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Man Tells Jurors of Terror, Death Threats in Divorce Fight : Trial: He says he resisted signing over property to his ex-wife until one assailant came at him with a lighted road flare.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Harold Ruppert testified at his ex-wife’s trial Wednesday that two assailants’ death threats and promises to break both his arms and legs were not enough to force him into signing over most of his property to her.

But he caved in, he said, when one of them put a lighted road flare to his groin.

“He asked me if I had ever smelled burned skin, and I signed immediately,” Ruppert told jurors. “I was absolutely terrified.”

Helen Westin Ruppert, 61, could be sentenced to up to six years in prison if convicted on charges of conspiracy, burglary, assault with a deadly weapon and extortion in connection with the incident at the divorced couple’s Laguna Beach home last Jan. 22.

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The two assailants, who have already been sentenced in the case, have disputed very little of Henry Ruppert’s version of events.

But the lawyer for Helen Ruppert said outside the courtroom Wednesday that his client had no idea the two men planned to do anything but talk to her ex-husband about the dispute over a property settlement.

“She’s going to testify (today) and you’ll hear her side of this whole thing,” said defense attorney Gary M. Pohlson.

The Rupperts had been divorced for five years but shared a Laguna Beach house--she living upstairs--because they could not agree on a property settlement. The court had ordered a settlement, but that was put on hold while she appealed it. Henry Ruppert is a nightclub owner with extensive property holdings in both Southern California and Oklahoma.

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He testified that the two men assaulted him just a few minutes after his ex-wife called to him in his half of the house and asked, “Are you ready to settle yet?”

Richard William Nimmo, 52, of Newport Beach and Ralph Thomas Pueschel, 30, of Grand Terrace in San Bernardino County each pleaded guilty last month to assault and extortion charges. But they were placed on probation with credit for time they had already served in Orange County Jail--five months for Nimmo, four months for Pueschel.

Wednesday, Nimmo testified that while Helen Ruppert did not order him to assault her ex-husband, she had “inferred” that he was supposed to be intimidating and thought he was operating on her orders.

On Tuesday, Pueschel testified that he was only supposed to be a forceful presence at a meeting between Nimmo and Henry Ruppert, and that he did not know that Nimmo was going to pull out a road flare and light it. However, Pueschel told jurors it was Helen Ruppert’s order that he be “an intimidating presence.”

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Henry Ruppert testified Wednesday as to how upsetting the experience was for him. Superior Court Judge Donald A. McCartin warned him repeatedly to stop telling jurors what his emotions were and tell them only what happened.

Ruppert said Nimmo did most of the talking and ordered him to sign over to his ex-wife property worth at least $600,000, in addition to the Laguna Beach house and $30,000 in cash.

Ruppert said that when he refused, Nimmo told him, “You either sign these papers or you’re going to be in the bottom of that ocean out there in a concrete box.”

Later, when he still refused, Ruppert said, Nimmo looked at Pueschel and said, “Break both his arms and legs.”

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At one point, Ruppert testified, he was shaking so badly that he told Nimmo: “I’m 65 years old. I can’t sign these papers if I have a coronary.”

Ruppert said he was convinced at one point that he was going to be killed. But he still refused to sign, he said, until Nimmo moved the road flare closer to his body and he could feel the heat.

Ruppert called the police immediately after the two men left, and they were arrested near the Rupperts’ home. Ruppert said he has been so afraid since then that he has hired security guards to protect him.

A major part of the prosecution’s case is the documents themselves. Did Helen Ruppert actually expect her ex-husband to turn over most of his small fortune by persuasive means other than extortion?

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“The documents will be explained in her testimony,” said her attorney, Pohlson.

“If jurors believe that she conspired with these two men to extort these documents from him, then she’s guilty of everything,” Pohlson said. “But that isn’t what she did.”


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