WESTBROOK (April 24, 2008): The Portland woman accused of murdering her husband this month might find her Westbrook ties helpful, as people who knew her come forward to speak on her behalf about the couple's abusive relationship. ]
Both Laureen Rugen and her husband, Chris, were familiar figures in Westbrook, where they both once held jobs. Those who knew Chris Rugen, described as a man of few words, have little to say about him. Co-workers of Laureen Rugen, however, say she was well-liked and a hard worker, who showed signs – from bruises to odd behaviors – of a troubled personal life.
Portland police found the body of Chris Rugen, 61, in the early morning hours April 8. According to authorites, Laureen Rugen, 49, had called police and said she had recently arrived home and found him at the bottom of the stairs. Police said when they arrived, she was standing over his body, which had stab wounds on the chest, stomach and legs.
"I did it. I killed him," she said, according to a police report.
Rugen pointed to a kitchen knife drying in a dish rack as her murder weapon.
"He came at me. He was so ugly. I don't know why I did that," she told police.
Rugen is currently being held in Cumberland Cunty Jail without bail.
According to her attorney, J.P. DeGrinney, the reason she did it was self-defense – a final stand after years of abuse.
The Rugens were married for 25 years, DeGrinney said. Laureen Rugen has a 26-year-old daughter, Ashlee, who had recently moved out of her mother and stepfather's house on Maggie Lane in Portland, where the murder occurred.
According to police reports, Ashlee received several calls from her stepfather that night asking for her help, saying her mother was out of control.
Up until his death, Chris Rugen worked as a truck driver in Westbrook at CarQuest on Main Street. His co-worker, Scott Anderson, said Rugen barely spoke and always left promptly at 4 p.m.
“He came in and went out,” Anderson said.
Though he had dropped off auto parts at LeClerc's Service Center on Main Street three or four times a week for the past six months, owner Roger LeClerc couldn't say he knew the man.
“He didn't say, 'Boo,'” LeClerc said.
According to Anderson, the only time Rugen spoke of his wife was to say that he had to go pick her up at her job.
Margie Petrone, who worked with Rugen at Home Depot on Riverside Street in Portland, just over the Westbrook border, said she knew her husband to drop her off and pick her up, but only remembers one time that he came into the store.
“She didn't talk too much when he was present,” Petrone said, though she said she was very talkative with customers.
When Laureen Rugen worked in Westbrook at Sportsman's Hardware, owner Don Littlefield said, he picked her up there, too. At the end of the day, she would make sure she was at the door when his car arrived. Littlefield believed the reason she did that was that she did not want to make him wait.
In the 10 years Littlefield worked with Rugen, he said, he exchanged no more than 50 words with her husband.
“It was probably more like 20 or 25,” he said.
Littlefield said her co-workers and customers at Sportsman's Hardware noticed the same shift in behavior when her husband was around as Petrone did.
He said everyone who came into the shop knew and liked Rugen, but, he said, “If you saw her with her husband in the grocery store, she wouldn't say, 'Hi.'”
Still, Littlefield said, Rugen spoke highly of her husband about how he would take her out and do nice things for her. But her battered body told a different story.
According to Littlfield, Rugen often came in with bruises on her neck and would wear turtlenecks in July, which he and his co-workers thought was suspicious. He said she would explain her injuries, saying that'd she'd been hit by a door or fallen down the stairs, but Littlefield didn't believe her.
“You could see the guy's fingerprints,” Littlefield said, describing a bruise she had around her neck. “It was pretty obvious what those bruises were.”
DeGrinney said her husband had abused her throughout their 25-year marriage. According to court documents, in 1995, Chris Rugen was charged with two counts of domestic violence assault.
“I don't think there's any real dispute he was beating up on her for decades,” DeGrinney said.
When the problem seemed its worst, Littlefield said, he finally confronted her.
Eventually, he said, he was able to convince her to move out of her house and into an apartment he was renting.
“A couple weeks into it, he started sending her flowers,” Littlefield said, and she ended up moving back in with him.
At that point, Littlefield said, “I washed my hands clean of it. We felt like we risked our lives moving her out.”
According to Lois Reckitt of Family Crisis Services, there are a number of reasons abused women stay with their partners, from lack of self esteem to financial issues. She said the average battered woman temporarily leaves her parter seven times before she leaves for good.
"The longer you stay, the harder it is to go," Reckitt said. "You don't feel like you can cope on your own."
Littlefield said, after Rugen returned to her husband, signs of problems at home didn't cease.
“She had a bad drinking problem,” Littlefield said. “There were times she came in and you could smell alcohol,” he said. “She missed a lot of work.”
Though Rugen would make medical excuses for why she wasn't able to work, Littlefield said, he knew better. He asked her to provide doctor's notes, but she was never able to, and eventually, he let her go.
Rugen's daughter told police she had been at the house earlier on the evening her stepfather was killed, and both he and her mother were drinking.
She told police that her mother could get aggressive when she mixed alcohol with her medications. According to court documents, Rugen has prescriptions to Diazapam, which is prescribed for anxiety, and Paxil, an anti-depressant.
Though Littlefield said he was aware of Rugen's drinking, he said he never saw her beligerent.
Despite how much Laureen Rugen's co-workers knew about her personal life and how little Chris Rugen's did, all were stunned by the news of the murder.
“I always said that one of them would kill the other,” Littlefield said, but he had held out hope that she would eventually leave him for good.
“You're always shocked when another life is taken,” he said.
Chris Rugen's co-workers at CarQuest were struck by the news, too, Anderson said.
“You say, 'See you tomorrow,' and then you don't. It's just strange,” Anderson said. “Apparently, we didn't know him as well as we thought.”
Though Littlefield hasn't spoken to Rugen in years, he is determined to do what he can to help her out of a situation he believes she doesn't deserve to be in.
“We all care a lot about her,” he said.
DeGrinney said he's been receiving call after call in support of Rugen from people who claim to have known about the abuse all along.
“There's no shortage of evidence,” he said.
For now, DeGrinney is just trying to get Rugen out of jail. Though the next scheduled court appearance isn't until the end of June, DeGrinney said, he suspected they'd be back in court before then, trying to negotiate bail.
DeGrinney said he's let Rugen know what kind of support is out there for her, and it's helped. Littlefield said if she ends up without a sentence, she would be welcomed back to his store.
“I'd hire her back in a heartbeat,” he said.
Based in Westbrook, Reporter-American Journal Leslie Bridgers can be reached at 207-854-2577 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.