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Folks who hang out on Shenandoah say Ruffin wasn't a fighter. He preferred to talk things out.
"Anybody out here, he could beat their ass, but he chose not to," says Marvis Joy, who considered himself Jerome's best friend. "He was a big dude, but he moved like he was little. He was a big, playful motherfucker."
Joy and Ruffin started hanging out together about five years ago, about the time Ruffin moved in with his grandmother and father. The two young men had known each other for years, but Ruffin was four years older than Joy, who had previously visited the house on Flad to visit Ruffin's younger cousins. The difference in their ages dissolved and they became friends after Ruffin's father began dating Joy's mother.
"We would be together every day," Joy recalls. "He was like my big brother. He was cool. We talked alike. We walked alike. We ate alike. When he stopped smoking, I'd stop smoking. When he switched to Black-and-Milds, I did, too."
The two would tease each other about the romance between their parents. Ruffin could get away with saying things about Joy's mom that would provoke a fight with anyone else. Ruffin loved to sing R&B-style songs, though everyone who knew him agrees he had a terrible voice. Joy never let him forget it.
"I was always jawing, "You can't sing a lick,'" Joy says. "He'd say, "So what? I ain't getting paid.' I'd say, "No way anyone would pay you.'"
Out of school with no diploma, Ruffin didn't know what he should do when he moved into his grandmother's house. His father says he made it clear that his son needed to work. "When he dropped out, I told him he was too old to do nothing," the senior Ruffin says. "I explained that the service would be a good place to start, get some direction and make some money at the same time. He didn't like the idea of the service. So I sold him and my nephew, who's about the same age, on going to Job Corps."
But Ruffin and his cousin left the program after a few months.
"They were saying there was too much gang activity," Pampkin says. "But I really think they didn't like the time they had to get up in the morning."
Ruffin would know a gang when he saw one. He was a gang member himself. Relatives aren't sure when he joined, and his friends won't say. But by the time he moved into the neighborhood full-time, he was wearing colors. He also had a Gangster Disciples tattoo on his right biceps. His street name was Dookie, a common Blood moniker that his friends say came from his two front teeth inlaid with gold "dookie" was just another way of saying "two."
Ruffin's friends say a gang in their neighborhood is no big deal.
"It ain't nothing organized," Joy says. "You would see a tattoo or something. That's about it."
Ruffin's father also downplays the gang connection: "I find that 90 percent of the people now are gang-affiliated, one way or another. As long as he wasn't out robbing and stealing and shooting at people, I didn't care."
But his grandmother was concerned. When she asked about his tattoo, he wouldn't give a straight answer. "There were a lot of guys I'd rather he didn't associate with," Pampkin says. "You just know if you're around them, he's probably doing the same thing they are. I talked to him and I warned him, but I couldn't forbid him from seeing them."
Ruffin's mother worried to the point where she made unexpected visits to the neighborhood after her son moved out. If her son wasn't home when she thought he should be, she would page him and tell him to go to his grandma's house.
"I kept telling him, "I don't like you over there. I don't want you over there,'" Oats says. "There was a lot of little guys he used to hang out with, you know what I'm saying? I didn't like it. I couldn't stop that. I would ride over there and check up on him. I would come in a different car so they don't know I'm coming. I'd hop out of the car real fast and say, "What are you doing?' To be honest, I would check his pockets.
"He'd say, "Mom, I ain't doing nothing but standing out. I'm just sitting around.'"
But brushes with the law began soon after Ruffin moved out of his mother's house.
In 1994, Ruffin was arrested for cocaine possession at a house on Shenandoah known by the cops as a gathering point for drug users and dealers. He pleaded guilty and got two years' probation. Less than four months later, he was again charged with possession of cocaine and marijuana. The next year, he was arrested for marijuana possession.
Now he was facing serious punishment. When Ruffin pleaded guilty to new drug-possession charges in February 1996, his probation officer recommended that probation for the previous offense be revoked and that Ruffin be sent to boot camp. Ruffin was worried enough that he didn't show up for a probation hearing. The judge issued a warrant and set bond at $2,500. Ruffin was subsequently arrested in June 1996.
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