Ex-Car Dealer Indicted in Murder Plot : Crime: Suspect in 1988 Leucadia slaying is charged with hiring Mexican hit men to kill ex-salesman who was suing San Diego dealership suspect had managed.
A former executive of a San Diego car dealership was arrested Thursday after a federal grand jury charged he hired two Mexican hit men to execute a one-time friend and salesman who sued the dealership.
William Wayne (Will) Nix Jr., who more than six years ago was the general manager of then-Center City Ford, was arrested without incident at his home in the San Bernardino County city of Upland, U.S. Atty. William Braniff said Thursday in San Diego.
Most recently, Nix owned the Will Nix Ford dealership in Pomona. He sold it late last year.
Nix, 37, was apprehended by 10 FBI agents and San Diego County Sheriff homicide detectives--the same number that had dogged the case for more than two years, Braniff said.
Nix was indicted by a federal grand jury in San Diego last Friday on charges of murder-for-hire and conspiring to hire for murder. The indictment was unsealed Thursday with Nix’s arrest. He was charged with federal crimes because the two assassins were recruited from Mexico and had crossed the international border to commit murder, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Larry Burns, coordinator of the office’s violent crime task force.
The victim, Sal Ruscitti, was shot four times in the chest and head on Sept. 17, 1988, after he was beckoned by his wife to see two men who called for him at the front door of their Leucadia home.
Ruscitti was one of the lead plaintiffs in a 1986 class-action lawsuit representing more than 300 persons who had sold cars for Center City Ford and, later, Kearny Mesa Ford after the San Diego dealership changed ownership and name. The lawsuit alleged that Ruscitti and the others had been been cheated on their commission checks because the dealership’s owners had systematically altered factory invoices and other figures, effectively bilking salesmen an average of $125 commission on each car they sold.
At one point, lawyers for the salesmen contended, the dealership owed $2.9 million in back commissions, interest and penalties.
Ruscitti had worked with, and for, Nix for years at three different Southern California dealerships and at times they were close friends, the victim’s wife said Thursday.
Barbara Ruscitti, interviewed by phone at her home in Carlsbad, said she cried when she first was given the identity of the suspect because she had known Nix and considered him for years as a family friend.
“My heart stopped. And I’m still in a state of shock. You wait for something, a resolution, for so long that you think you’ll be prepared for it, but when it happens, you realize you’re not prepared for it at all.”
Ruscitti said her children had suspected Nix in connection with her husband’s slaying for a variety of reasons “but I was the last holdout.
“I couldn’t believe that anyone who knew us as a family could do anything like this. I was hoping it would be a stranger, someone who wouldn’t know what our family life was like. But to do it in our home, in front of our children and grandchildren . . . .”
Asked her feelings now about Nix, she said: “I think that maybe tearing his heart out through his mouth might about cover it. I look at how much my children have suffered, and how it’s destroyed my life, and how it took away my future, and how many lives it touched and how much damage it has done permanently, and forgiveness just isn’t in my vocabulary.
“I wouldn’t miss the trial.”
Nix is scheduled to be arraigned in U.S. District Court in downtown San Diego today, and authorities said they would ask that he be held without bail at the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center.
Under federal sentencing rules involving murder-for-hire, Nix faces a mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole if he is convicted.
“We all have an interest in seeing that heinous crimes like this do not go unchallenged,” Braniff said. “None of us is safe if the unscrupulous among us can settle disputes simply by resorting to hiring assassins.
“Significantly, the defendant hired the assassins from Mexico. They could slip across the border, carry out their crime and then return to anonymity in Mexico,” Braniff said.
The FBI was brought into the investigation, Braniff said, after sheriff’s investigators developed leads that pointed them to south of the border. He credited assistance provided by Mexican law enforcement officials, but didn’t explain the role they played.
Nix’s mother, Lula Mae Osborne, and his stepfather, Ralph Osborne, had owned the dealership on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard from 1980 to 1985, during which time Nix served as general manager and Ruscitti was a salesman.
In October, 1985, the dealership was sold to businessman Aaron Feldman, owner of Sunroad Enterprises which owns other automobile dealerships in San Diego County. He changed the name of Center City Ford to Kearny Mesa Ford, and Ruscitti continued to work there a few more months before rejoining Nix at his new dealership in Pomona.
In June, 1986, Ruscitti returned to the San Diego dealership, where he worked until November--when he was fired after filing the lawsuit.
The lawsuit by Ruscitti and the others named both the Osbornes’ company, Empire Motors Inc., and Sunroad Enterprises as defendants. The lawsuit is pending in San Diego Superior Court.
Attorneys for both Feldman and the Osbornes declined comment on Thursday.
At a press conference Thursday, Braniff, Burns, San Diego County Sheriff Jim Roache and Thomas M. Kuker, FBI assistant special agent-in-charge, declined to elaborate on what evidence they had against Nix or what his motive was. They referred to the indictment itself, which noted simply that Ruscitti had sued Empire Motors.
They also declined comment on whether other arrests were pending.
The indictment charged that Nix asked Paul A. Gonzalez, who worked in the body shop of Nix’s dealership in Pomona and lived in Rowland Heights, to hire hit men from Mexico to kill Ruscitti, and that Nix then borrowed money from David Charles Hernandez, an “associate” of his, to pay for the murder, being careful that none of the money could be traced back to Nix himself.
Steven Vernon Gates, who also worked for Nix, got the money from Hernandez to pay for the assassination, and Nix then turned it over to Gonzales, according to the indictment.
Authorities would not further identify Gates, Gonzales or Hernandez, except to say that Gonzales was now in custody in connection with the case. But they said no charges have been filed against any of the three.
Authorities also declined to elaborate on the identify or the whereabouts of the actual killers, except to say that the case remains under investigation.
At one point, at least $5,760 changed hands, but Burns said more money might have been involved.
Ruscitti first worked with Nix at a car dealership owned by the Osbornes in Chino in the 1970s, his widow said. When the Osbornes bought the San Diego dealership in 1980, both Ruscitti and Nix moved here.
“Sal and Will knew each other very well. In fact, there were times when they lived together, when I was still back in Milwaukee,” she said.
Her husband felt uncomfortable working with Nix in Pomona, she said, “because there were . . . too many unsavory characters. He felt the dealership was going to go down for the fall, and he didn’t want to be part of it.” For that reason, she said, he returned to San Diego.
After he filed the lawsuit, she said, “he began receiving threatening phone calls at home. Unfortunately, he didn’t share that information with me at the time, and I still don’t know if there was a connection between those and his murder.”
Barbara Ruscitti said she decided to remain a resident of San Diego County after the death of her husband of 38 years because their youngest child, Gina, 24, who is blind, is receiving excellent schooling in the area as she prepares to become a preschool teacher.
Ruscitti also said she appreciated the care and attention she received from the sheriff’s homicide detectives as they pursued the case over the two and a half years.
“I couldn’t have gotten along without the Sheriff’s Department and (Sgt.) Terry Wisnewski, who was the first investigator at the scene. He called me and kept in touch. Even if he couldn’t tell me anything, he at least would call to say they were still working on it, when I was going crazy.”
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.