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News / Northwest

Ruby Doss’s daughters reflect after decades of waiting for answers in their mother’s murder in Spokane

By Emma Epperly, The Spokesman-Review
Published: December 30, 2023, 1:00pm

SPOKANE — For 37 years the end of Ruby Doss’ story has been in limbo.

Leads were few when Doss was killed on a misty January night in 1986. Her four daughters spent decades unsure of how she died. The Spokane community knew nothing of her.

Then one day in 2015 all that changed. A DNA sample gave homicide detectives a suspect: Richard Aguirre.

It took eight more years and two trials until a verdict was reached. On Tuesday, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Jeremy Schmidt found Aguirre guilty of first-degree murder.

But the verdict didn’t answer one question: Who was Ruby Doss?

Singing, dancing and being a mom

Doss grew up in Memphis, Tennessee. She loved to dance and sing. She even appeared on “American Bandstand.”

As a teenager she fell in love with her high school’s quarterback, Lewis Doss, as she performed on the sidelines as a majorette.

Before graduation she got pregnant and the young couple dropped out and married. Lewis joined the Navy and later received a job offer in California. But Doss, young and pregnant, didn’t want to move so far away from her family and friends.

So he turned down the job and picked up work as a contractor in Memphis.

The couple named their first daughter LaShunda.

“She was a songbird,” LaShunda Walker recently said of her mother, recounting the La, La, La, La cadence of Ruby Doss’ four daughters: LaShunda, LaQuisa, LaTasha and LaToya.

The family lived a normal life, Walker said. Their father worked and Doss stayed home with the girls.

“She liked to play with us,” Walker said. “She was a really, really good cook. I remember always looking forward to dinner.”

Baked chicken and cabbage was Walker’s favorite, she said. LaQuisa Doss, the second oldest, loved her mom’s hamburgers and fries that always came with either a vanilla or banana milkshake — no chocolate for the Doss girls, she said with a laugh.

Doss loved movies and often would take the girls out to the theater.

“We were movie babies,” Walker said.

Then things began to change. Their father began drinking and getting into drugs, fueled by regret over not being able to adequately provide for his family and not going to California, where things may have been better, Walker said.

“I don’t think that he could find the work that he was looking for, and I think it led to drugs and drinking and things of that nature,” Walker said.

The relationship turned abusive, Doss’ daughters said.

“Sometimes the person that you take it out on the most is the person that’s closest to you, so he began lashing out at her and it became abusive,” Walker said. “And that’s something that she wasn’t used to.”

It became so bad that Ruby needed out. Her oldest three daughters went to stay with her mother and she left with LaToya Doss in about 1984.

LaToya Doss only has one real memory with her mother. It was Christmas morning and she woke up to ham on the table and the roller-skating dog toy she had begged for.

A dark turn

By 1986, Doss and her youngest daughter ended up in Spokane, living at the El Rancho Motel off Sunset Boulevard with Doss’ boyfriend, Stanley “Sly” Jeffries.

Doss, known around notorious East Sprague Avenue as “Memphis,” was working as a prostitute.

On Jan. 30, 1986, Doss got ready to go out, just like many nights before.

She donned black pants, boots, a red blouse with a bow at the neck and two jackets. She tucked a steak knife in her pocket, just in case she needed it to protect herself. It was a misty and cool night.

At about 9:15 p.m., Doss slipped through the back door of an adult book store on East Sprague and bought a condom or two, clerk Eric Cook remembered as he testified in Aguirre’s trial earlier this month.

“She always bought the one same thing and then she left,” Cook said, calling Doss shy.

Not long after, Doss climbed into a man’s vehicle for a $50 “car date.”

The driver steered into an industrial park near what was then Playfair Race Track and down a ramp where employees would load hay into the back of a truck by day.

In that hidden area, the pair presumably had sex.

Then something went wrong.

She got out of the car. There was a struggle. Doss tried to flee, but her date pursued her. She lost both her jackets, her earrings, money, wig and her knife.

At some point, her killer struck her on the head at least five times.

And for at least three minutes he closed his hands around her small neck and squeezed, according to testimony from the Spokane County Medical Examiner Veena Singh. He crushed her hyoid bone and strangled her.

By 10:45 p.m., Spokane Police Officers Cliff Walter and Tim Conley were standing over her dead body.

Rodney Dobson had been sleeping in a train car nearby and was walking around the area when he saw Doss slumped between two concrete blocks.

He kept walking but then thought maybe the person was in trouble and went back and pushed her leg with a stick. When she didn’t respond, Dobson walked to the Consolidated Freightways office a few blocks away to call police.

Officers quickly identified Doss by describing her to other sex workers in the area. The misty and dark night made investigation difficult so detectives sealed off the scene and came back in the morning.

That’s when they found Doss’ items in the straw and a “fresh” condom near the area.

Despite finding her body so quickly, and interviewing other sex workers and Doss’ boyfriend, few leads materialized. What leads detectives had didn’t go anywhere.

Within a matter of months, the case went cold.

A parallel life

Richard Aguirre grew up in Sunnyside, one of five children raised in a Catholic family, according to his mother Ruth Aguirre’s 2020 obituary.

He graduated from Sunnyside High School in 1982 and joined the United States Air Force.

In 1986, 21-year-old Richard Aguirre was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base. He had recently run off to the Hitching Post in Coeur d’Alene to marry his girlfriend, who was also in the Air Force. The couple hoped for a common deployment.

Months later, he was deployed to Korea. By 1988, he had returned stateside and joined the Pasco Police Department.

He had issues at the department from the start. That same year, another Pasco officer was told by that officer’s daughter that Aguirre was having sex with one of her 15-year-old friends, according to a Tri-City Herald article.

Aguirre, who was 24 at the time, first met the girl while investigating an assault case, calling her a few days later, according to a report in his personnel file. Both Aguirre and the girl admitted to holding hands and kissing but denied having sex when interviewed.

It was recommended that Aguirre receive a verbal warning, according to the Herald story.

Aguirre was still married at the time, but divorced his first wife in 1990.

Then in 1998, Aguirre was accused of using the police department’s record management system to look up personal information of girls and women between the ages of 14 and 40, according to the same Tri-City Herald story.

He would use the system to look up former partners of women he was seeing or look up people he was interested in. It was determined Aguirre violated department policy and was given a letter of reprimand.

Aguirre was named officer of the year in 2002.

After a night out in November 2014, a family member who was in her 20s told police Aguirre raped and assaulted her.

A DNA sample from the outside seam of the woman’s underwear was entered into the Combined DNA Index System maintained by the FBI. That DNA sample matched the DNA on the condom found 28 years earlier near Doss’ body.

Aguirre was put on leave from the police department and charged with the rape. He resigned from the police force in April 2015.

One month later, Spokane police announced that Aguirre was a suspect in Doss’ death. Aguirre has maintained his innocence since first becoming a suspect.

On June 3, 2015, Aguirre was arrested and charged with Doss’ murder.

During the 2015 investigation into Aguirre, police had conducted five searches in the Tri-Cities area. They found hundreds of sex tapes that showed Aguirre having violent sex with both men and women, according to court documents.

People in the videos appeared to be experiencing “pain and fear” investigators wrote in their reports.

Several women told police that Aguirre choked them during sex. Some said it was so violent they feared for their lives, according to court documents.

Aguirre was briefly charged with voyeurism related to some of the videos, but those charges were subsequently dropped as few people wanted to come forward.

Around this time, Aguirre hired attorney John Henry Browne, who made a name for himself defending the likes of Ted Bundy.

Aguirre was tried on the rape and assault charges in July 2016, but the jury was “hopelessly deadlocked,” according to a Yakima Herald article at the time. The judge declared a mistrial. He was retried on the charges in 2017 and the jury acquitted him in less than an hour.

In December 2017, prosecutors dropped the murder charge against Aguirre. The dismissal was related to the fact that the condom collected at the Doss murder scene had been destroyed during testing in 1989 at LifeCodes, a lab doing early DNA testing.

Three years later, prosecutors refiled the charge after a Washington State Patrol forensic technician swabbed the inside of the envelope the condom was originally placed in and tested it for DNA. She then used a new type of software to analyze the mixed profile she found to conclude that it was 8,100 times more likely the DNA was a mixture of Aguirre’s and Doss’ than Aguirre and a unknown woman.

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He was tried on the charge of first-degree murder in 2021, but the jury could not agree and the judge declared a mistrial. At that trial, Browne’s key argument was that Aguirre was deployed to South Korea when Doss was killed.

Aguirre was disappointed not to be acquitted, Browne said at the time.

In preparation for a new trial, Aguirre hired attorney Karen Lindholdt. They changed tactics, acknowledging that Aguirre was in fact in Spokane when Doss was killed and that the condom was his. Lindholdt argued there was no other evidence to tie him to the crime, that there are other suspects who weren’t fully checked out, and that evidence was mishandled over decades in the case.

A different defense wasn’t the only difference in this year’s trial, Doss’ family was able to come to not only testify but learn more about how their mother died.

Decades of despair

When the Doss sisters began hearing about Aguirre in 2015, it opened old wounds.

“We never got the truth,” Walker said. “That’s always been something in the back of our head.”

The three oldest sisters lived with their maternal grandmother for about a year until their dad moved them to Ohio. That also lasted about a year before the girls were put into foster care.

Doss had been trying to get back to Memphis when she was killed, her daughters said.

“That’s the most difficult part, the what-if,” LaTasha Fowler said.

“How would our lives be different if we’d had a mother?” LaQuisa Doss said.

LaToya Doss, who was in Spokane when her mother was killed, eventually rejoined her sisters and they grew up with their paternal grandmother.

They never knew exactly how their mom died, just rumors. They heard her heart had been cut out of her chest or that maybe it was the Green River Killer.

When they learned about Aguirre’s DNA, it was clear to them who killed her.

“DNA don’t lie,” LaToya Doss said.

“A lot of people loved Ruby Doss because she had a big heart,” LaQuisa Doss said. “He never gave us our one wish … to get our mother back. He took that. When he took her life, he took our lives as well.”

The women attended the first week of Aguirre’s bench trial and left with two thoughts: He is the one who killed their mother and it’s time for this ordeal to finally come to a close after 37 years.

“It’s time for a period to go behind this story,” LaQuisa Doss said.

Despite the huge hole in their lives, the Doss sisters had a current of strength flowing through them, determined to break generational curses.

Walker, 49, turned her foster care experience into fuel to help others like her. She spent decades working in the school system. She has five children, six grandchildren and has been married to her husband, Darren Walker, for 25 years.

LaQuisa Doss, 47, is disabled but works when she can, cooking like her mother. She has four grown children and her seventh grandchild on the way.

Fowler, 45, works for “Willy Wonka” she says while laughing at her description of the candy warehouse she works at. She has two children and three grandchildren.

LaToya Doss, 42, just got a supervisory position at FedEx and is working to get her GED. She has two children and two granddaughters.

The guilty verdict means the world to the Doss sisters, the ability to be at peace, a murderer off the streets and, finally, justice for their mother.

For decades, the sisters have gathered and built a purple flower memorial at Doss’ grave in Memphis on Mother’s Day. As they faced their mother’s killer in court, the four women wore purple flowers to draw on their mother’s strength.

“She’s gone but never forgotten,” Walker said.