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.