- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Paul LaRuffa, like many in the Washington, D.C., region, was nervous just pumping gas 10 years ago in the midst of a killing spree of seemingly random shootings in the area. Unlike anyone else, though, LaRuffa would later find out he had already been the first victim in the region of the pair of men that were known as the Beltway snipers.
LaRuffa was 55 on Sept. 5, 2002, the day he left Margellina, the restaurant he owned in Clinton, on a collision course with John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo.
After putting his laptop and briefcase, which had bank bags full of about $3,500, in the back seat, he sat down in the front of his vehicle ready to drive.
Seconds later his window shattered, and he realized he had been shot. Both of his lungs collapsed, but emergency responders attended to him and LaRuffa’s life was saved.
It was not until after Muhammad and his then 17-year-old accomplice, Malvo, were arrested and LaRuffa’s computer was found in Muhammad's car that it became clear that LaRuffa, who now lives in Hollywood, was the first person in the Washington region known to be shot by the pair.
Until that moment of realization, LaRuffa was living in the same world of fear and panic as most of the region’s residents as the number of victims steadily increased during October 2002 — 10 dead and three others injured in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
LaRuffa was out of the hospital in about 10 days and recovered rather quickly from his shooting, except for his left arm where a bullet tore through his nerves. That took more than a year to heal, and is still often stiff, he said.
At the time LaRuffa didn’t suspect his shooting, which had occurred a full month before the start of the deadly rampage, was connected with the mysterious sniper attacks.
He returned to work shortly after he was shot, and still remembers how he, like many others in the region, felt unsafe while doing everyday things like shopping or pumping gas. “I had the same fear that everyone had,” he said.
“Every time you pumped gas successfully, you felt like you escaped death,” he said. “People were just paranoid, and rightly so.”
Police originally believed the snipers were traveling in a white box truck, prompting false starts to the investigation throughout the region.
“There were the talks about the white vans, and we happened to have 30 of them,” Brad Clements, deputy superintendent of St. Mary’s public schools, said. He recalled 10 years ago and the “local sightings” that turned out to be false, but prompted lockdowns at St. Mary’s schools several times through that October.
School field trips, which had already been restricted due to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 the year prior, were even more restricted during the sniper shootings, Clements said.
The ordeal ended when Muhammad and Malvo were arrested at the Interstate 70 rest stop near Myersville.
Muhammad was convicted in Virginia and condemned to die in a 2003 trial. He was executed in 2009.
Malvo is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. “Yeah, I think about it. But it doesn’t haunt me,” LaRuffa said.
The shots that killed the 10 sniper victims were fired by Muhammad or Malvo from a hole cut in the trunk of a Chevrolet Caprice. LaRuffa said it was the money the pair stole from him that paid for the car, and his computer they used to help plan out their attacks.
“That’s really a shocker to know that you’re part of this giant, worldwide-publicized event,” he said.
He said that his laptop is set to be part of an elaborate display at the planned National Law Enforcement Museum.
“I hadn’t seen it in ages” until recently when he attended a planning meeting for the museum, LaRuffa said. He said he never got his laptop or the stolen cash returned to him.
LaRuffa moved to Hollywood a few years after the shootings, building a house on land he’s owned for more than 20 years, he said. He sold the restaurant in Clinton a few years ago.
He often wrote about the event, including the two men’s trials where he testified. LaRuffa said he has essentially compiled his writings into a book, and is considering trying to have it published.
He has been interviewed dozens of times over the years by television and newspaper reporters, he said. He added that he did not mind talking about the attack and the publicity somewhat helped him get through the recovery.
“It’s OK for me. I understand why people can’t talk about it ... But for me it always helped,” he said.
He has told his story so many times — to police, prosecutors, juries, friends and family and numerous publications. It was an interview with actor William Shatner about two years ago that he remembers the most, mainly since he was able to share his entire story, instead of just a 20-second sound bite like on local news channels.
Since the incident, LaRuffa has studied up on the case, and met several of the victims’ family members and other survivors like himself.
He said he is considering trying to help with victim’s rights and recovery. That is part of why he is so willing to talk to media about his own personal experience. “You can beat these things. You can be OK,” he said.