Nearly every year for the past 43 years, Jim Irwin visits the Arlington Memorial Gardens in Cincinnati on or around March 30 to pay tribute to the Ruppert family.
“I can almost still feel it,” he said.
Irwin, now 81, lived just eight houses down from Leonard and Alma Ruppert and their eight children on Walter Avenue; Irwin used to drive the two eldest Ruppert boys, Michael and Leonard, to Stephen T. Badin High School with his own son, Greg, Michael’s best friend.
“Michael had such a sense of humor and a sense of respect for nature,” Irwin said. A few days before that Easter in 1975, Michael brought a cocoon over to the Irwin home.
“About a week after the killings, the cocoon opened up and there was a beautiful butterfly,” Irwin said, his voice choked with emotion.
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The day after Easter, on March 31, 1975, Hamilton awoke to the traumatic news that James Ruppert, then 41, had fatally 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 — in his mother’s home on Minor Avenue in the city’s Lindenwald neighborhood. Ruppert was convicted of two counts of murder and received a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity for the other nine killings. He was sentenced to 11 life sentences, and is currently in the Allen Correctional Institute in Lima.
“The neighbor said she could not look out her window for over a year and see the house,” Irwin said. “It was serious trauma, and still many people remember it.”
Irwin had never met James Ruppert, and said he had only seen him in the neighborhood, describing him as “a quiet kind of a guy, small and diminutive in size.”
He had never really been in any trouble, and that was one of the things Irwin believes that went against his plea of insanity. Irwin, who worked as an attorney for the Journal-News at the time, served as special assistant prosecutor for Butler County Prosecutor John Holcomb on the case. Irwin was actively involved in the second trial, which took place in 1975 in Findley after an initial mistrial.
“I was only a step from the exhibits, especially the crime scene photos, and I never could bring myself to this day to look at the photographs,” he said. “I never could see them dead; it was hard enough to go to the funeral at Sacred Heart Catholic Church with 11 caskets.”
Irwin said those involved in the trial were surprised at the verdict, calling it “the most unusual verdict I’ve ever heard.”
“He was convicted of killing his brother, who he hated, and his mother, who he had a strained relationship with, and they were the first two victims, but I think they then felt that he snapped and was no longer sane,” Irwin said. “We never talked with him and he never talked himself, never testified, so we don’t know.”
Irwin has been present as a witness every time Ruppert has been up for parole. He is next scheduled to be up for parole in April; Irwin said that “as long as I can, I will attend.”
Irwin and his family haven’t been able to disentangle themselves from the events 40 years ago; not only were the Rupperts personal friends, but March 30 is also Irwin’s daughter’s birthday.
“I’ve told her, just try to put it behind you, try to separate that out from your birthday, it would have ruined that for life,” he said.
Other Journal-News employees who covered the horrifying event still recall vivid bits and pieces.
“I remember going into the house the first day of the trial that summer, when reporters were allowed to go inside,” said Nancy O’Connor, who covered the first trial for the Journal-News. “The house had been closed up since the initial investigation and it was stifling inside with the smell of dried blood, and there were many bullet holes visible in the walls and floors. There was a coin laying on the linoleum floor, a quarter splattered with dried blood. A skillet, full of what looked like Hamburger Helper, was still sitting on the stove in the kitchen.”
O’Connor said she would sit through a couple of hours of testimony each morning and then return to the newsroom on deadline for the afternoon paper to include new developments from that testimony.
“As I typed the new copy each day someone would literally pull each page out of my typewriter as I finished it,” she said. But the actual details of the murders, she said, she can’t remember as well.
“The Ruppert murders, especially of the children, were so awful that I think I’ve pushed a lot of it out of my memory,” she said.
Irwin said there is still no answer for the friends and family, and residents of Hamilton were left shocked and traumatized. There’s nothing to explain what would possess a person to kill his family on Easter Sunday.
“The thing that makes it so horrendous when I think of the age of these children — he killed about 600 years of human life,” he said.