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Ruley's death 'undetermined,' son-in-law's death called homicide

Norwich – Autopsies done on the body of local African American artist Ellis Ruley and his son-in-law Douglas Harris have revealed that Ruley did die of hypothermia and exposure to cold, as was originally reported in 1959, but it could not be determined what triggered Ruley's fall down the long driveway of his Hammond Avenue home.

Harris' death, however, “clearly was a homicide,” said Dr. Michael Baden, retired chief medical examiner for New York City and retired chief forensic pathologist for New York State Police, who conducted the autopsies last fall on the two bodies.

Immediately after the autopsy reports were released Monday during a news conference at City Hall, Deputy Police Chief Patrick Daley said city police are conducting a cold case investigation into both deaths. Daley put out a public appeal for information about both cases. Anyone with information is asked to call cold case investigator Lt. Corey Poore at (860) 886-5561.

Ruley, 76, a self-taught artist, lived his entire life in Norwich and died Jan. 16, 1959, under mysterious circumstances. His partially frozen body was found in the road at the bottom of the long driveway at his 28 Hammond Ave. home, a laceration on his forehead and a long trail of blood on the driveway. An autopsy at the time said Ruley had suffered a heart attack and died of exposure.

The 38-year-old Harris, Ruley's son-in-law, died 11 years earlier on the property in even more suspicious circumstances. His body was found Nov. 20, 1948, head first in a narrow, shallow well on the property. Without an autopsy, Harris’ death was ruled accidental drowning.

The bodies were exhumed from Maplewood Cemetery Oct. 17. Baden conducted the autopsies Oct. 18 at The William W. Backus Hospital. Dr. Mirela Stancu, chief of pathology at Backus, assisted in the autopsies.

Baden said it was highly unusual for a large, robust man such as Harris to fall into a well and drown. The autopsy revealed that the bone above Harris' windpipe on the left side of his neck was fractured, and the only way that could have happened was by neck compression. Baden said it was likely that Harris was engaged in a struggle, strangled and placed unconscious in the well. He inhaled water and drowned.

“The cause of death of accidental fall on the death report, I would question it,” Baden said of the 1948 report on Harris' death.

Ruley's death cannot be categorized as homicide, Baden said, because the manner of death is “undetermined.” He said it was not possible to determine whether Ruley was assaulted or pushed prior to his fall. His empty wallet was found about 20 feet from the body.

Baden said while it might be difficult to solve a murder so old, it is not impossible. He will be traveling to North Carolina in the near future to testify in a 60-year-old murder case recently resolved.

Daley said the police cases of Ruley's and Harris' deaths were never closed. He said Poore has been investigating the circumstances surrounding their deaths since he was a detective and kept the cases after he was promoted to lieutenant.

Daley said Baden's autopsy report will be submitted to the chief state's medical examiner for review. But he stressed that information from the public would be key to solving the cases.

Dianne Laiscell, Ruley's great-granddaughter, and her husband, John Laiscell, attended Monday's news conference. Laiscell thanked everyone involved in the re-examination of Ruley's and Harris' deaths and said it was a long-standing promise she had made to find out the truth about her great-grandfather's and grandfather's deaths.

“I know it took a lot of people and hard work to make this dream come true,” Laiscell said.

PBS documentary filmmaker Glenn Palmedo-Smith, who wrote a biography of Ruley in 1993 titled "Discovering Ellis Ruley," coordinated last fall's effort to have the two bodies exhumed for new autopsies and a possible cold case investigation. The California filmmaker is working on a PBS documentary on Ruley's life and artwork and the circumstances surrounding his mysterious death. He hopes to release the film next February during Black History Month.

Palmedo-Smith's PBS Korean War battle documentary, "Hold at All Costs," won six Emmy Awards, three for him personally.

Palmedo-Smith credited Norwich officials for helping with all aspects last fall's exhumation – autopsy services, funeral services, caskets, vaults, gravestones, re-burial and limousine transportation for family members all were donated.

The exhumation, autopsies and reburial last fall sparked renewed interest in Ruley's legacy in Norwich. On June 15, the Norwich City Council appointed a committee to explore creating a public park at the former Ruley homestead, taken by the city for back taxes in 1988. The committee also hopes to bring a bust of Ruley donated to Slater Memorial Museum by Palmedo-Smith, to City Hall for a display.

A new Ellis W. Ruley Memorial Saturday Morning Children's Art Classes will start in September with 12 scholarships to local third graders for the classes, which will be held at Norwich Free Academy Art School.

Palmedo-Smith said he would like to see Norwich host “Ellis Ruley day or week or month” to bring tourists to the city to explore Ruley's home and locations where he painted some of his signature colorful scenes, and to visit his grave.

“He's living in a hostile, an unnurturing environment, and yet he finds such beauty in the Rose of New England,” Palmedo-Smith said of Ruley's work.

c.bessette@theday.com

Twitter: @Bessettetheday

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