by John W. Taylor
Lester and Ruth Rupard lived in the small, rural town of Banner Elk, located in the western mountains of North Carolina. Their adult son, Dennis, died in a car accident in 1961. When Dennis’ son, James Rupard, was born two months later, Lester and Ruth adopted and raised him.
There were no outward indications of trouble in the Rupard home. However, on September 25, 1978, at 10:00 a.m., several nearby construction workers spotted two men running out of the Rupard home. The first one wore a robe and the second carried a rifle. As the first individual stopped and turned toward his pursuer, the second individual fired two shots into him.
Shortly thereafter, James Rupard, who was 17 at the time, ran to a neighbor’s house claiming somebody shot at his grandparents. The neighbors summoned the local Sheriff’s Department. When the police arrived, they discovered Lester Rupard dead in the yard and Ruth Rupard dead in a bedroom.
When the police entered the neighbor’s house, they found James Rupard lying on a couch. During initial questioning, a police officer asked Rupard why he shot his grandparents. He responded that they were too strict. They were making him go back to school, and he hated school. Rupard told an officer that he threw the gun into a pond. Based on Rupard’s statements, the police searched a nearby pond. They discovered a 30-30 rifle and a .22 caliber pistol. It was later determined through testing that Lester was shot twice with the 30-30 rifle and Ruth had been shot five times with the .22 caliber pistol.
During trial, Rupard changed his story. He denied having anything to do with his grandparents’ murders. He indicated that he had been sick for about a week. Rupard described himself as having an amnesia-like event regarding his grandparents’ murder. His most contemporaneous memory was of him running across the lawn with a gun in his hand. He also remembered hiding his bloody clothes under a rock, but he had no recollection of shooting his grandparents.
The jury did not believe Rupard’s new version of events. After only three hours of deliberation, they found him guilty. He was sentenced to two concurrent life sentences. However, on appeal, his sentence was reduced due to his juvenile status. He ended up serving 15 years in prison and was released in 1994.
The following year Rupard relocated to Scotland County, which was about two hundred miles to the southeast, but still in North Carolina. Though significantly more populated than where he was raised, Scotland County still exudes a rural, country feel. By moving to a new area, Rupard was able to start over with no one knowing about his violent past.
Prison appeared to cultivate James Rupard’s altruistic side. Shifting his focus toward helping others, he became a minister and served as a pastor for Sandhills Community Church. Rupard volunteered at a nearby fire department. He also volunteered at a firefighters’ association and the American Red Cross. Many Scotland County residents described Rupard as one of the nicest people you would ever meet.
As Rupard immersed himself into the community, he began taking on additional roles of trust. He received his insurance license and sold annuities, as his murder conviction went undetected. He also oversaw funds for various firefighter organizations and fulfilled various fiduciary roles. Rupard became a respected member of the community.
In 2008, Rupard requested a reimbursement check of $26,121 from the fire department’s treasurer. Rupard claimed to have paid for department equipment with money from his own business. The treasurer viewed this as a questionable business practice. As a result, he investigated all of Rupard’s activities within the fire department. The probe netted the unthinkable to those who knew Rupard. The treasurer uncovered many irregularities and some potentially fraudulent acts.
Rupard initially denied the allegations, stating, “I am not aware of any intentional wrongdoing, either by myself or anyone else. I will be glad to answer any questions asked, and will cooperate fully, if contacted.” With Rupard’s many positions of responsibility in the community and his charming manner, most people were initially skeptical of the accusations. However, as more information from the investigation became public, it became apparent that it was not a single lapse in judgment, but numerous, sophisticated fraudulent schemes against various organizations and individuals.
Rupard began his fraudulent activities within a local volunteer fire department in 2001. When he set up a bank account, he forged the signatures of the department’s treasurer and secretary. He moved money in and out of the account with impunity. He wrote many checks to himself and to his personal firm without justifiable business purposes. Prior to relinquishing his position, he closed the account and opened a new account, thus preventing his replacement from having access to previous bank statements or account activities. Rupard also sold annuities, without actually creating the annuities. To further conceal his illegal activities, Rupard generated fake statements depicting monetary gains made by the annuities. In actuality, he pocketed the money; there were no underlying investments. When he was eventually stopped, Rupard had already stolen over $100,000.
In early 2015, Rupard pled guilty to multiple counts of: embezzlement, malfeasance of a corporation, and obtaining property by false pretense. Rupard is currently in prison for his crimes, but he is expected to be released from prison in May of 2016. At that time, he will be on extended probation until he makes full restitution to his victims.
After entering his guilty plea, Rupard made the following statement:
“From a biblical standpoint, my actions were absolutely sins. From a legal viewpoint, they were criminal. I lived with a false sense of comfort that, because I had no intention of stealing anything permanently, only using it and replacing it, that I was not sinning, that I was not breaking any laws or rules.”
Rupard acknowledged that his actions were wrong, but claimed his intentions were misguided rather than willfully destructive. Was James Rupard merely moving funds in an attempt to cover personal financial deficiencies? Did he simply take advantage of his fiduciary position? Rupard described his scheme as, “[a] constant state of juggling.” Many of Rupard’s deceptive activities involved the shuffling of funds between accounts. However, Rupard took significantly more money than he replaced.
When he left prison in 1994, Rupard had spent nearly half of his life, and all of his adult life, incarcerated. Upon leaving prison he sought out roles where he could help others. There was a seven year period before Rupard began his fraud. Rupard initially appeared to exit prison completely rehabilitated.
Most criminals begin with lesser crimes and slowly progress toward more serious offenses. Usually the progression includes increased frequency of criminal acts and greater violence as the perpetrator becomes more confident. However, Rupard transitioned from two violent murders to “white collar” crimes, where he used his cunning and charm to manipulate rather than taking by sheer force.
Initially, Rupard’s explanation for his abuse of his corporate positions seemed genuine. He was caught in a downward financial spiral with limited options of escape. However, his justification for his actions does not hold up under scrutiny. Had his fraud schemes not been uncovered, there was no indication that he would have stopped on his own. Further, not only did he defraud organizations, he also took advantage of individuals, some of whom he knew personally. Rupard manipulated an elderly woman into signing over her savings and then went back a second time when he realized she had more money. Rupard exhibited the behavior of a financial predator, not a calculating schemer. He identified weakness and then exploited it.
When the media reported on Rupard’s various fraudulent activities, the people of Scotland County turned on him. He was no longer a cherished member of society, but one engulfed by public rage. People who initially embraced Rupard’s sincerity, ultimately, were deceived. After his arrest, Rupard’s friend, Randy Blackburn, bonded him out of jail. He was willing to look past Rupard’s indiscretions and help someone he considered a friend. Blackburn supported him and allowed Rupard to live with him. He was Rupard’s only ally. However, Rupard could not avoid temptation. He stole one of Blackburn’s checks, issued it to himself, and then forged Blackburn’s signature. It ended their friendship.
It is unlikely James Rupard moved to Scotland County with the intention of defrauding its citizens seven years later, as much of his behavior appeared to be pure impulse rather than intricately plotted. To the citizens of Scotland County, Rupard’s life seemed normal and carefree, but once again something snapped inside him. Fortunately, for this small, close-knit community, his latest frenzy was one of theft, not murder. Upon Rupard’s upcoming departure from prison, how long will it be before he exploits others, and if he does, will it be through deception or violence?
Brown, Tonya, “Man Accused of Stealing Cash from Firefighter Association,” ABC15News, http://wpde.com/news/local/man-accused-of-stealing-cash-from-firefighter-association?id=353636, September 22, 2009.
Hensley, Matthew, “North Carolina: Pastor’s 30 Year Old Double-Murder Conviction Shocks Many,” Clergygonewild, Laurinburg Exchange, http://clergygonewild.com/violence/43-murder/278-north-carolina-pastors-30-year-old-double-murder-conviction-shocks-many September 17, 2009.
Murphy, Mary Katherine, “Ex-firefighter Pleads Guilty to Embezzlement,” Richmond County Daily Journal, http://yourdailyjournal.com/archive/7120/news-news-152470852-ex-firefighter-pleads-guilty-to-embezzlement, July 29, 2015.
State v Rupard, Supreme Court of North Carolina, 299 N.C. 515 (N.C. 1980), Casetext, https://casetext.com/case/state-v-rupard, 2016.
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John W. Taylor writes in the true crime genre at www.truecrimewriting.com. He has written short pieces and articles on the death of Marilyn Monroe, JFK, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. John wrote and published Umbrella of Suspicion: Investigating the Death of JonBénet Ramsey and Isolated Incident: Investigating the Death of Nancy Cooper in 2012 and 2014, respectively.
John’s interest in the darker side of human nature has compelled him to conduct numerous research and writing projects on various unsolved crimes. He currently resides in Raleigh, North Carolina.