‘One of saddest cases I’ve ever seen’: SLO police still seeking killer from 1991 cold case

It was supposed to be a fun weekend in San Luis Obispo for Marina Ruggiero around family and close friends. But nearly 28 years later, police are still mystified by her ill-fated visit to SLO.

The 20-year-old San Pedro resident was in town Sunday, Aug. 25, 1991, for the wedding of a close family friend. After Ruggiero left the reception alone to return to her nearby motel room, nobody she knew would ever talk to her again.

The young woman who, by all accounts, had a fairly normal life, was brutally stabbed to death about 10 p.m. that night.

Nearly three decades later, investigators still have many unanswered questions: Who would want to hurt Ruggiero and why? How did the killer approach her? Was the murderer a stranger lurking around the motel? A guest at the wedding?

“This is one of the saddest cases I’ve ever seen,” Lt. John Bledsoe, of the SLO Police Department, said last week. “All homicides are sad, but this one is especially sad. She was with her family and close friends. It was supposed to be a happy time.”

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Marina Ruggiero was murdered in San Luis Obispo in 1991. Courtesy photo

The case is one of only four homicides that remain unsolved by the San Luis Obispo Police Department, including the killing of a 6-year-old boy, Ernest Whitaker, found drowned in San Luis Creek after fishing there in 1945.

The 1990 murder of 71-year-old Frank Gove, who was bludgeoned while working at his son’s baseball card shop, and the 2011 killing of 63-year-old Charles Lavenson, who was found dead with a severe head wound on Lemon Grove Loop Trail, also remain unsolved.

The county’s most high-profile cold case — the disappearance of Kristin Smart, who was last seen walking back to her Cal Poly dorm room in 1996 following a party — is being handled by the Sheriff’s Office.

Sgt. Chad Pfarr, who has taken over the Ruggiero investigation, periodically reviews the case and said “thousands” of hours of police work have been logged on it (he personally has worked more than 1,000 hours, he estimates) — and police remain firmly dedicated to catching Ruggiero’s killer.

Boxes of evidence and binders of case reports serve as a reminder of the dark mystery.

“I talk with her family,” Pfarr said. “I re-read the reports and hope to see something I haven’t seen before. I was assigned that as a detective and now I supervise investigations. I have developed a personal relationship with the family. And I have a personal interest in this case.”

Marina Ruggiero was murdered in a San Luis Obispo hotel room on Aug. 25, 1991. The San Pedro resident had attended a wedding. Her killer has never been found and police are still searching. David Middlecamp

A fateful journey to San Luis Obispo

By all accounts, nothing was amiss when Ruggiero and her parents, John and Maria, and sister, Carmela, arrived in San Luis Obispo for the wedding of a childhood friend, then-22-year-old Raguel Mezin.

The Mezin family had lived across the street from the Ruggieros in San Pedro for many years, and the families were close, according to a 1991 Telegram-Tribune story. Mezin came to San Luis Obispo to major in home economics at Cal Poly, where she met her husband.

The Ruggieros booked hotel rooms at the Cuesta Canyon Lodge (now The Kinney), across from the wedding celebration at the Monday Club on Monterey Street. The two sisters stayed in one room, parents in another.

Marina was described by those who knew her best as quiet, family-oriented and religious.

The Ruggerios attended the wedding, which went off “without a hitch,” Pfarr said.

Marina “danced and had a good time,” according to a Sept. 7, 2011, Torrance Daily Breeze story.

Then Marina decided to walk back to her room by herself, which was only a few hundred feet away, while her parents stayed behind and helped clean up. Pfarr said her sister followed about 30 to 45 minutes later.

“In those days, they didn’t use electronic key cards, and the motel had actual keys,” Pfarr said. “(Carmela) tried to open the door, but it was locked. She knocked but thought Marina might have fallen asleep, and she went to the lobby to get a new key.”

When Carmela finally opened the door, what she found inside would change her family’s life forever. Police said her sister had been stabbed multiple times in the upper body, according to Telegram-Tribune reports.

Friends and family, parents included, soon arrived and gathered around Marina, trying to resuscitate her as they waited for authorities.

“It was there, in Room 327, they found the petite woman, described as an exotic-looking Italian (American) girl beautiful enough to be a model,” an Aug. 28, 1991, story by Telegram-Tribune reporter Danna Dykstra-Coy read.

Nobody was seen leaving the party with her and no one heard an argument or screams from the room, police said.

On the weekend of her death, Marina, a Catholic, had visited the Mission in San Luis Obispo, and the Mission’s priest, Father John Wadovich, was called upon at 12:30 a.m. that night to administer last rites.

“This is really a ‘who done it?’” Pfarr said. “There was no sexual assault. It wasn’t a robbery. Her valuables were left behind. We’ve talked to everybody who was at the wedding, and we even have license plates of cars in the area.”

Darrell Klassey of the San Luis Obispo Police Department goes over evidence at the scene where a woman’s body was found. Wayne Nicholls Telegram-Tribune

Can the case be solved?

As it was in the hours of the early investigation, the case remains as baffling as ever, though police have at least some idea of the type of killer who perpetrated the crime. They’ve compiled a suspect profile outline, a theory they aren’t revealing publicly.

Some leads have been ruled out, such as the 1994 discovery of a serrated hunting knife with a small amount of blood in an unpaved parking area across the street from where Ruggiero was killed.

Pfarr holds out hope that advancements in DNA and fingerprinting technology will help turn up a suspect, and — to this day — the department continues to test case evidence, which requires sending off samples to a laboratory and waiting to get results back.

Pfarr said one of the challenges in regard to DNA is that many different people entered and touched objects inside the room where Ruggiero was found, including maids and others — even the crowd that gathered around at the time of her death.

But the possibility remains that a match that could lead them to a killer.

It’s possible someone was waiting inside the room or broke in after she entered. The Ruggiero family successfully sued the motel in 1994, receiving $80,000, after contending the security was lacking.

Pfarr hopes to find out new information from a witness about who might have seen someone in the vicinity of the motel.

“The DNA technology now is really advanced, and our ability to examine enhanced fingerprints could lead us to someone,” Pfarr said. “But there’s also a reason why cases like this stay cold for so long. ... It’s probably going to take a technological breakthrough, or someone (in jail) talks to someone else, or someone confesses on their death bed.”

An evidence room at the SLOPD where items from the Ruggiero murder case are kept. Joe Johnston

Loved ones’ pain

Ruggiero’s parents — John, now 81, and Maria, 79, as well as 49-year-old Carmela (now with the last name Candella) — have spoken to the media in the past, but they declined interview requests from The Tribune for this story.

In the Torrance Daily Breeze article, Carmela recalled the shock of discovering her sister unresponsive, saying it was hard to get her mind around what she was seeing: “Shock set in right away.”

In the article, her father described his daughter as a “good girl,” a “normal girl” who kept out of trouble. Marina was attending El Camino College in Torrance and working as an office manager for a company in Carson.

“She was an avid reader, liked to go to concerts, and do things ‘normal 20-year-olds would do,’” John Ruggiero said.

John Ruggiero said his daughter’s death was devastating, the Daily Breeze reported.

“Family members experienced grief and rage and required therapy,” the article said.

Marina had a boyfriend of three years, Greg Hald, who was on a surf trip in Mexico with a friend when the incident happened. Hald told the Telegram-Tribune after the murder that he didn’t attend the SLO wedding because it was more of a Ruggiero family affair.

But Hald told The Telegram-Tribune in 1991 that Marina was the “love of his life,” and that that the couple “never fought” and talked “of marrying one day.”

“I could see that (homicide) happening here (in the Los Angeles area), but not up there,” Hald said at the time. “We thought it was a wonderful, beautiful place, but I don’t think I can go back. I wouldn’t be comfortable; it would be too much of a psychological hassle.”

Sgt. Tom DePriest, who previously worked on the case and ran into many frustrations, told the Telegram-Tribune in 1991 that Marina “was a good person who was unfortunately at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“I think we ended the case fairly frustrated,” DePriest said. “We pursued all the avenues. ... It’s tough. ... It seemed like a senseless crime. ... We just couldn’t put together an exact motive.”

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.