It all happened in just under five minutes. James Ruppert gunned down 11 of his family members at home, including his mother, brother, sister-in-law, and their eight children on March 30, 1975. It was Easter Sunday.
To date, the massacre is considered one of the deadliest and most obscene shootings in US history. Perhaps what’s most disturbing is the relative lack of a motive and sheer baffling nature of Ruppert’s actions. What drove a quiet man to do such harm?
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Looking into a murderer’s past often sheds light on the person they would become. In James’s case, his was an unremarkable life. He was born April 12th, 1934 to Charity and Leonard Ruppert, the latter of which had a violent temper and battled alcoholism. James had one younger brother, Leonard Jr.; together they would often be at the receiving end of their father’s rage. Leonard Sr. died when James was 14.
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James never stood out. He was tiny—5’5” and only weighed upwards of 135 pounds. He lived in the shadow of his brother Leonard Jr., who was taller, more outgoing, and the replacement “father figure” in the family household. As was often the case between brothers and siblings, the alpha bullied the beta, Leonard Jr. frequently giving James a hard time for his withdrawn nature.
James nearly succumbed to all this pressure, running away at 16 to kill himself. Being unsuccessful in his attempt might not have given him a vote of confidence. He soon returned home to his quiet and aimless life.
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At a glance, you see night and day when comparing the two Ruppert brothers. James dropped out of college partway, trained as a draftsman, but remained unemployed and mostly single. He had a girlfriend, Alma, but the relationship did not last. Leonard Jr. went to college and earned a degree in electrical engineering, landed a job and ended up marrying James’s ex, Alma. Together they had eight children.
James never fully recovered from life’s curveballs and continued to live at home with his mother, Charity, diving into an alcoholic state, drinking nightly. Perhaps like everyone else in his life, Charity became fed up, believing that if he had the money to get drunk every night at the local bar, the 19th Hole, he had enough to pay rent. She wanted him out of the house. James did not take the news very well.
It didn’t help that he owed both his brother and mother money, spending it on the booze and hasty attempts at working the stock market. The tension and urgency of his situation growing, James acted differently in the month or so before Easter Sunday. By all accounts severely depressed, he had been seen buying ammunition and also asking about gun silencers. On March 29th, 1975, people claimed to see him shooting cans near the Great Miami River in Hamilton.
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On the night before Easter, James routinely went to the 19th Hole to get drunk. He talked to Wanda Bishop, the bartender, and ranted about his mother kicking him out. Wanda would tell the authorities later that James left the bar on the early side, 11PM, only to return an hour or two later where the drank until last call. Bishop had asked him if he “solved his problems” when he returned. and he replied simply and ominously, “No, not yet.”
The day of the massacre played out almost to-match with a healthy family celebrating the holiday together. Leonard Jr. and his wife Alma visited Charity at her home for the festivities, including an Easter egg hunt for the younger children. James remained upstairs sleeping off his hangover until his brother arrived. Summoned by the commotion downstairs, James went downstairs to say hello. Leonard Jr. greeted him with a frank, “How’s that Volkswagen?”
James appeared to be put off by the comment and returned upstairs. His general temperament had always been paranoid, believing that his mother and brother were conspiring against him with the FBI, even to the extent that Leonard Jr. had rigged the Volkswagen with traps.
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At around 6PM, while Charity was in the kitchen making Sloppy Joes alongside Leonard Jr., Alma, and three of their children, James came back downstairs with his .357 Magnum, two .22 caliber handguns, and a rifle. He entered the kitchen and killed his brother first, followed by Alma and Charity. After ensuring they were dead, he shot down David, Teresa, and Carol, and then left the kitchen and walked into the living room, reclining on the couch while he killed the remaining nieces and nephews, including Leonard III, Michael, Thomas, and John. Though one child had been shot once in the chest, James doubled back and expelled multiple shots in the other 10 victims to ensure they were dead.
The authorities would later discuss the lack of motive and relative absence of any struggle, save for a flipped over wastebin. In a mere five minutes, James took the lives of 11 people, all of them members of his family. He took his time after it was over, waiting approximately three hours before calling the police.
"There's been a shooting,” he mumbled over the phone. Upon arrival, James waited for the police at the door, flecks of blood splatter on his muted yellow shirt and plaid slacks. The authorities hadn’t expected the massacre that awaited. Reports of a would-be pleasant sight of a normal Easter, with its candy and other accoutrement was offset by a vivid picture of dead bodies amid ankle deep pools of blood. There had been so much blood in the kitchen that it seeped through to the floorboards and basement of the house.
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Of the 11 victims, the oldest was Charity Ruppert at 65, and the youngest was John at the tender age of 4. His other nieces and nephews ranged in age between 17 and 4, with Teresa (9), David (11), and Carol (13) barely even teenagers.
James claimed insanity, and the prosecutors aimed for a felony conviction to ensure that Ruppert would not stand to inherit $300,000 should he be found “not guilty.” He was given a life sentence for the murders; in a later trial in 1982, the jury found Ruppert guilty of the murders of both his mother and brother, but they acquitted him for the rest of the murders on the case of insanity. Still, his sentence remained life in prison.
To date, Ruppert continues to serve his sentence at the Franklin Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. In April 2015, he received another hearing, the verdict once again denying release. His next hearing is scheduled for February 2025. By then, he will be 90 years old.
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The murders shocked the local town of Hamilton, as well as the rest of the country. However, in recent decades, it has faded from national knowledge. Given the sheer violence of the act, perhaps many found it too disturbing and baffling and blocked it out of their minds.
And yet, the Rupperts were normal and considered by neighbors and friends to be nice, healthy, and without signs of internal dissension. Many found James to be shy and unremarkable, but otherwise harmless. James shot 35 rounds into his family. 11 dead by his own hand. Truly, the Easter Sunday Massacre hits home.