By Linell Smith
August 30, 2005
Other nights, the 58-year-old restaurateur is approached more directly, as with the man who recently brought his son in to meet LaRuffa: Did it hurt? Did you bleed a lot?
Lately, he often hears: Are you going to testify?
"It's almost humorous," LaRuffa says. "There's never a day that somebody doesn't bring it up. But people mean well; they don't ask these questions to be mean."
The proprietor of Margellina Restaurant in Clinton is believed to be the first Maryland victim of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo, the snipers accused of killing 10 people and wounding six in a killing spree that chilled the Baltimore-Washington region in the fall of 2002.
The next year, Muhammad and Malvo were convicted and sentenced to death and life in prison, respectively. LaRuffa testified in the trials, both held in Virginia.
Last week, difficult memories of that courtroom testimony were revived when Muhammad was transferred to a prison in Montgomery County to await a second trial for the deaths in Maryland. LaRuffa took a break from his daily restaurant duties to talk about his ordeal.
A compact man with an expressive face and strong handshake, he says he's prepared to serve again as a witness if called.
"I think my justice has been done already," he says. "But I'll testify if it helps the victims and their families in Maryland. I'll testify 10 more times if it helps them."
Sept. 5 marks the third anniversary of the Thursday night when Paul LaRuffa closed up his Italian restaurant as usual, got into his car and was shot five times by a robber who didn't even try asking for his money.
Ten days later, when LaRuffa came home from the hospital, police were still wondering about the strangeness of the crime. After shooting LaRuffa, the gunman had taken his laptop computer and briefcase as well as the day's restaurant receipts. Most robbers would prefer to use a gun as a last resort. Was there someone who wanted him dead?
LaRuffa couldn't think of anyone. He could only chalk it up to violence for the sake of violence in an increasingly crazy world.
As he was recuperating, the businessman was more anxious than he'd ever been. He might be exhausted, but as soon as he lay down to sleep, he'd start up, wide awake. Afraid to be alone by himself during the day, he preferred to hang around the restaurant.
"I couldn't sit still at home," he says. "I would hear noises. I would look out the window, walk around. I couldn't watch TV. I was really, really hyper. I was very scared of the dark. When there wasn't a moon and I had to walk 20 feet from my car to the front door, it was really scary."
For weeks afterward, the senselessness of the act and the uncertainty of who had shot him fueled post-trauma nightmares that seemed as real as the shooting.
"I would actually experience it again, actually hear the sound of that first bullet breaking the window," he says. "It was really loud and I'd wake up wondering, 'Why didn't my wife hear that?'... That sound was just stuck in my head. ... And then, thank God, it went away."
LaRuffa times the end of his nightmares to the discovery, almost two months later, that he was apparently the snipers' first victim. After Muhammad and Malvo were caught, FBI tests revealed that they were using LaRuffa's laptop.
Malvo's slight physique matched LaRuffa's companions' description of the shooter.
Investigators realized that the pair had used the money stolen from LaRuffa -- roughly $3,600 -- to buy the car they used to travel from shooting to shooting, supply it with gas and feed themselves. They told LaRuffa that his money had basically bankrolled the killing spree.
He was dumbstruck.
"I was following the story of the snipers every day just like everyone else," he says. "The insane thing is that all that time when I was afraid just like everyone else, I had already been shot by one of them. It was crazy."
But at least he was finally safe from his fear that an unknown killer might still be stalking him.
Media requests for his story began to pour in. He talked to Greta Van Susteren, Phil Donahue and Bill O'Reilly as well as local and regional reporters. By the time the snipers' trials began in the fall of 2003, LaRuffa had retold his story scores of times.
He never anticipated how wrenching it would be to relive the experience in court.
"I thought I had it all together, that I could just describe it the way I already had. But being on the witness stand where it's incredibly quiet, quieter than a church and the jury is staring at you -- it was a lot more emotional, very emotional. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."
Paul LaRuffa grew up as one of six children in an Italian-American household in New York. After graduating from St. John's University in Queens with a degree in psychology, he served in the Air Force for three years. In 1971, he was stationed in Maryland, and he and his wife, Linda, settled in Prince George's County to raise their son, Damien.
In 1986, the LaRuffas gave up their jobs -- he was working in human resources, she was an administrative assistant in a law firm -- to realize their dream of owning a restaurant. They bought a shopping strip eatery that mostly specialized in carryout and remade it into a neighborhood restaurant with such house favorites as Cajun Chicken Alfredo.
The couple worked long hours together, often taking turns at cooking. But Linda always left Margellina before Paul did. That was the case the night he was shot.
At 10:20 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5, 2002, LaRuffa closed up the restaurant and left the building with one of his employees and a friend. As always, he'd made sure he wasn't alone and scanned the parking lot cautiously before heading to his car with the day's receipts. He had scarcely settled behind the wheel before a man suddenly appeared 18 inches from his window and, without saying a word, started shooting.
The two other men watched, horrified, as the gunman shot LaRuffa five times, grabbed the briefcase and laptop from the back seat and ran away.
Later the victim would conclude that the gunman had probably hidden behind an old van that had been parked at the side of the lot for two years. He thinks he'd been watched for several nights.
Now however, he could hardly believe he'd been shot. He staggered from the car, dazed and bleeding, gasping for air while his lungs began to collapse. Only one of his companions remained; the other had fled in a panic. However both men called 911.
The next day LaRuffa began to realize his luck: The first bullet had shattered the window but missed his head. He had bullets in his chest, his stomach, his arm, his back. One bullet broke into three pieces about an eighth of an inch from his spinal cord.
Later he would connect an earlier episode with his attacker. Two nights before the shooting, as he was leaving the parking lot, he heard something that sounded like a flat tire. Rather than stop the car to check it, however, LaRuffa chose to drive home, only a mile away. He now believes the shooter slashed his tire in an attempt to lure him out of the vehicle and make him an easier target.
LaRuffa continues to put in 12-hour days at Margellina. He is moving forward with the construction of a waterfront home in St. Mary's County and his plans to publish a book about his experience. His only permanent physical damage is stiffness and numbness in his left hand and arm.
"I know people think that something like this should change your life, but I have the same attitude I did before I was shot," he says. "Before then, when people would ask me how I was doing, I would say, 'Well, if you wake up, it's a good day.' That's what I say, now, too. I've always valued life."
This October, he and Linda will celebrate their 37th wedding anniversary. They have three grandchildren -- one born since the "event," as LaRuffa often calls it. For six years, the couple have shared ownership of several harness race horses. They hope for great things from the latest: Sniper Survivor, born in June 2003.
LaRuffa still parks in the same place in the shopping center lot. More amazing, he drives the same car: a 1999 Chrysler 300M.
"Most people think that I'm crazy, that I should sell this car," he says. "My attitude is that I survived in that car, so it's my lucky car."
After the shooting, he spent some months in therapy.
"My biggest worry was that I was dealing with this so well, so quickly," he says. "You read about all this delayed stress. So I asked my therapist: 'In six months or a year, is my head going to explode?'"
The therapist told him he was doing just fine. LaRuffa still agrees.
For the past two years, Paul LaRuffa has bought a drink for all the folks in his restaurant on the night of Sept. 5. Toasting the anniversary of his survival, he says, is a tradition he plans to continue.
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