By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
John Lambert, an uncle, bailed Ruffin out of jail. Lambert says he was sure he'd get his money back. And he didn't want his nephew to lose his job. Ruffin had just started working as a forklift operator for Borden Pasta. He had big hopes. After stints at Hardee's and two manufacturing plants, it seemed like a good job. He lost it after two months when he tested positive for marijuana.
"That's when he stopped smoking serious," recalls Joy.
With boot camp hanging over him, Ruffin went from driving a forklift to washing dishes, another two-month job that lasted until the judge extended his probation.
Ruffin stayed unemployed for three months, but he was under pressure to work. Gainful employment was a probation condition.
He also had a family to support.
Shortly after moving in with his father and grandmother, Ruffin fell in love with Phelps, a young woman two years older than himself who had grown up in the neighborhood. She liked his sense of humor. She also thought he would be good with kids. "One of our friends had a daughter, and he helped her out with her daughter, making sure she had Pampers and food, and it wasn't even his daughter," Phelps says.
On Feb. 27, 1996, Phelps gave birth to Jeronika. Ruffin was in the delivery room when his daughter was born. He was 19 and a father for the first time. "He cut the umbilical cord," Phelps says. "He wanted to keep it. I told him he could leave that at the hospital."
Ten months later, shortly after Ruffin's probation was extended, Phelps gave birth to identical twin boys. The next month, Ruffin started working at Missouri Baptist Medical Center, where he waxed floors and prepared rooms for new patients.
Ruffin didn't have a car, so his father gave him a ride to work each day, then picked him up at the hospital after finishing his own shift as a warehouseman for a pharmaceutical company. Eventually the senior Ruffin agreed to co-sign a loan so his son could get a 1989 Delta 88.
Ruffin's family says he was changing. Instead of hanging out on Shenandoah in gangster colors, Ruffin wore his work uniform when he spent time with his friends on front porches.
Once Ruffin got his car, he picked up his children at daycare each day after work. After alternating stays at their mothers' homes, he and Phelps moved into their own flat on Shenandoah in September 1997. They paid $500 a month for rent and utilities. They were on their own for the first time.
"It was fun," Phelps recalls with a smile.
Charmaine Frazier, who works at the daycare center where Ruffin's children went, says she was proud of him. "He was a very responsible young man," Frazier says. "Every time I saw him, he was with his children and his girlfriend. I never saw him with any other guys or hanging out on the corner or doing none of that. He was raising his kids, and he was doing the right thing."
Ruffin was a doting father. When he wasn't working, he took care of his kids while Nicole worked at a daycare center. He cut the children's hair himself and took them to Chuck E. Cheese's for birthdays.
But there was another side.
When Phelps got pregnant for a third time, Ruffin wasn't happy. He wasn't even 22, and already he was the father of three.
"He started having children too young," Pampkin says. "He felt trapped. He wanted out. When they got pregnant with the last one, he just about cracked up. He didn't say anything about the other three. The last pregnancy, he was really upset then. He wanted her to have an abortion. I'm terribly against abortion. I thought that was a really immature action. I told him to get a vasectomy."
When his fourth child, Tyrone, was born on Dec. 27 last year, Ruffin was out of a job. The hospital had fired him the previous summer for being late.
Once he was a father, Ruffin realized he'd made some mistakes in life. He told Joy he regretted leaving school. Joy says Ruffin had left the classroom thinking he could make a living on the street.
"He was mad he dropped out," Joy says. "He was making money he was probably selling weed. He said, "Money messed me up. I could have stayed in school and got me a good job.'"
Ruffin's friends on Shenandoah say Ruffin saw beyond the neighborhood.
He dreamed about owning a four-family flat, one where his family could live and he could make money by renting out the other three apartments. He talked about learning how to operate heavy equipment and getting a job in the construction industry. Maybe he could open his own car wash some day.
Instead, he got in more trouble.
After the judge decided against boot camp in September 1997, Ruffin avoided serious legal scrapes until his extended probation ended in February 1998. He stayed out of trouble for nearly a year after that. It didn't last.
In January, the police served a search warrant at his flat on Shenandoah.