January 13, 1992 12:00 PM

PLAYING WITH HIS GRANDSON ROBBIE was one of Salvatore “Sal” Ruscitti’s greatest pleasures in life. It was also his last. One Saturday afternoon three years ago, Ruscitti was cuddling 3-year-old Robbie when there was a knock at the front door of his glass-wall hillside home overlooking the Pacific in Leucadia, Calif., a tiny bedroom community 30 miles north of San Diego. Sal’s wife of 38 years, Barbara, went to the door. Two men, strangers to her, asked for Sal. The Ruscittis’ mild-mannered dalmatian, Freckles, a guide dog for their blind daughter, Gina, began barking. As Sal, a 57-year-old car salesman, opened the screen door and stepped onto the walk, one of the men raised a 9-mm semiautomatic pistol and pumped four bullets into his chest and head.

Shocking as it was, the murder of Sal Ruscitti had been foreshadowed. During the previous few months he had been receiving anonymous threatening phone calls. Sal was the leader of a group of car salesmen who had become embroiled in a lawsuit with a local auto dealership over disputed commissions, and he and his family knew the calls were related. At first that was the one lead the family and police had to go on. The only trouble was that it seemed to lead nowhere. For a year the case languished in the files of the overburdened San Diego County sheriff’s office. And there it might have stayed if not for the fact that Sal’s wife, Barbara, now 58, and their son, Frank, 39, got personally involved and helped break the case.

Sal and Barbara had grown up in the Milwaukee area, where they met and married. After serving in the Air Force during the Korean War and attending college, Sal tried a series of sales positions, but they never quite held his interest. “He loved cars,” says Barbara. “Whenever I couldn’t find him, I’d just phone the car lots on Capitol Drive in Milwaukee and he’d be at one of them.” After taking a job at a Chevrolet dealership, Sal went on to become a highly successful salesman, at least in part because he developed a reputation for honesty and responsibility. “His customers really trusted him and believed him,” says Frank, himself a car salesman.

Twelve years ago Sal and Barbara decided to move to the San Diego area because of the better schooling for the blind that was available for Gina, now 27. Sal signed on with Center City Ford in San Diego and became one of its top salesmen. The dealership was owned by Ralph and Lula Mae Osborne, and when Lula Mae’s son by a previous marriage, William Nix, opened a lot of his own in Pomona, 90 miles away, he recruited Sal to work for him.

Their relationship soon soured. To begin with, Sal found that he didn’t care much for Nix, a loud and flashy type who lived in an $850,000 home in the foothills of the nearby San Bernardino Mountains and drove a $150,000 red Lamborghini Countach. “[Nix] lived by the night,” says one of his neighbors, Dorothy Peeples. “You could always hear him fire up that car or ride one of his motorcycles into the hills.” Assistant U.S. attorney Larry Burns, who spearheaded the investigation of Sal’s murder, is even more blunt, calling Nix a “volatile, irrational, paranoid, reckless cocaine addict and alcoholic.”

While still working for Nix, Ruscitti was approached by some of his former San Diego coworkers, who told him they had uncovered evidence that they had all allegedly been cheated out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions while working at Center City Ford.

After quitting Nix’s dealership in September 1987, Ruscitti organized the filing of a class-action suit against the Osbornes. To bolster the case, Ruscitti started interviewing sources on his own. “He was getting in so deep,” says son Frank. “He knew there were going to be risks involved.” In February 1988 Sal received the first of numerous telephoned death threats, telling him to lay off the case. He sought help from the state labor board, the district attorney and local newspapers, only to be ignored. “They didn’t take us seriously,” says Frank, “because we were car salesmen, who have never had very good reputations in the public eye.”

Once Sal was murdered, the police took the matter very seriously indeed. But turning up hard evidence to link the class-action suit with the killing proved difficult. “When the first anniversary of Sal’s death came, I was down, down,” says Barbara. “I felt that nothing was going to happen.” So she and Frank starting talking on their own to some of Sal’s old friends and colleagues, searching for clues. It didn’t take long before they got results. Everything they learned they relayed to investigators. “Car salesmen are a very close-knit group,” says assistant U.S. attorney Burns, “and Barbara and Frank knew how to get information from them that we would have had difficulty obtaining.” Much of the evidence and testimony is still under wraps, pending the prosecution of the case. But in one instance, Barbara helped discover that the two hit men had been hanging around the car dealership where Sal was working at the time of his death, apparently with the intention of killing him there. A salesman who saw them, and who later realized that they resembled the descriptions of the hit men, told Barbara that one of the men was the live-in boyfriend of the daughter of one of Nix’s employees.

With the help of Barbara and Frank, authorities were able to piece together a scenario for the murder. A federal indictment handed down last September alleges that Nix, incensed by the suit against his mother and stepfather, approached one of his body-shop employees, Paul A. Gonzalez, and gave him $10,000 to arrange the hit on Ruscitti. With the assistance of a local thug named Albert Vargas, who has two children by Gonzalez’s daughter, Gonzalez made a series of phone calls to Mexico in September 1988 trying to scare up a hired killer. They allegedly made contact with Jose “Tonto” Miranda, a reputed hit man.

A few days later, the indictment alleges, Nix told another employee to “clean up” (meaning make untraceable) a 1983 Toyota Supra that belonged to Will Nix’s Ford dealership and that was meant to be used in the crime. According to prosecutors, things did not go smoothly after that. When Tonto Miranda arrived in town, he upped his price to $12,000, which Nix allegedly agreed to pay. On the day of the murder, Miranda and Vargas, who was being paid $2,000 for his role, went looking for Ruscitti at Dixon Ford in Carlsbad, Calif., where he was then working. When they discovered that Ruscitti wasn’t there, the men called Nix, who gave them directions to Ruscitti’s house. On arrival Vargas asked for Sal, then stood back as Miranda allegedly gunned down his victim.

Last November, Vargas, Gonzalez and his son, Paul Jr., who acted as an accomplice, all pleaded guilty to various murder-for-hire charges. In return for their cooperation, the three are expected to receive some leniency in sentencing. Their testimony is likely to be the key prosecution evidence when Nix and two other alleged accomplices, all of whom maintain their innocence, go on trial this year on conspiracy and murder charges. Meanwhile, Tonto Miranda is believed to be at large somewhere in Mexico. Whatever happens now, though, the Ruscittis feel a sense of relief and accomplishment because they have done everything possible to apprehend Sal’s killers. “We knew that if something had happened to me or a member of the family, Sal wouldn’t have closed his eyes,” says Barbara. “I knew what his sense of justice was. I could not let this go unsolved.”

BILL HEWITT

DORIS BACON in San Diego

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