A 51-year-old man on California’s death row for committing a 1998 Merced double murder has died of natural causes.
Albert Ruiz was pronounced dead early Sunday in a hospital unit at California Medical Facility in Vacaville, according to a statement from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
A Merced County jury convicted Ruiz in October 2002 of the murder and robbery of liquor store owner Abdo Muhammed, 42, and customer Antonio Cruz, 74. The jury subsequently recommended the death penalty for Ruiz, which Judge Frank Dougherty affirmed.
Ruiz shot the two men to death on May 22, 1998, at Merced Liquors and Grocery Store, 550 E. Main St. Both victims were killed with gunshots to the head from less than a foot away, according to law enforcement.
The case was handled in 2002 by prosecutors Larry Morse II and David Moranda. Morse now serves as Merced County’s district attorney, and Moranda is a Merced County Superior Court judge.
Morse said Ruiz’s death from natural causes was a better fate than the convicted killer deserved. Morse said he’ll “never forget” visiting the crime scene and seeing the grieving faces of the victims’ families.
“(Ruiz) ruthlessly shot down two innocent men for a pitiful amount of money,” Morse said. “I remember it being such a brutal and callous crime. (The victims) were good, decent family men who did nothing wrong.”
Witnesses said Muhammed knew Ruiz because the store owner had extended him a line of credit and regularly cashed his checks.
Cruz was a customer at the store, who, Morse said, happened to be at “the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Merced police had no suspects in the murders until several months afterward. A break in the case happened after Glendale police arrested Ruiz’s sister, Ernestina Tapia, in an unrelated incident. Tapia offered to trade information on the Merced deaths for dismissal of the charge against her, testifying her brother admitted shooting and killing two people in Merced.
Police found a beer can at the murder scene with Ruiz’s fingerprints on it. Ruiz’s brother testified he helped dump a .22-caliber handgun in a Cressey canal. It was the same gun ballistic experts said the fatal bullets were fired from.
The jury convicted Ruiz of two counts of first-degree murder with special circumstances: committing the murders during a robbery and a burglary and committing more than one murder. Ruiz also was found guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm.
At the time of his arrest in November 1999, Ruiz was serving time in Mule Creek State Prison for an unrelated crime. Ruiz has a criminal record dating to 1981 for theft, burglary, vandalism, receiving stolen property and driving without a license.
In 1992 he was convicted in federal court of possessing 75 kilograms of marijuana with the intent to distribute it. He served 37 months in a federal prison and was arrested once for violating his federal parole.
The CDCR statement wasn’t specific about what killed Ruiz, although about the time of the trial, it was reported that he had diabetes with heart-related complications, along with hepatitis C.
According to CDCR, since 1978 when California reinstated capital punishment, 62 condemned inmates, including Ruiz, have died from natural causes, 22 have committed suicide, 13 have been executed in California, one was executed in Missouri, six have died from other causes and the cause of death is pending in one case.
There are currently 746 offenders on California’s death row.