Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

John Rulloff: The Genius Killer

Appellate Strategy

The phrenologists who studied Rulloff's head from afar, as they liked to do in those days of "armchair phrenology," believed that a head of the size of his harbored significant intelligence.  There was little dispute on that score at the moment, and his "winning" manner made more than a few doubt his guilt.  But those who knew him believed otherwise.

In an ironic twist, Finch went before the justices to argue that circumstantial evidence was indeed legally sufficient to convict someone, even if there was no body, but added that the mere absence of a person did not prove a criminal deed.  The justice conceded that in order to hang someone, there should be unequivocal proof.  As 1859 opened, a new trial was ordered for Rulloff.  But the prosecutor knew there was little of hope of a different outcome, since he had no new evidence.  Subsequently, a lynch mob began to form and Rulloff was moved to Auburn.  Eventually, with Finch's legal assistance, he was free again and he looked around for employment.  But then Al Jarvis came at him with the need for money to support himself and his mother.

Rulloff had moved to Pittsburgh, where he claimed to be a scholar from Oxford in order to secure a teaching job, but it wasn't long before he returned to New York to assist Jarvis.  They formed a fatal friendship, built on petty crime and the idea of easy self-enrichment.  Under another name, Rulloff spent another two years in jail for burglary.  There he met an incarcerated burglar, William T. Dexter, a.k.a., Billy.  When both emerged from prison, they joined with Jarvis to make a criminal trio.  Billy and Al were both in their early twenties and they looked to Rulloff's age, experience and intelligence to form the right plans.  They moved through various schemes, at times serving short stints in jail.  Then Al Jarvis targeted Halberts' in Binghamton as a viable target for theft.  He invited Rulloff to see the place for himself, and Ruloff agreed that they should take the plunder.

John Rulloff
John Rulloff

Instead, it turned into a fiasco, in which three people died and Rulloff was left to take the heat.  Indeed, with his past background of slipping out of the noose for a crime that shocked the community, it was clear that everything would be done to ensure that no technicalities sprang him this time.  The DA, now Peter Hopkins, prepared for what would be viewed by many as the trial of the century.

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