Firefighter repeatedly sexually assaulted woman, threatened to burn down house, court told

One of three women who have accused a Winnipeg firefighter and martial arts instructor of sexual assault testified at his trial Wednesday that he assaulted her multiple times at her home, his home and his martial arts studio, and even threatened to poison her dogs and burn down her mother’s house.

Manuel Ruiz is charged with nine offences, including sexual assault, uttering threats and forcible entry.

Another alleged victim is set to testify against him on Friday. Three additional charges involving a third woman were stayed.

None of the allegations against Ruiz have been proven in court.

Ruiz sat across the courtroom from the woman as the woman spoke on Wednesday, the third day of his Court of Queen’s Bench trial, shielded by a barrier that blocked them from seeing each other.

The woman, who cannot be named because of a publication ban, testified that she first met Ruiz at a taekwondo studio around 1986, when she was 12. 

‘He would appear to be compassionate’

The woman said Ruiz’s inappropriate behaviour started at the martial arts studio, where he would block the doorway and brush his fingers against her breasts and pubic area as she tried to squeeze past him.

The next time she remembers talking to the man she called “Uncle Manny” was when she was about 14 or 15 and he started calling her at home, often telling her he was calling from a fire hall.

She said she told Ruiz about everything in her life: her trouble with bullies at school, how hard it was for her when her father left.

“He would spend hours listening to me about what was going on in my life,” she said. “And he would appear to be compassionate.”

The woman said she started seeing Ruiz in person when she was 18 or 19. He started picking her up from high school, and later from classes at Red River College. She said he often had sex toys in his car and talked about pornography.

Ruiz faces nine charges, including sexual assault, uttering threats and forcible entry. (Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench)

The woman said she never told anyone about Ruiz touching her or calling her.

“I remember having that feeling that something wasn’t right, but not being able to put words [to] it,” the woman said, at times pulling her grey cardigan tighter around herself.

The woman said she also remembers going to Ruiz’s Sherbrook Street martial arts club — which is where defence lawyer Matt Gould argued the woman actually first met Ruiz, in 1997.

Gould alleged Ruiz never went to the martial arts club where the woman said they met when she was 12. He also said Ruiz could not have been calling her from the fire hall in the 1980s, because he didn’t become a firefighter until 1994.

‘I thought he was my friend’

The woman said her father left her family when she was 14, which had a devastating impact.

As she got older, she decided to try to find him. After private investigators couldn’t find him, she turned to Ruiz, who quickly found him in a Texas prison.

She said she eventually got letters back from her father saying he wasn’t interested in mending their relationship. The woman said she was traumatized, vulnerable and taking medication for depression. It was around that time that Ruiz first sexually assaulted her, she testified, when he was at her apartment one day.

“I remember trying to lead him to the door and he very quickly put his hands in my underwear,” she said.

The woman said Ruiz penetrated her with his fingers, kissed her, smirked and left.

“I wasn’t sure what I did to bring that on, because I thought he was my friend,” she said.

The woman said not long after that incident, Ruiz came over to her apartment again. This time, she said, he pushed her onto the futon and penetrated her.

“At that point, I just went numb. I remember focusing on a light fixture,” she said.

Threatened to burn down buildings, woman testifies

The woman said the assaults continued after that at both of their homes and at Ruiz’s Sherbrook Street martial arts studio. She said he threatened to poison her dogs and burn down her mother’s house if she didn’t do what he told her to.

In 2001, Ruiz showed up one day at the bed and breakfast she managed, which he had also previously threatened to burn down, she said.

They had had a disagreement about whether Ruiz’s teenage son could stay there and Ruiz threatened to kill her, she testified.

She said she hid inside as he used a metal shovel to break in the front door. She ran out the back to find a payphone to call a family member and the police.

When officers arrived, the woman said, she and her uncle followed them inside to find Ruiz sipping a cup of tea on the couch. He was taken away in handcuffs, she said, but when she didn’t hear from the police after that, she started to believe her worst fears were true — that Ruiz’s claim police wouldn’t follow up on her complaints, because of his connections with them as a first responder, was accurate.

The woman said she didn’t hear from Ruiz after that either, and assumed he was going to follow through on his threats to harm her and her family. She said that’s when she decided to try to take her own life by crushing up a bottle of sleeping pills in a cup of juice and drinking it.

The defence will continue their cross-examination of the woman on Thursday morning. The judge-only trial, being heard by Justice Joan McKelvey, is expected to last seven days.

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