Suspect in Murder for Hire Due to Be Released on Bail


One of four suspects in the alleged murder for hire of Encinitas car salesman Salvatore T. Ruscitti is expected to be released from jail today on $225,000 bail, his attorney said Monday.

Attorneys involved in the case say they believe it marks the first time in California that a man charged in a death-penalty case has been released on bail.

The man, Steven Gates, is alleged by prosecutors to have helped plan the execution-style murder of Ruscitti in retribution for Ruscitti’s participation in a lawsuit claiming he and fellow car salesmen were bilked out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions at what was then known as Dixon Ford in San Diego.


Ruscitti, 58, was gunned down at the front door of his home Sept. 17, 1988.

Prosecutors allege that Will Nix, the general manager of the dealership that was owned by his parents, masterminded the murder plot, and that Gates was involved in planning the killing and in helping Nix establish an alibi.

Last Friday, Vista Superior Court Judge J. Morgan Lester ordered Gates’ bail set at $225,000. Lester said bail should be set because the evidence presented to a San Diego County grand jury fell short of showing a strong likelihood that Gates was guilty.

All four suspects in the case--including a man who is still at large--are charged with the special circumstance of murder for financial gain. If convicted, the four could be sentenced to death or life in prison without the chance of parole.

Gates’ attorney, Elizabeth Barranco, said Gates’ wife, parents and others were busy over the weekend completing the paperwork to provide $450,000 in real property as security for the bail. Barranco said that Gates is expected to be released today from the County Jail in Vista.

Gates lives in Upland, where at the time of Ruscitti’s death he was the general sales manager at Will Nix Ford in Pomona.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Larry Burns, who is prosecuting the case in Vista Superior Court, said he was surprised by Lester’s decision to set bail, but would not appeal “the discretionary decision.”

Barranco said now that Gates will be freed, she will not press for a speedy trial, which had been scheduled to start next month before Lester.

Nix and another defendant in the case, Timothy (Rocky) Holton, remain in jail without bail.

The alleged triggerman in the killing, Jose (Tonto) Miranda, has not been arrested.