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Murder-suicide shakes circle of friends, prompts doubts

Photo: Denisa with the couple's Pomeranian, Bubu. Source: Facebook

Three days before Ovidiu Rusu killed his wife, his dog and then himself, he asked a longtime friend for some advice about guns.

“If I have a .38 or a .22, which is less noisy?”

His friend, Michael Sulivan, 76, was surprised. Rusu, his former tenant and something of a son and brother, was also a fishing buddy.

“I assume the .22 is quieter, because it is smaller,” Sulivan said.

Sulivan knew that his friend’s marriage of less than a year was rife with arguments, that his tile business was slow, and that he had been upset in recent weeks because of his lack of cash. But Sulivan never expected Rusu to shoot his wife.

Two days before the killing, Nina Smart saw Rusu, her neighbor in a Koreatown apartment complex. Smart had good news to share. After more than eight years of graduate studies, she had completed her doctoral dissertation.

“Hey, guess what? I finished,” she told Rusu on the night of Oct.11 as they both returned from work.

He joked about how someone in her 40s like Smart could spend so much time in school.

Nothing seemed extraordinary about their conversation, said Smart, who like Rusu, was born and raised in Romania. It was the usual banter they often shared since meeting in 1998, when Rusu first moved to the United States.

But Smart and Sulivan would revisit their exchanges as they sought to make sense of the violence that occurred days later.

During the early morning of Oct. 14, Rusu killed his wife, Denisa, with a gunshot to the head, killed his dog with two shots, and then shot himself in the head, Det. Connie Castruita of the Los Angeles Police Department said.

Police found their bodies 36 hours later, when a string of events prompted friends to become concerned and call the authorities.

Photo: Bubu, the couple's Pomeranian, was shot twice during the murder-suicide. Source: FacebookThe Rusu couple failed to show up to a Sunday dinner with Sulivan and his wife. Smart said her brother, also a neighbor, suggested that the couple had taken an impromptu trip. But Ovidiu Rusu’s three cars were still parked outside the apartment complex in the 500 block of South St. Andrew’s Place. Rusu was not answering his phone, the apartment door was locked, and Smart recalled she had not heard the barks of their dog – a Pomeranian named Bubu – or seen the couple shuffle past her window.

The police arrived just after noon Oct. 15, said landlord Eduardo Bartolete, who unlocked the apartment door and entered with Sulivan’s sister-in-law, Christina Denescu, 80, also a friend of the couple.

In the bedroom, police found the bodies of Ovidiu Florian Rusu, 37, and Denisa Rusu, also 37. Both were pronounced dead at 12:25 p.m., according to the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.

The apartment showed no signs of disorder or vandalism, and the door was locked from the inside.

“Everything was clean and steady,” Denescu said.

Ovidiu Rusu did not leave a note, police said. The couple did not have children.

Police said financial distress caused Rusu to fall into a state of depression, and during the last month, he purchased a gun for the sole purpose of killing both his wife and himself.

Financial stress can trigger a man to kill his spouse and himself, but economic factors are rarely the sole catalyst, according to the National Institute of Justice, a crime research agency within the U.S. Department of Justice. Instead, other sources of conflict – like sex or children – work in tandem with financial stressors to impel a murder-suicide.

Rusu worked as a self-employed ceramic and terrazzo tile contractor, according to his business license, and he had financial difficulty for the last year, according to police. He had borrowed close to $10,000 from an unidentified friend, police said.

Rodney Haim, a manager at Royal Stone and Tile in West Los Angeles, said Rusu, a longtime customer, struggled in the tile business.

“We would try to give him customers here and there, but nothing stuck,” Haim said.

Rusu had not worked steadily since at least 2010, when his first wife, Wendy Wilma Peters, died of breast cancer, Smart said.

“He would spend hours at the hospital with Wendy,” Sulivan said.

After Peters’ death, Rusu traveled to Romania and lived there for more than a year.

He connected with Denisa, then a psychiatric nurse living in Campina, a city 70 miles north of Bucharest, through the Internet, said Denisa’s sister Christina Bratila. The two finally met in person in February 2011, Bratila said. They dated, became engaged, married at the American Embassy in Bucharest, and moved to Los Angeles a year later, Smart said.

News of Denisa’s murder by her own husband became a minor sensation in the Romanian media, which interviewed her friends who said she had an envious husband.

“He was jealous of every man who talked to my sister,” said Bratila, who added that Ovidiu could also be “kind and generous.”

Smart said Denisa often avoided conversation in public, ducking away because her English was lackluster. Since coming to Los Angeles, Denisa had not worked and spent much of her time in the couple’s apartment, often Skyping with friends and family in Romania. Smart said Denisa would use a speaker, making conversations in Romanian a familiar background noise in the apartment complex’s close quarters.

“If Denisa sneezed, I could practically say ‘Bless you,’” Smart said.

Despite the proximity, Smart said she did not hear anything unusual in the hours before the killings and did not hear gunshots. Furthermore, she saw no signs of strife in their relationship. On the contrary, she observed the habits of a doting husband.

“Ovidiu would always open the passenger door for Denisa, then close it for her when she got in the car,” Smart said.

Domestic violence and threatening statements by one spouse to another typically precede murder-suicides, according to the National Institute of Justice.

Bratila and Smart both said the couple argued, but the quarrels were minor, and the frequency of the arguments was on par with that of the average couple.

Sulivan, a Romanian American who became a citizen in 1987 and hosted Ovidiu when he first came to the United States, disagreed.

“The [marriage] was full of arguments,” Sulivan said. “Ovidiu used to exaggerate things – it was his way. When Denisa came here, she didn’t find what he said in Romania.”

Despite a rocky marriage and shaky finances, news of the murder-suicide caught friends by surprise.

“This is not a violent person,” Haim said.

Ady Simion, a realtor in Pasadena who runs a website for the Romanian expatriate community in Southern California, said the couple’s friends are in disbelief.

“At one point friends were thinking both were murdered,” he said. “Some people still think that.”

After news of the murder-suicide surfaced, Simion started an online fundraiser through his website for Romanian expatriates, www.romaniinlosangeles.com, to send Denisa’s body back to her family in Romania. More than $2,500 was raised, Simion said, from more than 100 donations.

Denisa’s body will arrive in Romania soon, Bratila said. Fundraising by Denisa’s former coworkers and family friends helped cover the $10,000 required to ship her body, Bratila said. Sending her body has been complicated by the inability of friends to locate any of the couple’s identification paperwork, like passports and marriage licenses, Sulivan said.

When Simion notified Denisa’s sister that the Romanian community in California collected the money, she told him, “Help Ovidiu.” Money raised in the United States will now be divided evenly, covering funeral and estate expenses for each, Simion said.

--Matthew Hamilton

Matthew Hamilton of USC’s Annenberg Digital News reported on this killing for the Homicide Report. This dispatch is one in a series of reports from USC students working in partnership with The Times.

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