James Ruppert’s death is the physical end of notorious, painful Hamilton mass murder

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction Inmate number A169321 died June 4 at a prison medical facility. It’s the physical end to a mass murder that shined a local and national spotlight on Hamilton for years.

But the horrific, haunting memories remain.

James U. Ruppert killed 11 members of his family, eight younger than 18, on Easter Sunday 1975 at their home on Minor Avenue in the city’s Lindenwald neighborhood. He lived out his days in prison serving multiple life sentences. He was 88 — living 47 years longer than his family that he picked off one by one as they prepared to eat dinner.

On March 30, 1975, Ruppert, then 41, shot 11 members of his family, including his mother, Charity; his brother, Leonard Jr.; his sister-in-law, Alma; and their eight children — Leonard III, 17; Michael, 16; Thomas, 15; Carol, 13; Ann, 12; David, 11; Teresa, 9 and John, 4.

Butler County Sheriff’s Specialist Mike Grimes was a detective in the summer of 1975 when Ruppert was before a three-judge panel in his first trial at the county courthouse, now the Butler County Historical Courthouse. He spent hours guarding the defendant in jail and sitting beside him in court. And making sure nothing happened to Ruppert as they took the walk across Court street from the old county jail.

“Not long ago, I was cleaning out some stuff and found a an old black and white picture taken in court. I thought ‘well there’s old Jim,’ wonder if he is still alive,” Grimes said.

His thought when he learned Ruppert died?

“It’s a relief for taxpayers; don’t have to pay for him anymore,” Grimes said.

During that first trial Ruppert was found guilty of all 11 first-degree (now aggravated) murder charges, but the tribunal of judges did not unanimously vote to impose the death penalty. So Ruppert was given 11 life sentences.

That conviction was later overturned on a technicality, and Ruppert’s second trial was moved to Hancock County after a change of venue was granted.

In the second trial before a jury, Ruppert was convicted of killing his mother and brother, but not guilty by reason of insanity for the murder of the remaining family members. He was sentenced to life in prison.

By all media accounts, Ruppert was small in stature and had little to say, but was good marksman. Reports say he hated his brother and had a strained relationship with his mother.

“He was a real quiet, non assuming, kind of a wimpy guy,” Grimes said. But what Ruppert did was notorious ,and nobody was taking chances.

“I remember we took him up to the penitentiary. We pulled in the first gate and they told us to get out of the car. We walked over to the alcove and you could hear them (guards) racking rounds into rifles.”

Butler County Prosecutor Michael Gmoser was notified of Ruppert’s death by an ODRC official Monday.

“I thought, well this is finally the end,” Gmoser said. It had a double meaning for him — the office would no longer have to keep track of any parole proceedings and it was the end of case he remembers vividly from his first stint in the prosecutor’s office.

Credit: Brian Horton

Credit: Brian Horton

Then-County Prosecutor John F. Holcomb and Gmoser prosecuted Ruppert in his first trial. Sitting at the defense table were attorneys Huge Holbrock and H.J. Bresser. Bressler later became a county common pleas and 12th District Court of Appeals judge.

“We spent three weeks trying that case,” Gmoser said. He noted in trial prep, one of his duties was to sit at the crime scene residence and “inventory every piece of paper; every nook and cranny of that house and I want to tell you ... it was horrifying.”

Gmoser cannot un-see the bloody house and the struggles of the children; one who almost got away was found near the back door.

“In the living room, the children were literally climbing the walls. Their fingernails were broken off in the walls,” Gmoser said. “I can still see it as clearly as I can see my wife’s picture here in my office.”

He sat in the house and reconstructed in his mind what the children went through as they were trying to find a way out. Easter candy from the family’s celebration was spattered with blood.

In the upstairs bedroom, Gmoser said he found a book about “how to commit a perfect murder.”

“I thought to myself, this is weird, because this was anything but perfect,” he said.

Gmoser said financial documentation taken from the house indicated Ruppert was “floundering in the stock market and his brother refused to give him anymore money — that was part of the motive.”

According to reports, after the killings, Ruppert sat in the house for a few hours and then called 911 to report a shooting. He was waiting when officers arrived and he was arrested.

The murders and Ruppert’s subsequent trials garnered both statewide and nationwide media attention. Initial coverage of the tragedy landed on the front page of the New York Times on March 31, 1975.

‘It was a madhouse’

Deniz Hardy, a now-retired lawyer who worked as an intern with the Hamilton Police Department at the time of the murders, described the immediate aftermath as an “all hands on deck” situation, with reporters around the world calling the Hamilton station.

“It was a madhouse,” Hardy said.

Ruppert was jailed at the Hamilton city jail for one night following his arrest before being moved to a larger facility, and Hardy interacted with Ruppert briefly while giving him back his wallet, keys and other personal belongings.

“They brought Ruppert up to the window and he said, ‘Oh, good morning! How are you?’” Hardy recalled more than 45 years later. “[He was] very perky and smiling and upbeat, unconcerned.”

Hardy said Ruppert asked for a hand count of the cash in his wallet to ensure no money had been stolen from him during his one-night stay.

“Maybe he knew and didn’t care, but he carried himself as if he did not have any idea what was going on around him, [or that] he was headed toward an entire life in prison,” Hardy said. “You could tell that he was not appreciating what he had done.”

Hardy described Ruppert in that brief moment, fewer than 24 hours after the murders as “nonchalant” and “casual.”

“He wasn’t smirking or cocky or anything like that, like he planned something and got away with it,” Hardy said. “It was just another day to him, it appeared to me, just from the one to two minutes we spent conversing.”

Ruppert was denied parole in 1995, 2005, 2015 and the next hearing was scheduled for 2025. The ODRC website lists Ruppert’s status as “RELEASED — death.”

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