At about 1 a.m. on April 18, 1984, emergency personnel were called to help an 18-year-old woman who was lying on the sidewalk in a fetal position near First Avenue between 123rd and 124th Streets in Manhattan, New York.
The woman, B.F. was taken to a hospital. She said that three men had attacked and raped her on the roof of a high rise building in the Robert F. Wagner public housing development, a 22-building complex in the East Harlem neighborhood.
The woman said that a man named “Ronnie” had agreed to drive her to see her boyfriend at the development and led her to an apartment on the 16th floor of a building. He told her to wait outside in the hallway while he went inside the apartment. She said that when the man emerged, he was accompanied by two other men. They took her to the roof and sexually assaulted her, B.F. said.
B.F. said that the only time she had previously met Ronnie was about four months earlier when she was walking with her boyfriend and he introduced her to him. That encounter lasted about 15 or 20 minutes.
B.F. said Ronnie was a black male. About a week later, B.F. called police and said she had seen Ronnie a few days earlier on the street near her home in the Bronx and that he tried to follow her. On April 28, B.F. went to the police station and viewed about 100 arrest photos of black and Hispanic men. B.F. was unable to identify anyone.
Detective Christopher Beckel then took B.F. to the roof of the building where she said the attack occurred. She then went to the 16th floor where she pointed out apartment 16-B as the apartment that Ronnie and the others came out of as she waited in the hallway.
Beckel knocked on the door and interviewed the people there—John Ruiz, his wife Linda Lipsett, and Albert Gomez. Beckel later reported that John Ruiz said that two of his brothers, Luis and 24-year-old Rafael Ruiz, had visited the apartment at some point during the week of the assault.
Later that night, Beckel interviewed Rafael Ruiz at the apartment where he lived with his parents and other family members. Rafael told Beckel he did not know anyone named Ronnie. Rafael, whose only prior run-in with the law occurred when he was a teenager and was charged with a misdemeanor for writing “Merry Christmas” in the subway, agreed to come in for questioning and allowed Beckel to take his photograph.
That photo was placed in a photographic array with five others. B.F. viewed the array at 2 a.m. on April 29. She identified Rafael as her attacker. Beckel later claimed that he then called the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for advice and was told that a one-on-one show-up “would be sufficient” due to the late hour. Beckel put B.F. in a room with a one-way mirror and told B.F. he had someone for her to identify. Rafael was the only person on the other side of the mirror, standing in the precinct hallway. B.F. began crying and said that Rafael was Ronnie. Years later, there would be no record or evidence showing that a prosecutor was consulted.
Rafael was then arrested and charged with first-degree rape, first-degree sodomy, first-degree and second-degree robbery, and first-degree sexual abuse.
At a pretrial hearing on a defense motion to suppress B.F.’s identifications in the photographic array and the one-on-one show-up, Rafael’s defense attorney challenged the array as unduly suggestive. He pointed out that the background in Rafael’s photograph was different from the others, that some of the faces of the others were larger than Rafael’s photo, and that all the men in the photo array, except Rafael, had Afro hairstyles, although B.F. never said Ronnie had an Afro. The defense noted that the five fillers in the photographic array were black, while Ruiz was Hispanic. Detective Beckel responded that he believed some were Hispanic, but he would need to look at their names to determine their ethnicities.
Rafael’s lawyer argued that the show-up identification also was unduly suggestive because it occurred right after B.F. identified him in the photographic array and because he was wearing the same clothes.
The judge found that the photographic array was suggestive but was “not so unnecessarily suggestive as to create an irreputable [sic] misidentification” because Rafael was someone she had met before. The judge also ruled that the show-up was suggestive and “again not the best type.” The photographic array was not presented at the trial, but B.F. was allowed to testify about the show-up. She also identified Rafael in court although he had gained considerable weight and grown a full beard.
A rape kit had been collected at the hospital and sperm was detected. When the medical examiner’s office examined the swabs, blood type A—which was Rafael’s blood type—was discovered. Cuttings from the victim’s underwear, which contained sperm, revealed type O blood—which was B.F.’s blood type.
In February 1985, Rafael went to trial in New York County Supreme Court. He had rejected a prosecution offer to plead guilty in return for a sentence of 1 ½ to three years in prison.
B.F. testified that when she and her boyfriend bumped into Ronnie in January 1984, Ronnie said that she looked “Spanish,” although she was a black woman. She told the jury that she told Ronnie that he looked “a little Spanish” as well.
That was the first and only time she saw him until about 11 p.m. on April 17, about three months later. She said Ronnie was sitting on the hood of a car when she was walking on Boston Post Road near 168th Street. She said he recognized her and said that her boyfriend was home from the Army and offered to take her to see him. They drove to a building, but Ronnie said it was the wrong one. They went to another building in the housing development and climbed to the 16th floor, B.F. testified.
She said Ronnie told her to wait in the unlit hallway while he entered an apartment. The occupants, he said, sold drugs and had guns. About 20 minutes later, Ronnie emerged with two other men she had never seen. They took her to the roof where Ronnie took her purse and money. She said they threatened to throw her off the roof, and then took turns raping and sodomizing her.
B.F. testified that a woman came onto the roof during the attack and asked what was going on. B.F. said she grabbed her clothes and fled down the stairs, stopping on the 11th floor to get dressed. She said she fainted when she got to the street.
B.F. described the one-on-one identification, and then identified Rafael in court.
Beckel also testified about how he came to question Rafael. There was no police report documenting that he had called the prosecutor’s office and was advised to conduct the one-on-one show-up.
Dr. Donald Gloeb examined B.F. and took a rape kit at the hospital. He testified that he did not see any injuries, but that it could take hours for vaginal swelling to develop. B.F. was discharged later that day. She subsequently received treatment for a swollen bladder.
Dr. Robert Shaler testified that semen found on B.F.’s vaginal and rectal swabs came from a person with Type A blood who was a secretor—meaning his blood type could be determined from not only his blood but from semen, saliva, and sweat. Dr. Shaler said that it was “possible” that Rafael was the source of the semen. He also said that several million people in New York City had that blood type.
Rafael’s defense attorney argued that B.F. had said Ronnie was black and that Rafael was Hispanic. The defense also presented evidence that Rafael had never driven a car and that he had never been known as Ronnie.
The defense also presented evidence that when she was first interviewed by police, B.F. said she had been looking for her boyfriend but could not find him, so she approached Ronnie to ask if he had seen her boyfriend. The defense also noted numerous other contradictions in B.F.’s original account and her trial testimony. She earlier said her boyfriend was in the Army and then at trial said he was in the Marines. In a police report of an interview a few days after the assault, police had noted the name of Tony Brown. At trial, she said his last name was Paterson. The boyfriend, who B.F. said was Ronnie’s friend, was not called as a witness.
Rafael’s parents and brother testified that he had never been known as Ronnie and that he had never driven a car. In addition, Rafael had a gold tooth in the front of his mouth—the result of a childhood accident. This was a detail B.F. never mentioned.
Rafael testified and denied involvement in the crime. He said he had never met B.F., and did not know anyone named Tony who was in the Army. He said he lived with his mother and did delivery work for a flower shop—using cabs and public transportation because he had never learned to drive and didn’t have a driver’s license. He said he had been to his brother’s apartment 16-B, but only went there to pick up his brother’s daughter to take her to her grandmother’s house on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The crime occurred in the early morning hours of a Wednesday.
Rafael said that at the police station, two detectives, including Beckel twisted his arm, slammed his face on a table, called him a “bastard,” and threatened to break his arm. He said Beckel slammed him against the cell door while putting him into a cell, splitting his lip and causing his nose to bleed.
On February 27, 1985, Rafael was convicted of all charges. He was sentenced to 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison.
His convictions were upheld on appeal.
Rafael became eligible for parole in 1992, but was repeatedly denied release because he refused to admit he committed the crime. In 2003, his family sought help from William M. Tendy, a former Manhattan prosecutor working as a defense lawyer. Tendy and a private investigator worked on the case for free for three years.
In 2004, Tendy met with Linda Lipsett, the former wife of John Ruiz (who was by then deceased), to talk about the night that Detective Beckel came to apartment 16-B. She said that she and John both told Beckel—contrary to Beckel’s testimony—that Rafael did not come to the apartment late at night on any occasion, let alone the night of the crime.
When Tendy said that the victim described her attacker as a black man named Ronnie, Lipsett said that a woman named Vanessa Ferguson lived directly across the hall in apartment 16-C with her black boyfriend named Ronnie. Lipsett said that Ronnie was heavily involved with drugs, that visitors came and went constantly to and from apartment 16-B, and that Ronnie frequently beat Ferguson.
Tendy looked for B.F. but could not find her. In 2006, Tendy referred the case to the Innocence Project, which, in 2008, sought help from the prosecution in locating the physical evidence and obtaining permission to conduct DNA testing. Efforts to locate the rape kit were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, on April 28, 2009, Rafael, after serving his entire sentence, was released. He was required to register as a sex offender.
In 2017, Innocence Project lawyer Seema Saifee asked the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office Conviction Integrity Program to join in a re-investigation of Rafael’s case.
By that time, not only had John Ruiz died, so had Lipsett and Albert Gomez, who had resided in 16-B at the time of the crime. Records showed that the woman identified as Vanessa Ferguson had died in 2009. However, housing records confirmed that a woman named Vanesia Ferguson moved into apartment 16-C on May 24, 1984, more than a month after the assault. One of Ferguson’s relatives was interviewed and one said that the name Ronnie sounded familiar, but could recall nothing else.
Investigators from the District Attorney’s Office interviewed B.F. in September 2018. She said that in 1984, at the time of the crime, she was a sex worker and a crack user. As she recalled the incident, she said that on the day of the crime, she went to the fifth floor of a building in Harlem to smoke crack. She said she was dragged to the roof by a man who, along with two others, beat her so severely she was in a coma for two weeks.
Records showed that in April 1987, B.F. had been assaulted and beaten—three years after the attack for which Rafael had been convicted. In the 1987 case, a man named Charles Edmonson had been convicted despite his claim of innocence. He had since died in prison.
Investigators believed that B.F. had conflated the two attacks and was unable to provide a coherent account of the attack for which Rafael was convicted.
In 2019, after locating the rape kit at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the District Attorney’s Office and the Innocence Project jointly arranged for the rape kit, which included B.F.’s underwear, to be submitted to Bode Technology for DNA testing. The testing identified a single male profile on multiple items in the rape kit that excluded Rafael. The unidentified profile was submitted to the FBI DNA database but no hit was obtained.
In addition, Bode tested a pubic hair recovered from B.F.’s pubic hair combing and obtained a male profile that also excluded Rafael. This profile was consistent with the DNA profile obtained from the other rape kit items and B.F.’s underwear.
On January 28, 2020, a joint motion to vacate Rafael’s convictions was presented by the prosecution and Innocence Project. The motion was granted and the charges were dismissed.
Rafael’s Innocence Project attorney, Seema Saifee, said the case was an example of how an innocence organization and a conviction integrity unit could work together to achieve justice.
“It was through this collaboration that we were able to get to the truth in Mr. Ruiz’s case,” Saifee said. “We now know that police conducted an inadequate investigation marked by unduly suggestive identification procedures. This led to the conviction of a young man with limited resources who bravely insisted he was innocent.”
– Maurice Possley
Summary courtesy of the National Registry of Exonerations. Reproduced with permission.
State: New York
Charge: First-degree rape, first-degree sodomy, first-degree and second-degree robbery, first-degree sexual abuse
Conviction: First-degree rape, first-degree sodomy, first-degree and second-degree robbery, first-degree sexual abuse
Sentence: 8 1/3 to 25 years
Incident Date: 04/18/1984
Conviction Date: 02/27/1985
Exoneration Date: 01/28/2020
Accused Pleaded Guilty: No
Case Year: 1984, 2020
Contributing Causes of Conviction: Eyewitness Misidentification
Death Penalty Case: No
Race of Defendant: Latinx
Race of Victim: African American
Status: Exonerated by DNA
Alternative Perpetrator Identified: Yes
Type of Crime: Sex Crimes