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When they found 11-year-old Billy Ruff hanged from the big maple tree he loved to climb, innocence died in the hearts of his brothers and sisters.

They saw his killer everywhere, in anyone. The surviving Ruff children - five living when Billy died 33 years ago, three born later - lived with a fear so deep it darkened every waking moment.``All of us, at one time or another, didn't think we'd reach the age of 11,' said Tim Ruff, who was 3 when Billy died.

Then one day three years ago, Christopher Ruff glanced up at the bulletin board in the police station where he worked and into the face of the man who killed the brother he never knew.

``Mom and I knew, as soon as I called her,' said Chris, at 24 the youngest Ruff, born eight years after his brother's death and two months after his father's. ``We both started to shake and say, 'This is it.' '

On April 23, he saw the man again - in Albany County Court, where he was sentenced to life in prison for Billy's murder.

It was not murder, however, that put Billy's killer on a wanted poster; it was a sex-abuse charge involving a girl about Billy's age. The awful secret his family had hidden was that Billy Ruff had been sodomized before he died.

``This sort of thing wasn't spoken about,' Mildred Ruff said, sitting in her living room surrounded by six of her children. ``People wouldn't talk about child molesting. It was a hush-hush thing.'

Billy was last seen at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31, 1957, his pocket full of raisin cookies, in his hand a length of frayed clothesline he planned to use to steer a homemade go-cart.

He didn't show up for dinner. At 9 p.m., Mildred Ruff called her husband at work, and he began a search that lasted until dawn.

In her fitful sleep that night, Billy's mother had a dream or a vision, she wasn't sure which: ``I saw Billy, on his knees, hanging by a rope.'

That's the way he was found the next day by a friend's daughter - hanged with his own clothesline in a densely wooded lot where all the kids played, and played for years after.

Police interviewed hundreds of people. What they could not know was that the killer was there, among them; then, in the noise and confusion of grief and of police work, he was gone.

Mildred Ruff found strength and faith enough to last her family through Billy's death, the death of her husband eight years later, and her own current fight with cancer.

Twenty days became 20 months. The investigation died down. Seven years passed. Ten years became 20, then 30.

While Billy's brothers and sisters struggled with demons, his killer was finishing a stint in the Air Force and spending short periods as a police officer and an ironworker in Albany. He married three times and fathered two children by a fourth woman. In the 1970s he wandered the streets, a homeless alcoholic.

When the case was 24 years old, Chris and his brothers found some old newspaper clippings in the basement. ``They wanted to know more,' Mildred Ruff said. ``They wanted to know why it was unsolved.'

Chris Ruff wanted to be a cop. He dropped out of college to join the suburban Colonie police, where he worked as a dispatcher. His mother says it was providence he missed a promotion to patrolman. That would have sent him to the police academy, and he would not have been in the station when the killer's photo was posted.

Chris contacted the state police and met the next day with two senior investigators.

Months went by. Then came the break the police had been waiting for: someone inquired about buying the killer's car, which had a lien against it at a local bank. The bank contacted police. Their man was in Florida.

Under questioning, he admitted molesting a 10-year-old girl but wouldn't talk about Billy Ruff. After he failed a lie-detector test, he wrote a note that said in part, ``I killed Billy and I need help.'

It was only then, with the man safely in police custody, that Chris and his mother were ready to tell the rest of the family: The man who had confessed to Billy's murder was their own first cousin, Richard Ruff. Family had done this to family.

Richard Ruff, 53, was sentenced last week for the first-degree felony murder of William Ruff Jr. He stood trial after recanting his confession, saying police had frightened him into it.

In August 1957, 20-year-old Richard Ruff was on leave from the Air Force. He had dropped by his uncle's home that week to show off a red Chevy convertible. The day Billy's body was found, he gathered with the family, just another grieving relative. He left soon after.

For the Ruffs, there is relief in knowing the truth, knowing that the man who killed Billy will never hurt another child. They want other families to have faith that killers can be found, no matter how many years pass. But they also want them to know that solving the mystery cannot erase all the pain.

``We've lived this for 33 years, we'll live it for another 33 years,' Chris said. ``There's no punishment that would equal what he did to our brother - and to us.'


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