In a probable first for San Diego County, two separate juries will sit through the same murder-for-hire trial in Vista Superior Court, deciding the fates of different defendants.
Judge J. Morgan Lester approved the rare dual-jury trial Friday in the case of three men charged with first-degree murder and conspiracy in the 1988 gangland-style slaying of automobile salesman Salvatore Ruscitti at his ocean-view Leucadia home.
Lester denied efforts by defense attorneys to suppress evidence, quash indictments and obtain bail for their clients. And he agreed with the prosecutor's unusual request for one trial with two juries in order to separate the trial of Will Nix, a former car dealer in San Diego and alleged mastermind of the murder plot, from those of co-defendants Rocky Holton and Steven Gates. Defense attorneys had sought separate trials.
The judge expressed concern about finding a way to segregate the two juries when one jury has to hear testimony that the other is not allowed to hear. For example, a small amount of evidence might be heard against Holton and Gates but not be allowed in the Nix trial. Lester agreed to try the concurrent trials but reserved the right to change his mind and hold a separate trial for Nix if the unusual arrangement does not work.
Lester said the dual-jury trial is probably the first one ever scheduled in San Diego County, although there have been a few others in the state.
Nix is accused of hatching the murder-for-hire plot against his former friend and co-worker Ruscitti because of a lawsuit the dead man had filed against Nix's parents. Six others were indicted for their alleged roles in carrying out the scheme.
FBI agents arrested Nix, 38, last May after a federal grand jury indicted him on charges of murder for hire and conspiring to hire for murder. The federal charges were transferred later to state court.
Ruscitti was gunned down at his front door, shot four times in the head and chest, after his wife called him to meet two men who had asked for him.
Prosecutor Larry Burns, an assistant U.S. attorney who was temporarily transferred to the district attorney's office for this case, said that Ruscitti was the target of the alleged murder plot because he was a lead plaintiff in a civil suit charging that Nix's parents had cheated salesmen out of thousands of dollars in commissions from car sales.
Ruscitti, who was 58 when he was killed, had worked for Nix for years at three Southern California dealerships before he filed suit against Nix's mother, Lula Mae Osborne, and stepfather, Ralph Osborne, who owned the former Center City Ford agency in San Diego from l980 to 1985. Nix was general manager of the dealership, and Ruscitti was a salesman there.
Ruscitti also had worked for the Osbornes in the 1970s at a Chino auto agency, and later worked for Nix at his Pomona dealership before returning to San Diego and filing the lawsuit on behalf of 300 salesmen he maintained were bilked out of more than $2 million in sales commissions.
In Friday's hearing, Nix's lawyer sought to suppress evidence from a search of Nix's Upland home on the day of his arrest by FBI agents and sheriff's deputies.
After testimony by FBI Agent Russell Baker that an Uzi machine gun, AK-47 and a number of other guns had been found during the search of the home, Lester ruled that the evidence was admissible because arresting officers had sufficient cause to believe their lives might have been in danger if they had not first searched the home.
The judge also denied Holton's bid for bail after reviewing evidence indicating that Holton, a mechanic in Nix's Pomona agency, had participated in preparing the car used by two hired gunmen and had traveled to San Diego with Nix armed with an Uzi in an attempt to draw Ruscitti out of his home. Gates already is out on bail.
Three other defendants have pleaded guilty to charges in federal court and are scheduled for sentencing in June. Jose (Tonto) Miranda, identified by prosecutors as the hit man, is still at large and is believed to be hiding in Mexico.