridiculous thing to say, since there were people on the jury old enough to have had some first-hand experience with the drug, the effects of which could include almost anything but loss of awareness. The same could be said for Ruoff’s assertion on the stand that cocaine was routinely in use at the Covelo grow-site, and that he’d “ingested” some that night. For those who haven’t tried it, cocaine wakes you up with such alacrity that it will readily negate a 12-pack of beer, and make you feel like the expense and effort in drinking it was completely wasted.
Experts were brought in to assert that blackouts are a real phenomenon, and, secondly, that Mr. Ruoff may well have suffered one at the time of the murder. Neither of the experts, both of whom were medical doctors or psychiatrists, it goes without saying, had ever dropped acid, snorted cocaine, nor drank themselves into a blackout oblivion. Even in college, these two probably dumped their drinks and drugs into the houseplants.
But as is often the case, the two experts cancelled each other out, and it was left to the jury to decide whether Ruoff was telling the truth or trying to get away with murder.
When the lawyers were discussing jury instructions with the judge, the ones that Judge John Behnke finally decided on were numbers 625 and 626 from the legal handbook they call “Cal Crim.” These had to do with voluntary intoxication and murder. It stated that unconsciousness was not the same as a blackout. The prosecution would have to prove that Ruoff intended to kill Sweeting before Ruoff got drunk. The ominous text messages Ruoff sent earlier helped prove Ruoff’s murderous intent, as well as some of his comments to the coworkers.
Then there was the business of having cut Timmy Sweeting's throat. Something Ruoff denied doing. How could he be so sure if he was blacked out and didn't remember anything? And throat cutting is not something done inadvertently. As crime writer Lee Child has his Jack Reacher character say, "...to slit his throat, you don't do it in one elegant swipe. Not like in the movies. No knife is sharp enough for that. There's all sorts of tough gristle in the human throat. You have to saw it back and forth with a lot of strength. Takes a while." We already knew this from another recent local murder, as when Caleb Silver boasted to cell mates about the different knives he tried out in cutting Dennis Boardman's throat.
The morning after Ruoff murdered Sweeting, he called a neighbor, Brock Rogers, asking for a ride into Willits to get a U-Haul so he could hightail it to New Hampshire. Brock liked Timmy Sweeting and asked about him because Overend had called Rogers and said some vague but disturbing things. Like Tyler Marchok, Brock Rogers didn’t want to admit that Ruoff was an intimidating figure at the grow-site – the dog-eat-dog ethos of American free enterprise wasn't supposed contaminate the medical marijuana community, and it always amazes growers when these cases go to trial and the truth comes out that the love drug industry isn’t any more or less cut throat (sic) than any other business.
Prosecutor Richard Welsh had to ask Rogers several times before he would admit that he was scared of Ruoff and his dog. Ruoff loaded his stuff into Roger’s truck while Rogers pulled tarps off the greenhouses, and on the way to Willits, Rogers again asked about Timmy Sweeting. This time – with Rogers captive in the truck cab next to Ruoff, and the un-muzzled pit-bull sitting in the back seat, Ruoff answered, “Timmy won’t be coming back, he’s in a better place.”
After this revelation, Rogers no longer had any trouble admitting his terror of Ruoff. When they arrived at the U-Haul place, Rogers shoved all Ruoff’s things out in the parking lot and sped away while Ruoff was inside, trying to rent a U-Haul. But Ruoff still owed over $900 from the trip out West, and so he first called Mom, who didn’t have the money, then Dad, who paid the bill. (Maybe this was why Dad didn’t come to the trial – he couldn’t afford to?)
Ruoff said on the stand that he was never aggressive, intolerant, intimidating or domineering towards the others – nor was his dog! And now that he’s been in jail for two years, clean and sober, he has converted to Buddhism and wouldn’t hurt a fly. He wrote the AVA a letter professing his serenity and complaining that the jail has not become enlightened enough to provide him with a suitably vegetarian menu.
Also while Ruoff was on the stand, he took the opportunity to call all the others who testified liars, indicted them for drug use, and even went out of his way to hurt his little sister's feelings gratuitously, as far as could be seen, so badly she ran crying uncontrollably from the courtroom: He looked straight at her and said, “I don’t care anything about anyone but my dog!” (Apparently, Mom and Sis were unable to care for the goddamn dog – funny how animals intuit and replicate the personality of their owners – and Joshua was disgusted with them for taking the beast to the dog pound.)
But Mr. Ruoff has at long last found the sobriety and serenity he came out West for, hasn’t he?