Early-to-mid-2006 saw a rupture in the suburban tranquillity that usually defines the kidney-shaped courtyard lawns, curving pathways, and portico-porch duplexes of Parkmerced, the 1941-built garden apartment complex near SF State.
"We saw big Cadillacs pull up with guards accompanying the driver, and when you'd go to your home, they'd stand up in a threatening manner," said one woman who lived near 2 Garces Drive, a two-story duplex facing onto a semiprivate courtyard. "They'd take suitcases out of the trunk, stay 10 minutes, and drive out without the suitcases.
"The front door was open 24-7," she continued. "It was a revolving door, actually, as kids selling drugs would show up and leave, riding around the neighborhood peddling drugs on their bikes." Neighbors began referring to the apartment as a "drug house." The half-dozen or so men living there on and off referred to it as a "flophouse."
One of the regulars at this drug den was a troublemaker and fugitive named Marlon Ruff, known in the neighborhood as "Chuck." Ruff was wanted by police after beating and robbing a Brink's courier in 2003 and escaping from a Humboldt County prison roadwork crew in February 2005, more than three years before his scheduled release date.
Ruff had made his way back to his hometown of San Francisco and slept in Parkmerced storage rooms. He also hung out at and occasionally spent the night at 2 Garces. Residents there knew him as a guy who rode his bicycle around Parkmerced selling possibly stolen property, reeking of crack cocaine, and packing a .45 automatic pistol. Ruff told anyone who would listen that he planned on someday going down in a blaze-of-glory shootout with police.
"He was a bully," said David Russell, a former 2 Garces resident, during a 2008 deposition in a pending lawsuit.
One day in late May 2006, Russell recalled coming home and seeing Ruff running out of the apartment. Once inside, Russell noticed a valuable ring of his was missing.
"I called a friend of mine, and she called the police," Russell said in response to a question from an attorney at his deposition. "And then I walked up the street and saw the police tackle him and take him away." Russell was then asked whether, to his knowledge, Chuck was arrested on that day.
"I'm pretty sure he was. He was out three hours later, though," Russell replied.
It's unclear why police might have released Ruff. Did he give a fake name they didn't check? Was the theft accusation so flimsy that cops let him go? Did Russell exaggerate during his deposition and say Ruff was arrested when he actually wasn't?
The answers to these questions might show whether the death of a San Francisco police officer might have been prevented.
On December 22, 2006, the 33-year-old Ruff fulfilled his fantasy, dying in a shootout in which he killed Officer Bryan Tuvera, who had chased the fugitive into a garage trying to serve his arrest warrant, before being shot dead by Tuvera's partner. Could two lives have been saved if police supposedly hadn't let Ruff go earlier that year?
The information about Ruff's purported arrest comes from a deposition given in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the family of Asa Sullivan, Russell's roommate, against the police department. The lawsuit stems from the now-notorious June 6, 2006, standoff at 2 Garces, in which police officers shot Sullivan 16 times. Much has been written about the shooting, in which police say they began firing on Sullivan, who was hiding in the attic, after mistakenly believing he reached for a weapon. But the full story of another former 2 Garces regular, Marlon Ruff, hasn't been written. Like Sullivan's, it's also a tale that suggests something troubling with our police department, which somehow couldn't detain a fugitive who was allegedly committing crimes right under their noses.
Additional anecdotal evidence suggests that Ruff evaded San Francisco police more than once. It seems possible that he might have been the big one who got away once, then again, and then stayed away until police finally tracked him down months later and cornered him in a garage.
Aside from the May 2006 arrest Russell alluded to, Parkmerced neighbors say they were told that police were keeping 2 Garces under surveillance because of their complaints. If that was the case, surely they must have been aware that Ruff was a reputed thief and chronic drug user.
A day or so before the Sullivan shooting, neighbors filed a police report describing an incident in which a man on a bicycle harassed a schoolgirl on the sidewalk. "My daughter was being verbally abused," said the girl's mother, who asked not to be named because she didn't want to bring attention to herself or her daughter. "This kid was circling her while she was walking to work, calling her filthy, foul names. I came home from work. We called the police, and filed a complaint at the Taraval police station. We didn't know the name of the attacker." The girl, however, later identified Ruff as the harasser, after initially fingering a different 2 Garces resident.
On June 5, Ruff got in a fight with Russell after Russell accused him of stealing his ring. Ruff swung his bicycle, cutting a deep gash in Russell's arm.
"That's when his .45 semiautomatic handgun flew out of his pocket and landed on the sidewalk," Russell said, adding that police that day would have also received a report about "a man with a gun at 2 Garces."
To be fair, it's possible that Russell exaggerated during his deposition, and nobody actually called police about Ruff's alleged theft in May, or about the bicycle assault in June. (I failed to contact Russell after a week of trying.) Maybe neighbors were misled, and there was no police surveillance at 2 Garces during the weeks leading up to the Sullivan shooting. Maybe it wasn't Ruff who harassed the girl.
Two months ago, I requested incident reports pertaining to the Ruff and Sullivan cases as well as any relevant reports from the Taraval police station during the days surrounding June 6, 2006. An attorney for the SFPD told me that the information was being withheld from the public, citing state rules alllowing information to be withheld during litigation, and to protect the integrity of an ongoing investigation.
This wouldn't be the first time that San Francisco police committed serious errors, and then failed to release information about their own investigations. The Hugues de la Plaza case, in which police surmised a man had stabbed himself several times and then cleaned and put away the knife, has become a national symbol of SFPD incompetence. Could Marlon Ruff be next?
Incoming police Chief George Gascon has pledged to end the sort of blunders that have given San Francisco's finest a nationwide reputation for carelessness. He's also said he'd fix the SFPD's reputation for secrecy.
During an interview, I told Gascon about the Marlon Ruff case. He declined to speculate about the details, but suggested it fit a familiar law enforcement pattern. It's possible police apprehended Ruff in May 2006, then released him without realizing he was a fugitive.
"People will lie to the police," Gascon said. "They will tell the police they are someone they aren't. I don't believe we should release someone until we have a very high degree of certainty who they are. If you're arresting people, citing them to come back to court, and not having positively identified them, surprisingly, a lot of people don't show up for court. They'll give you a name that's not theirs. If we have probable cause to arrest, we have to identify that person before they're released."
Gary Delagnes, head of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, says it's not that simple. "It's easy to second guess," he said. "But cops are running from call to call to call to call. If it's a sort of dispute where it's being called mutual combat, cops sometimes don't have time to fingerprint them [suspects] and make sure they're not being lied to. If you stopped everything to take everybody into the station to figure out if they were lying to you, you wouldn't get to do anything else."
Gascon says one solution could be to install a field fingerprinting system, whereby police can positively identify a suspect by linking electronically from the squad car to a central database.
"If you can do wireless fingerprint checking, then if you have reasonable suspicion to stop them, you can take either a thumbprint or a fingerprint and you can get a positive ID while you're in the field, irrespective of whether they are going to be arrested or not," he said.
But that kind of equipment costs money, something San Francisco happens to be short of right now.
A cheaper and possibly more effective solution might be a public evaluation of exactly what happened in Parkmerced during the weeks leading up to the Asa Sullivan shooting.
I, for one, would like to know whether better police work by Officer Bryan Tuvera's colleagues during the spring and summer of 2006 might have ultimately prevented his and Ruff's deaths.