By Gina Pelusi
as told to Jody DiPerna
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
In February, 2014, a man knocked at the door of 59-year-old music teacher Ruthanne Lodato in Alexandria, Virginia. When she opened the door, he shot and killed her. She was his third victim. He had killed two others in Alexandria in the same manner. In November, 2013, he murdered transportation planner Ronald Kirby; in December, 2003, he murdered real estate agent, Nancy Dunning. Charles Severance was convicted and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in each case in November of 2015.
Ruthanne Lodato’s daughter, Gina Pelusi, has been in Pittsburgh for nearly seven years and works as a volunteer with the group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. This is her story, as told to Pgh Current Senior Contributing Writer, Jody DiPerna.
I was here about three months when my mother was killed. We live in the South Hills, close to my in-laws. My husband grew up here and we wanted to be close to grandma and pap pap. But I’m from Alexandria and both of my parents were lifetime Alexandrians. There was so much family around that when I went to elementary school, there were 30 kids in my class and two of them were my first cousins.
I did not join Moms Demand right away after my mom was killed. I don’t know that I was ready. Everything happened in Virginia and I was able to come home here, to retreat to Pittsburgh where people didn’t necessarily know everything, know every detail. I was able to focus on living here and making my home here and having a baby. The anonymity was good. I didn’t want it to define me.
But after the 2016 election, a group of women friends from my office got together to talk about the issues that mattered to us and why we were feeling so anxious about him [Donald Trump] being elected. That was the first time I ever shared what happened.
It might seem silly, but it never occurred to me that sharing that pain and reliving all of that — I never thought that would be in any way productive. A few weeks later, one of those women told me that her brother died tragically (it was not gun violence) and my sharing inspired her to get involved. I thought, there is power here. Even if it’s difficult, even if it’s painful, I need to do it. And I found my voice that way.
The first time I shared my story publicly was at the March for Our Lives here in Pittsburgh [in March of 2018.] I thought, I probably should have done this in a smaller setting instead of on the steps of the City-County Building in front of thousands of people.
My mom was the sort of person who always did the right thing. She always showed up when it was difficult. It felt like, if this is going to make a difference, then this is what I have to do.
My mom was a music teacher her whole life. She taught piano from the time she was in high school until she was 59, when she was killed. She also played the organ in church. In the last years before she was killed, she taught music and movement for babies and toddlers up to four years old. She loved early education and music, so it combined two things she was passionate about.
The house was full of music — she was taking ukulele lessons. My mom did everything and she made it look easy, always doing a million things at the same time.
We would host Christmas Eve and have this big caroling party. When I tell people that, they say, ‘oh you walk around the neighborhood?’ No, we would just carol in our house. My uncle played the accordion, and depending on which cousin was home, we had a trumpet player and a trombone player. Sometimes we had a violin. My mom was the conductor. That was her in her element — all the family together under one roof, lots of silliness, lots of music. Though she was only about 5′ 1″ she commanded a room, that’s for sure.
I was 29 when she was killed. My mom actually lost her dad when she was in college. He had a heart attack and I never knew my grandfather, but she talked about the impact that had on her. It was something that my sisters and I called upon a lot.
It happened at the house I grew up in. My dad is still there. My mom grew up across the street from that house, so when I was little, my grandmother lived across the street and there are so many good memories of that street and our house. It’s almost seven years ago and it all still feels like it just happened. It still feels like a bad dream.
I remember the police asking me if it was strange that she answered the door. My grandmother was in her 80’s and she was living with my parents then and she required care in the house, so there were always people coming and going and visiting. And there were piano students coming in and out. It was a Thursday morning around 10 or 11. There wouldn’t be anything to make my mom think she shouldn’t open the door.
My older sister called me to tell me. My mom was the strongest person I knew. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that she wouldn’t survive. I never thought she wouldn’t make it.
My mom was still able to speak before she was transported to the local hospital and she spoke to the Sheriff, so we knew the killer was someone she didn’t know. There was no direct connection. None of it made sense. You can imagine, people in Alexandria were afraid to answer their door, people were very anxious. About a month or so later, he [Severance] was arrested and we were just as surprised as everybody when they were able to connect him and charge him with all three murders — my mom, the gentleman who was the city planner for the city of Alexandria, and the wife of the Sheriff.
We were fortunate that the killer was arrested and convicted, but the trial was very, very difficult to live through. It prolonged being able to start to really grieve. There were all these pre-trial hearings and what was going to be included in the trial and what wasn’t. It kept bringing it all back. And it was all very public, which was not easy. While I am very appreciative that he is serving three life sentences, it doesn’t bring my mom back.
I was very pregnant during the trial. I would bring a seat cushion with me. My husband was worried about me going, but it was important to me that he, and the jury, saw that there were faces to these names. It gets so procedural but I was there with my mom’s first grandchild on the way. I was there to make sure that the jury and the lawyers and everybody else could see the impact it was having on all of us. My son was born about a month later.
We are speaking on the two year anniversary of Tree of Life. I remember that a few weeks prior to that, we had finally passed the first good gun bill in Pennsylvania in a long, long time. We were finally able to even have a conversation. There hadn’t even been any sort of hearings on any gun safety legislation, so we were feeling so great.
When Tree of Life happened … the hate … it was so awful. As somebody who has lived through something like this, not the same thing, but something like this — public and so tragic and so violent — my heart just hurt. I have so much care and love for those families that were impacted. The eleven people killed, but also the seven people injured and their families. It’s not just these individuals, it’s their loved ones. It’s not something they’ll ever be able to get over.
To think that we’ve had two years since then and there has been zero movement in our Legislature on any gun safety legislation is infuriating. When something like this happens in your backyard and then nothing changes, it’s more infuriating and frustrating.
One thing I’ve learned with being involved with MomsDemand is that these individuals are tireless and they don’t give up. I remember when I came to one of my very first meetings, they were talking about how they had been working for years on the bill they got passed. I looked around the room and thought — to log all these hours, to work and volunteer and talk to people — to do all that it truly is a marathon and not a sprint. It’s not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.
Currently, there is Red Flag Legislation and Background Check Legislation sitting in the Judiciary Committee of the State Legislature. Governor Wolf has spoken about this and it’s something he is committed to, but there is no movement whatsoever.
Because of the pandemic, we’re not canvassing and doing organizing like we would normally, but we hold phone banks twice a week and I did a lit drop over the weekend. I took my eight-month old and it was really nice for me to be able to get out in the fresh air, get him in a stroller and pound the pavement a little bit to do some good work.
There are 21 candidates for the Pennsylvania House and Senate with the GunSense distinction, including state senator Pam Iovino and Sharon Guidi who is running for state house in my district. (Full list here.)
Common sense gun regulations are not as polarizing of an issue as everybody makes them out to be. There were never guns in our home, but my mom’s siblings were hunters. It’s a bonding, family activity. My uncles, my cousins, they would all go out.
There is a fear of the gun lobby that they instill in everybody, but so many Americans support universal background checks. Any responsible gun owner wants that. The fact that guns are increasingly easier to get is a problem. Keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them is something we should all be able to agree upon.
My older sister spoke at the trial. I knew I couldn’t. But right now, I’m just trying to do what I can. I think my mom was the toughest person ever and she always did what was right. I want to honor her and if me reliving this can help, that’s what I will do.