Death Knocked on Door : Killing of Car Salesman Embroiled in Lawsuit Baffles Many

Times Staff Writer

No, no, this sort of thing just doesn’t happen around here. Murder is something on the TV set, not the front porches and tree-lined streets of a quiet neighborhood in Leucadia.

But then there came a knock at the front door. Sal Ruscitti, a husky, 58-year-old car salesman, had just settled down in front of the television to watch the Olympics on a warm mid-September evening with his wife, daughter and two of the grandchildren. It was about 7:50 p.m.

Barking exploded from the mouth of the dog, an old Dalmatian. Ruscitti’s wife of 38 years, Barbara, answered at the locked screen door. Two men, both dressed in casual clothes, both swarthy in appearance, stood beneath the porch light. In perfect English, one man asked for Sal.


Barbara called for her husband, passing him in the hallway as he trudged to the door. Sal Ruscitti opened the screen and was greeted with a hail of bullets. Some slammed through his chest, another slanted through his head.

As the assailants fled, Ruscitti fell back inside the house on Gascony Road. His life was over.

To family and friends, the execution-style slaying of Salvatore Ruscitti on Sept. 17 seemed the final terrible act of a troubling story. Just weeks before, they say, Ruscitti had received ominous telephone calls warning him to drop a lawsuit against a San Diego auto dealership where he once worked.

Although Ruscitti’s relatives have scrupulously avoided pointing an accusatory finger at the dealership or its corporate owner, they frankly acknowledge that they believe the killing stems from the lawsuit. The legal tussle, they reason, seemed the only wrinkle in a life otherwise unfettered by troubles.

Homicide investigators from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department,

however, are not so sure the lawsuit and killing can be linked. Although nothing has been ruled out, no suspects or solid motives have been unearthed, investigators say. Indeed, detectives acknowledge that they are virtually stumped, searching for clues that might thaw the icy trail to the killers.

“Yes, this is one that’s filed in the frustrating category,” said Lt. Bill Baxter of the sheriff’s homicide detail. “We’ve exhausted all possibilities. We have to hope for an information leak in whatever community the crooks are operating in.”


Baxter said there seems “nothing untoward” in Ruscitti’s background that would have sparked the killing, a crime laced with all the overtones of a professional hit. “Quite honestly,” Baxter said, “the man comes across as looking very, very straightforward.”

Indeed, as family and friends tell it, Sal Ruscitti was not the type whose life seemed destined to end in violence.

The son of immigrants, Ruscitti was born in the suburbs of Milwaukee, where he eventually became a police officer. After a year on the force, Ruscitti gave it up for more lucrative waters as a salesman, eventually moving into automobile sales.

He spent 22 years with dealerships in Wisconsin and Southern California, and is credited with being an honest, up-front operator. Investigators have virtually ruled out the possibility that some irate former customer might have gone gunning for Ruscitti.

“He was a real nice guy for customers to work with, no high pressure, none of that,” recalled his son, Frank, who also is a car salesman. “He had a following of customers. Some of them even came to his funeral.”

Devoted Family Man

Ruscitti also was a man devoted to his family. On occasion, he gave up positions with dealerships or commuted long distances so the close-knit clan, which includes four children, could live near schools suitable for the youngest child, Gina, who is blind. For the last five years the family has lived in Encinitas.


“Her dad was her best friend,” Barbara Ruscitti says of Gina, now 24. “He told her every day of her life that she was the most perfect child there is . . . . Really, the confidence she needed was her dad.”

Bob Biesiada, a local car salesman who knew Ruscitti since their boyhood in Milwaukee, said he had never seen his friend “do anything other than be with his family.”

He recalls when Ruscitti and he were 18 or 19 and a “known Milwaukee gangster” approached them about driving a load of untaxed cigarettes from Detroit to their home town for $500 each. They both turned the man down, and later laughed together about the absurdity of a life of crime.

“Sal was just a straight shooter,” Biesiada said. “He was a hell of a man. I don’t think he had an enemy I know of.”

Two months after his death, Barbara Ruscitti still puzzles over it. “He didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t gamble,” she said. “Sal was just a family man.”

The only blemish she can see is the legal fight Ruscitti and about a dozen other salesmen have waged during the past year against the Ford dealership in Kearny Mesa.


In the legal action, which has since grown into a multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuit that could involve more than 300 former salesmen as plaintiffs, Ruscitti and the rest alleged that the dealership was cheating them out of their full commissions.

During the year before his death, Ruscitti spent hours researching leads in an effort to push the case forward, his wife said. “Sal was the heart,” she said. “There couldn’t have been a lawsuit without Sal.”

His legwork sparked the key allegations in the case: that the car-lot owners for six years had added fictitious charges to factory invoices, diverting more than $100 per vehicle out of the pockets of the salesmen and into the dealership’s coffers.

The Kearny Mesa dealership and its corporate parent, San Diego-based Sunroad Enterprises, have waged a spirited defense, denying all the allegations.

Although the firm’s attorney declined to comment last week on the case, the company argues in legal papers that the salesmen were given detailed briefings on the pay plan and were told of all deductions. Moreover, testimony has been submitted from former employees contradicting the claims of Ruscitti and other disgruntled salesmen.

Barbara Ruscitti and other family members agree it seems unlikely that the dealership or Sunroad Enterprises has anything to do with the killing. The firm is just too big, they contend, to worry much about the lawsuit’s consequences.


Sunroad Enterprises is owned by Aaron Feldman, the son of Mexican industrialists and one of San Diego’s richest businessmen. His corporation controls several car dealerships; owns office buildings in Mission Valley, La Jolla and Hillcrest; a marina on Harbor Island and the International Savings Bank. The firm purchased Kearny Mesa Ford in 1985 from Ralph and Lula Mae Osborne, who had owned the dealership since 1980.

“Sunroad is a multimillion-dollar organization,” said son Frank Ruscitti, a former employee of the Ford dealership and a participant in the legal challenge. “This lawsuit is just a drop in the bucket to them. . . . If this lawsuit stands to hurt anyone, it’s the Osbornes.”

The son expressed hope that homicide investigators will continue to probe all the angles, noting that his father was involved in several business enterprises. In the months before his death, Sal Ruscitti had quit working as an auto salesman and was busy attempting to start his own car lot. Moreover, he bought cars at wholesale auctions, reselling them for a profit.

Nonetheless, Barbara Ruscitti continues to point to the lawsuit as the key.

A Gut Feeling

“My feeling,” she said, “is it’s something that Sal came across in the course of his investigations” that led to his killing.

Biesiada agreed, saying, “There’s no doubt in my mind it was the lawsuit. If he had been into anything, he would have told me . . . I knew him better than his own brother or sister.”

Ruscitti’s attorney, Karen Stawiecki, goes even further. In a two-page letter to a state deputy labor commissioner, Stawiecki argued that Ruscitti was “professionally murdered,” an act she concludes “was nothing short of the ultimate intimidation tactic to deter my clients from the orderly pursuit” of the legal action.


Lt. Baxter acknowledged that the lawsuit remains “the only thing that stands out” in the case and noted that detectives “haven’t overlooked it.” As yet, however, there is “not enough there to list it as a motive,” he said.

In the weeks before his death, Ruscitti seemed ill at ease, as if he knew he was headed for trouble, his widow recalls. He told his attorney about the anonymous phone calls, but didn’t reveal much to his wife. “Sal never wanted to frighten us,” she concludes.

“I remember him not sleeping at night, seeming very agitated,” she recalls. “But Sal was sort of a Jewish mother. . . . I thought he was worried about the kids.”

But there seemed to be other signposts of the troubles that lay ahead. Ruscitti always went to visit relatives in Wisconsin during October, but this year he insisted on making the trip in September, his wife said.

While there, Ruscitti seemed on a “sentimental journey,” she said. visiting old hangouts, reminiscing with family members. Acting like a man who sensed his days were numbered.

His wife figures the hit men had been staking out their house, a large wood-frame structure on the edge of a yawning canyon south of Batiquitos Lagoon, for weeks. She recalls seeing a car parked across the canyon on several occasions in a spot where the occupant could easily have spied on the home.


On the day her husband returned from Wisconsin, family members spotted a high-powered car speeding two different times through the looped driveway that leads to the house. She now believes it was someone making dry runs to calculate the escape time.

That evening, just hours after Sal Ruscitti arrived home after his 10-day trip, there came the fateful knock at the door.

Barbara remembers little, her mind either blanked by the horror of witnessing her husband’s killing or perhaps her own inattention to the details of the two visitors at the door. She does recall that one man appeared dark and Latino. The other seemed somewhat lighter complexioned, with medium brown hair that fell in long curls.

After hearing the shots ring out in the night, neighbors rushed outside. Several saw a dark-colored, high-powered car speed from the scene, according to homicide detectives.

Now, two months later, Barbara Ruscitti is still grappling with the events of Sept. 17.

“I watch the news at night, and I see all the families suffering tragedies,” she said. “It always seems far away, even if it’s right next door, it seems far away. And then, suddenly, you’re the one. And it doesn’t make sense.”

With her daughter, Gina, the widow has moved to an apartment in the area. She plans to press ahead with the lawsuit.


“The only thing that keeps me in it is, I know that’s what he would want,” she said. “Sal was a very courageous person. I know he’d want me to be the same.”