Victims’ families express turmoil
Relatives remain perplexed on why Josephine Ruckinger hated her family so much that she wanted to murder them.
Roberta Frew’s sisters said Monday animosity from a decades-long feud could have motivated their niece and her husband, Jeff Ruckinger, who invaded the Frew family home in Ashville late Friday night and engaged in a shootout that left four family members dead, police said.
After Josephine Ruckinger shot her mother, Roberta Frew, and she or her husband shot her brother, John Frew Jr., both were killed by her father, John Frew Sr., police said.
Family at odds
Roberta’s younger sister, Susan Showalter of Altoona, said their family is no stranger to disputes. Over the past 25 years, she said, there have been several that kept some siblings from speaking to each other for years.
“We haven’t had a family for 20 years,” Showalter said, adding that her sister Roberta, also called Bobbie Jo, as well as her brother-in-law, John Sr., and nephew, John Jr., had “weaned their way out” of the family after a series of minor arguments.
Another sister, Virginia Cruse, also of Altoona, said she kept in contact with Roberta, but that many of the family’s problems stemmed from Josephine.
Cruse said Josephine, also called Jody because of the shared namesake with her grandmother, took over primary care of her grandmother and upset other family members.
“I was taking care of my mother … and [Jody] weaseled her way in,” Cruse said.
She added that Josephine later obtained power of attorney for her grandmother, and everything “exploded from there.”
A 2009 Mirror obituary for Josephine M. (Gutshall) Patterson, Josephine Ruckinger’s namesake, said Patterson lived with her granddaughter and her granddaughter’s husband, Jeff Ruckinger, in their Blandburg home.
“The three of them looked forward to the yearly vacations that they took together,” the obituary read.
And, in a 2008 letter to the editor published in the Mirror, Josephine Ruckinger talked about taking her grandmother to bingo.
Cruse said Jody was on disability and didn’t work, and that her husband last worked for a tire company in Altoona.
Roberta’s youngest sister, Jocie Williams of Blandburg, said her niece was a “slick talker,” and convinced family members that she would best be able to care for her grandmother.
“All she was after was money,” she said. “It wasn’t for my mother. It was for her.”
Williams said her kids were forbidden to see their grandmother, and she
wasn’t allowed to see or speak with her because of Jody.
Cruse said the situation upset the whole family.
Speaking with her sister shortly after Jody began caring for her grandmother, Cruse said, “I talked to Bobbie. I asked if she saw Jody. [She said] no, she didn’t, and she didn’t want to see her.”
Cruse said Roberta’s falling out with her daughter started decades before, after Jody and a boyfriend ransacked the Frew’s home before fleeing to Pittsburgh. Other than a 2010 DUI conviction, Josephine Ruckinger had no other criminal convictions.
“[After the falling out], she come back in the area, and it was just constant friction,” Cruse said. “The family got separated more and, after my dad had died, [Josephine] had my mother.”
Showalter said her mother’s closeness with Josephine upset Roberta, who stopped speaking to her mother after that.
Showalter said she didn’t think her mother was being robbed by Jody, as some other siblings believed.
“The only thing I could say is, maybe she’d taken the money to help pay the bills,” she said.
A deadly end
Cruse said she knew the hatred between her sister and her niece was intense, but she never expected a family dispute to end in tragedy.
Police reports indicate that Josephine Ruckinger was the first person to fire a gun in Friday night’s shooting at her parents’ house, and that she killed her mother with a shotgun slug before entering the home.
Police said she intended to kill her father and her older brother.
Police said it’s unclear whether Josephine or Jeff fired the shots that killed John Jr., before John Sr. was able to return fire, killing Jeff and mortally wounding his daughter, who later died at UPMC Altoona’s trauma center from a gunshot wound to the head.
“I never thought that she would … in my wildest dreams, that she would plot that out, to go that far,” Cruse said. “She had to have plotted that out.”
Cruse said she believes the plot was her niece’s idea, and that Jeff “used to be the peacekeeper. He
didn’t like the friction,” she said. Williams, however, said she always had a gut feeling her niece would become violent.
“She was always making comments,” she said, “[If you upset her], you were on ‘her list.'”
She believes if John Sr. hadn’t stopped Jody, she and some of her siblings would have been Jody’s next targets.
Looking for answers
Cruse said she has been trying to contact the Ruckinger family without success, but she hopes they might be able to tell her what her niece and her niece’s husband had been thinking in the time leading up to the shootings.
With funeral services for Roberta and John Jr. scheduled for Wednesday, Cruse said her brother-in-law, the lone survivor of Friday night’s shooting, has been staying with his brother.
“He is just … he more or less, is comprehending this,” she said. “He [John Sr.] is not doing too good. To have his wife and son killed in front of him, and to have killed his daughter.”
Williams said she hopes her brother-in-law recovers. The tragic death of her sister has made some of the siblings realize how short life is, she added. Some have decided to end their feuds.
“I think this is a [message] to everybody, keeping our eyes open about how important family is,” she said.
And even though she hadn’t seen Roberta for more than a year because of their conflicting schedules, she was “always on my mind.”
Both she and Cruse are also upset that they may have forever lost old family photographs, since Williams said she saw Jeff Ruckinger’s family clearing out Josephine’s and Jeff’s Blandburg home.
Williams said her niece had taken all the family photographs when she began caring for her grandmother.
A state police spokesman did not return calls for comment Monday. It is unclear whether police had obtained a search warrant for the Ruckinger’s home, or just the station wagon they used to get to the Bottom Road home. The family members all agree on one thing, Cruse said. None of them plan to attend the funeral services for their niece.