WASHINGTON - A witness for the prosecution in the Mansion Murders case told the jury on Wednesday how Daron Wint smelled the night he was arrested.
Felicia Ruffin told the court that May 21, 2015, was the worst evening of her life. At the time she was 20 years old and working and studying.
Two girlfriends picked her up after work that evening and Ruffin said she thought they were going to get marijuana from a guy she said she only knew as "Goo."
"Goo" is a nickname for Derrell Wint, who is Daron Wint's half-brother. With her friend Chelsea Nunez at the wheel, the girls drove to Goo's house.
Ruffin said they were then told to follow him to a hotel in College Park.
Goo, she said, was a passenger in a box truck. Ruffin said she didn't know who was driving the box truck. Ruffin said the girls were talking, laughing and playing music so she wasn't really paying attention to her surroundings.
At the hotel, the girls stayed in the car, then she said an older man got into the passenger seat next to her. She couldn't recall his name, just that Goo told her it started with a "D," and the man said his name was Jason.
"I didn't know where we were going," she testified. "We were just following the truck."
Ruffin was chatty and nervous on the stand, at times her voice trembling. She pointed out Daron Wint as the man in the car next to her that night.
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She said she tried to make conversation with him, but he "just shut me down - he was not an approachable person at all."
Ruffin went on to describe his manner as "aggressive and rude" toward her. When asked if he had a cellphone, she said, "yeah, the phone was like one you'd use years ago." Members of the jury chuckled at her statement.
During questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Bach, Ruffin recalled that Daron Wint had a bag with him. Calls would come in on a cellphone in the bag and Daron Wint would reach down, get the number, and call back from the old-style cellphone, Ruffin stated.
She also testified that Daron Wint smelled of a distinctive odor that stuck with her.
"It was like on him. In his hair, his clothes. The scent was on him," she said.
Ruffin recalled that the scent reminded her of her grandfather, who used to work in a coal factory. She also said it smelled like gasoline.
Ruffin said that night, without warning, she thought they'd been in an accident. She told the jury that at first she laughed because her friend Nunez had a reputation as a bad driver. Then, three more cars struck their vehicle on Rhode Island Avenue.
"I freaked out. Realized it was not an accident," she recalled. It was very dark, she said, "and I saw like a billion lights, I didn't know what was going on… all I saw was lights and I was like, what the heck?!"
"I'm freaking out, screaming," she continued.
Bach asked if the defendant said anything to her.
"They're here for me, don't trip," Ruffin recalled. She said Daron Wint handed her something and told her to give it to his brother.
She said it was a stack of some kind of papers, maybe receipts. She said she threw it back at him and said, "I don't want to be a part of this, I'm done!"
Defense attorney Jeffrey Stein challenged whether Ruffin actually described Daron Wint's smell as gasoline and proceeded to pepper her with questions about her police interview on the night of the May 21, 2015.
Was she angry at the police station? Did police ask her questions about Daron Wint? Why didn't she mention the distinctive odor that night?
"Slow down," she said to Stein. "They didn't ask me names, just descriptions of who I was with."
"Did detectives take a break then come back?" Stein asked.
Ruffin said she didn't recall.
"Did they say if you think of anything else, let me know when I come back?" the defense asked.
"I don't remember, but you can go ahead and remind me," Ruffin shot back.
Stein showed her the transcript of her police interview where a detective did indeed leave and come back.
"At no point did you mention Mr. Wint smelling like a coal factory," Stein said.
The two went back and forth for a long time, with Stein questioning why Ruffin only recalled the smell after she learned what the case was about and what Daron Wint was arrested for.
Stein tried to make a point that she encountered Daron Wint one week after the fire - as if perhaps he wouldn't smell of smoke that many days later.
Ruffin admitted that after police told her what Daron Wint was arrested for, she did her own research on the case.
Stein wanted the jury to believe that research prejudiced Ruffin's statement about the "coal factory" smell.
"You read about it. You learned the case involved fire" Stein said.
"I can't say that's true," replied Ruffin.
Several times, Bach objected.
"Badgering the witness!" Bach shouted. "Asked and answered!"
On each objection, the judge agreed.
Stein suggested that Ruffin was angry and insulted by Daron Wint - and she agreed on that point.
Ruffin said he never directly swore at her, but "I do feel as though he was disrespectful and aggressive. Everything about him is insulting to me."
She said she was anxious and stressed during the police interview, stating several times that her main focus was just to get out of there. Ruffin also said she did not know, and still does not know Goo's real name. She only knew him because her older brother went to Blair High School with him.
Bach asked Ruffin again why the coal scent stuck with her. Ruffin said it was because it reminded her of home.
Bach asked Ruffin what kind of research she did on the case.
Ruffin said her main concern was to see if her name was connected to the arrest since it involved her friend's car.
"I was ashamed of it, to be honest," Ruffin said as her voice started to crack.
"My dad is a really religious person. He told me if I ever got in trouble he would not come get me. I thought I was going to be there a long time. I thought my dad would not come get me. This situation, it scarred me," she testified. "I got pulled over and it was the worst experience of my life. I just wanted to be with people who would comfort me. I just wanted to go home."
With that, she was excused.
Earlier, items that were recovered from the Chevy Cruze and the box truck were introduced into evidence.
Among the items from the Chevy included:
- 10 Western Union money orders for $1,000 each
- MoneyGram receipts
- A Samsung phone
- A black and pink drawstring bag with clothing items, including one piece that appeared to be a gray long-sleeved shirt
Items from the box truck included:
- $13,300 in money orders
- $7,381 in cash, most of it in $100 bills
An investigator testified that prosecutors asked her to go back later and take a photograph of a note left inside the box truck on a yellow lined piece of paper.
Written on it, the word "Jail" was underlined three times, an address: "300 Indiana Ave. NW," the word "Detective," and a phone number.
That, we learned later, was the phone number for the lead investigator on the Mansion Murders case.
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