In the clear light of hindsight, Kimberly Shay Ruffner was the obvious suspect.
He was known to Baltimore police as a sexual criminal, with an interest in little girls. He lived near the spot 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton was found sexually assaulted and beaten to death. At the time of the 1984 murder, he had just been released from jail.
But Baltimore County police and prosecutors never focused on Ruffner while they attempted to solve the grisly crime. Instead, their attention was on an Eastern Shore man with no criminal record and a stable family background - a man court psychiatrists would later say did not fit the profile of a pedophile or killer.
The decision to zero in on Kirk Bloodsworth, while overlooking Ruffner, was only the first of several missteps in a case now well-known as an example of justice system failure.
Forensic evidence was missed, according to scientists who later worked on the case. Prosecutors did not properly disclose witnesses to defense attorneys, according to the Court of Appeals. An innocent man was sent to death row.
But that first mistake, overlooking Ruffner for Bloodsworth, was crucial.
This week, nearly 20 years after the killing and 19 years after Bloodsworth was wrongly convicted, Ruffner pleaded guilty to the first-degree murder of Dawn Hamilton. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Baltimore County police and prosecutors said they were not aware of Ruffner until last August, when DNA evidence recovered from the crime scene was matched to his profile stored in the state's database of convicted felons' DNA.
Didn't make connection
City and county officials say communication between the two police departments has improved. But at least two people involved in Ruffner's other cases - the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted him and the lawyer who defended him - said they simply never made the connection between Ruffner and the Rosedale murder.
"Oh, wow. Oh, how sad," Melanie Shaw Geter, the former city assistant state's attorney who prosecuted Ruffner in the 1980s, said in an interview last fall. She said she had not realized the link until a reporter's phone call. "I cannot believe this."
In 1984, Ruffner was well known to law enforcement in the city's Eastern District. He had been arrested a number of times, and corrections officials called his attitude "not one that is conducive to treatment," according to court transcripts.
In the early 1980s, he was charged with at least three sexual assaults, all within a few miles of Dawn Hamilton's murder. Asked recently whether he recalled the type of cases in which he was appointed to defend Ruffner, attorney Ralph M. Murdy said quickly: "Young girls."
The first was a rape case; the victim was 16 years old. (The Sun does not identify victims of sexual assault without their permission.)
According to police reports, on Feb. 28, 1983, a man asked the teen to help him look for his dog. She agreed, she told police in a tearful interview, and he pushed her to the ground and raped her. She identified Ruffner from a lineup.
Court records show that Ruffner spent more than five months in jail waiting for trial. He was released in September 1983, when prosecutors dropped the charges because they thought some forensic evidence did not point to him.
On Nov. 2, an 11-year-old girl was taking a shortcut home from school, crossing the railroad tracks near the 4000 block of E. Lombard St., when a man stopped her and said he was the "railroad police."
He threw her onto a stained, abandoned mattress and assaulted her, according to court records. That day, police found Ruffner near the crime scene, in the clothes the girl had described her attacker as wearing.
"It was just a horrible case," Shaw Geter said. "I remember the little girl - she was so sweet and so innocent."
Hung juries, acquittal
But after two hung juries, on July 12, 1984, a third found Ruffner not guilty. He was released from jail.
On July 25, Dawn Hamilton was murdered.
The crime dominated local news, and county police pleaded with the public to help find the girl's killer. They released a composite sketch of a suspect, one that described the killer as inches taller than Ruffner but otherwise similar in appearance.
Police received more than 500 tips about the murder, prosecutors said, including one that Bloodsworth resembled the composite.
Bloodsworth, a 23-year-old former Marine, had no alibi. Police thought his answers to their questions sounded suspicious. And a young boy identified him as the man who had led Dawn Hamilton into the woods. On Aug. 9, police arrested him.
Less than three weeks later, Ruffner struck again.
On the evening of Aug. 28, he knocked on the door of a Fells Point woman's walk-up apartment. She opened it a crack.
"I said, 'What do you want?'" the woman, who was 28, later testified. "And he put his arm between the door and the jamb, and pushed it open, and said, 'I want you.'"
He had a knife. He told her he'd kill her if she screamed. They struggled, and he tore off her shorts. At one point, she stopped fighting and told him she wanted to insert birth control. He agreed, and when she got away from him, she tried to run. They fought some more, and he cut her throat.
Somehow, she testified, she managed to push him away hard enough to get to the door. She ran out of the apartment, half-naked, screaming. Police found Ruffner nearby.
"I remember as soon as he was arrested, the police called me and said, 'Guess who we have?'" Shaw Geter said. "My recollection is he tried to kill [the woman]. My thought was that he didn't want a witness like the little girl."
The court asked Murdy to represent Ruffner again. This time, the lawyer declined.
"I said, 'Uh-uh,'" Murdy recalled yesterday. "You're supposed to be objective. I didn't feel like I could be objective at that point." He declined to elaborate further.
In May 1985, Ruffner was convicted of the Fells Point attack and was later sentenced to 45 years in prison. Two months earlier, Bloodsworth had been convicted of Dawn Hamilton's murder and sentenced to death.
The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned Bloodsworth's conviction the next year, saying prosecutors withheld evidence about another suspect - a man who ended up not being connected to the crime. In April 1987, a second jury found Bloodsworth guilty of murder.
He maintained his innocence, and in 1993, a scientist in California tested evidence from the trial for DNA at the request of an attorney for Bloodsworth.
Although prosecutors said that the FBI, during the initial investigation, had not found any semen on Dawn Hamilton's underwear, forensic scientist Edward T. Blake said that when he received the materials for retesting, there were marks made by FBI technicians who circled semen stains.
Blake said it appeared the FBI had never tested the stains because there were no clippings taken from them.
Although DNA testing did not exist in 1984, it was often possible to identify an attacker's blood type through semen.
Blake's testing in 1993 proved it was not Bloodsworth's semen on the clothing.
Bloodsworth was released from prison, but it was not until this past August, when prosecutors matched the DNA to Ruffner, that law enforcement officials acknowledged Bloodsworth's innocence.
Police and prosecutors could have run the DNA against the database years earlier. They said they were pursuing other leads.
Ruffner's life sentence for Dawn Hamilton's murder will begin when his 45-year sentence for the Fells Point attack ends. Although he could technically be paroled in 30 to 40 years, prosecutors said they believe he will never be released.
Sun staff writer Ryan Davis contributed to this article.