Gascon policy gave L.A. teen a second chance after killing. Now, he is accused in a new homicide

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By Yosi Yahoudai
Founder and Managing Partner

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón’s reform-minded outlook on juvenile justice seemed made for someone like Denmonne Lee.

When he was 16, Lee took part in an Antelope Valley gas station robbery that ended in the death of former Marine John Ruh. Lee, who was acquainted with the victim, had planned the 2018 robbery and provided a weapon to his co-defendant, according to court records. Although Lee wasn’t the shooter, he was charged with murder.

But when Gascón took office two years later, as Lee’s case was making its way through the court system, he barred prosecutors from trying juveniles as adults. Lee was convicted and ordered held at the county’s Secure Youth Treatment Facility in Sylmar until he turned 25.

Lee “responded very well” to programs in custody, authorities said. Within a year, probation officials moved him from the high-security Sylmar facility into a rehabilitation-focused setting in Malibu. After being released to a halfway house last June, Lee enrolled in community college and found work at a local nonprofit.

And then, in April, he was arrested and charged with playing a major role in another homicide.

The case has given Gascón’s critics an opportunity to directly link the progressive district attorney’s policies to a violent crime that some argue could have been prevented had Lee faced a stiffer penalty in adult court. Nathan Hochman, Gascón’s opponent as he seeks reelection in November, has spent significant time shouting out high-profile crimes that he contends are symptoms of the incumbent’s policies.

Some juvenile law experts maintain that Lee’s case is an outlier that doesn’t necessarily disprove research supporting Gascón’s way of doing things. But his alleged role in the killing of 28-year-old Eric Ruffins earlier this year has generated outrage among victims — and provided fresh ammunition to the district attorney’s political opponents.

Kathy Cady, a victims-rights attorney representing Ruh’s widow, said that “if Gascón hadn’t stopped [Lee] being tried in adult court, he’d be in prison for life. Instead, he was freed to commit another horrific murder.” Cady was among those who spearheaded efforts to recall Gascón from office in recent years.

Some criminologists — as well as a Times’ analysis of court data — have cast doubt on attempts to solely blame Gascón’s policies for crime rate fluctuations, and his handling of the initial murder case against Lee isn’t too far out of step with the way California’s criminal justice system is treating teens.

After a series of changes in state law meant to keep teens out of adult prisons, only 12 juvenile cases were successfully transferred into adult court in 2022, the last year for which such data is public. In 2016, the last year prosecutors could directly file adult charges against teens, 340 youths were tried as adults statewide, records show.

“People often leave prison more dangerous than when they went in,” said Sean Garcia-Leys, co-executive director of the Peace and Justice Law Center in Fullerton. “We have to look at what data shows about the effectiveness of different types of sentences at reducing recidivism.”

John Ruh, a 61-year-old former Marine, was killed during a 2018 robbery at an Antelope Valley gas station in which prosecutors deemed Denmonne Lee, then 16, a “major participant.”

(Kathleen Cady)

Gascón’s opposition to trying juveniles as adults has been among his most controversial policies. His 2022 decision to not charge 26-year-old Hannah Tubbs as an adult for the sexual assault of a child, which occurred when Tubbs was 17, drew widespread criticism. The fallout led Gascón to backpedal and create a method for prosecutors to seek to have cases transferred to adult court after stringent review.

Lee’s first case, however, was resolved when Gascón’s ban was still in use.

Lee walked up to the VP Fuels and Drive-Thru Dairy in Lancaster on Feb. 19, 2018, and asked the cashier, Ruh, for a cigarette, according to testimony given during an appellate court hearing. The request was a distraction so that his accomplice, Deonta “Fatboy” Johnson, could get close to Ruh with a gun and demand that he open the cash register, court records show.

After a brief exchange, Johnson shot Ruh, 61, three times. Detectives said Lee walked away from the scene “smiling,” and later detailed the crime to his girlfriend, claiming his gun “had a body on it,” according to court testimony.

Lee was arrested that March and charged with murder. A hearing to transfer him to adult court began in April 2020, but Lee changed attorneys and hearings were delayed until after Gascón took office, records show.

Cady fought the plan to have Lee tried as a juvenile. The lawyer said in court papers that Lee had obtained a cellphone while in juvenile custody and “sent a threatening video rap to his ex-girlfriend, promising to shoot her.”

“The same b— I call my baby momma snitched on a guy,” Lee rapped, according to court records. “When I catch that b—, I’m gonna shoot that b— right between her eyes.”

Cady said her bid to stop the case from being moved to juvenile court failed, and prosecutors did not proceed with witness-tampering charges related to the video.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office declined to comment on the tampering allegation or the video. In a statement, the office said Lee’s case should have remained in juvenile court regardless of Gascón’s policy because he was not the shooter and had no prior record of violence.

“His previous delinquent history, and the other factors controlling transfer decisions strongly supported his amenability for rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system,” the statement read. “There was not a reasonable probability that a juvenile court would have transferred him to adult court.”

Since forming a committee allowing prosecutors to seek that some juveniles be tried as adults, the district attorney’s office said it has signed off on the filing of 20 transfer motions, with just one case ultimately receiving judicial approval.

In 2022, the California Legislature also raised the standard for a teen to be tried as an adult, requiring prosecutors to prove “by clear and convincing evidence” that the juvenile can’t be rehabilitated in a youth facility.

Jerod Gunsberg, a veteran criminal defense attorney who often represents juveniles in Los Angeles, said that even before the change in the law, a judge would have been unlikely to try Lee as an adult.

“If you look at somebody, a young person, who has no history of violence prior to this incident, who wasn’t a shooter, who may have planned a robbery that went tragically bad, that strikes me as a case that should not have been transferred to adult court even in 2018,” Gunsberg said.

For the better part of two years, it looked as though the decision to keep Lee out of adult court was turning out as intended.

The probation department declined to answer a detailed list of questions from The Times, and probation reports for Lee are not public record. But according to the district attorney’s office, Lee performed so well when he was transferred out of the high-security Sylmar compound in March 2023 that probation officials recommended that he be moved to another less restrictive “step down facility.”

Prosecutors and Ruh’s widow supported the move. After spending five years in custody, Lee would be released to a de facto halfway home, where he would still have to obey a curfew and remain under probation supervision, but would have more freedom than he’d had since his 2018 arrest.

Lee enrolled in classes at Mission Hills Community College and began working part time at a Torrance nonprofit called Mass Liberation, according to the district attorney’s office. Calls and e-mails to the school and the nonprofit seeking comment were not returned.

In the case of Ruffins, the second killing in which Lee is accused, the victim was shot dead in the 15600 block of Atlantic Avenue, in an unincorporated area near Compton, around 5 p.m. on Jan. 19th, according to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

In April, an arrest warrant surfaced naming Lee as an accomplice, records show. Weeks later, Lee and Dewayne Cathey were charged with Ruffins’ murder.

The Sheriff’s Department would not comment further on the shooting. E-mails and calls to Lee’s attorney were not returned. A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office confirmed that Lee had been charged as an “aider and abettor” and was not suspected of shooting Ruffins, but declined to provide further details.

Upon learning of the latest charges against Lee, Cady expressed frustration with Gascón’s repeated justification of his juvenile policies by citing studies showing adolescent brain development isn’t complete until age 25.

“The theory is that the brain wasn’t developed and won’t be until they are 26,” she said. “Yet, they are let out before they are 26.”

Michelle Brace, Ruh’s widow, said she felt betrayed by Lee’s alleged actions near Compton.

“Denmonne, you were given a gift and you squandered that gift. Against my family’s wishes, I had hope that you would change and help your community. I will always pray for you and your safety. You broke my heart when I heard you were in trouble again,” she said in court earlier this month. “You gave me hope when you apologized to me about killing … my husband. I forgave you, now I feel like a fool.”

In an interview, Brace said that even though she supported Lee’s progress in the juvenile system, she has long been frustrated with Gascón’s initial refusal to try him as an adult.

“He didn’t know what he was doing with his directives and the lives they’d shatter,” said Brace, who plans to leave California, but not before the November election. “I won’t move until George Gascón is out of office.”

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About the Author
Yosi Yahoudai is a founder and the managing partner of J&Y. His practice is comprised primarily of cases involving automobile and motorcycle accidents, but he also represents people in premises liability lawsuits, including suits alleging dangerous conditions of public property, third-party criminal conduct, and intentional torts. He also has expertise in cases involving product defects, dog bites, elder abuse, and sexual assault. He earned his Bachelor of Arts from the University of California and is admitted to practice in all California State Courts, and the United States District Court for the Southern District of California. If you have any questions about this article, you can contact Yosi by clicking here.