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'Redeemable' teen in deadly robbery gets 10 years, 2nd chance

– Somewhere between the person Omar Ruffin's family and teachers think he is and the person the pre-sentence investigation report suggests he is – that's where the truth lies.

On Friday, he looked like what he physically is – a 17-year-old kid scared out of his mind as he awaited an adult-sized sentence of 10 years in prison for an adult-level crime, one that took the life of his friend in June.

In October, Ruffin pleaded guilty to attempted robbery. In exchange for that guilty plea, Allen County prosecutors dismissed a more serious charge of felony murder. That charge meant that because he participated in a crime in which his friend, who was also committing the robbery, was killed, Ruffin was legally responsible for it.

According to court documents and testimony, Ja'queze Dandridge called Ruffin and asked him to help with a robbery. Armed with a pellet gun, Dandridge and Ruffin walked in the area of West Packard and South Wayne avenues about 11 p.m. June 1.

Dandridge and Ruffin spotted two men on the porch of a home and then circled around to the back of it, coming up along the sides to attack the men on the porch.

As Dandridge pulled one of the men, Stuart Heath, to the side of the house, Ruffin grabbed the other man, Kyle Hagerman, and threatened him.

But while Dandridge fought with Heath, Heath was able to pull his own handgun out and shoot Dandridge. Heath told police his two children were inside the home asleep and he feared the robbers would get inside the house.

Ruffin was turning the handle on the door to the home when he heard the shots and ran off. Hagerman went inside, thinking Heath had been shot, and grabbed another gun and locked the children in a room.

Heath then came in and they called the police.

In a nod to Ruffin's youth and his willingness to plead guilty, prosecutors agreed to drop the felony murder charge and cap the prison sentence at 15 years.

But between that October guilty plea and his sentencing Friday by Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull, Ruffin sat down with probation officers for a pre-sentence investigation report, which tries to predict his likelihood of committing another offense, based on his background, level of acceptance of responsibility and how he evaluates his own behavior.

That report concerned Allen County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Mike McAlexander, who said it was the most completely "thuggish"-sounding report he'd seen in a long time.

"That is not why we tendered the plea," he said, adding that if Gull rejected the agreement, the state was prepared to move forward with a trial on the felony murder charge.

"This is a little bit bizarre, painting himself as such a criminal without the documented record," McAlexander said.

McAlexander's statements came after the court heard nearly an hour of statements from Ruffin's family and teachers about his gentle heart and willingness to doggedly pursue his education in spite of his learning disability.

In the report, Ruffin insisted he was a member of the Gangster Disciples, had sold marijuana to support his own drug habit and regularly bullied others into doing his homework.

Ruffin's father, Wesley Ruffin, who identified himself as a former gang member, said his son merely idolized the lifestyle he saw on television but was not caught up in it.

Ruffin's teachers and administrators at South Side High School described him as an imperfect kid, but one who took correction and worked to fix troubled behaviors and his grades.

"He's a good kid," said Greg Daugherty, who worked with Ruffin. "I see bad kids. This was a shock."

And it was one person after another saying the very same thing, that he was not a "throwaway kid" but that he was "redeemable" – pastors, parents and siblings.

"I feel like I should have been there for him," said his older sister, Lashanda Sewell, tears running down her face. "I wasn't. And I feel like I failed him."

Ruffin's attorney, Michelle Kraus, said Sewell's statement may have gotten to the heart of the matter – that the young man was getting more on the streets than he was getting at home.

"Maybe that's why there are two different Omars," she said, asking Gull to have leniency on the teen and arrange his sentence in such a way that he remains in a juvenile-level facility for as long as possible.

Gull said she heard the arguments about Ruffin's redeemable value.

"The easy thing to do is put you in prison for 15 years and close your file," she said. "But I didn't take this job to do the easy things."

Gull sentenced Ruffin to 15 years in prison but ordered five years suspended and to be served on probation. He must also pay $5,389 in restitution.

"If you don't get a handle on yourself, you're going to be sitting here in an orange jail jumpsuit for the rest of your life," Gull said. "You don't want that? Prove it."

rgreen@jg.net

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