Jose Ruiz, also known as Pepe, was a twenty-four-year-old Cuban who purchased, for $450 a piece,  forty-nine adult male Africans at a baracoon in Havana in June, 1839.  On June 26, Ruiz obtained fraudulent passports for the would-be slaves, authorizing their transport to his plantation near Puerto Principe, Cuba, and listing the Africans as "black Ladinos".  While enroute to Puerto Principe aboard the schooner Amistad, the Africans revolted.  Ruiz sustained several minor wounds in the mutiny, but was spared death after the Africans were convinced that he and fellow  Cuban slave-owner Montes could be helpful in steering the schooner back to their native Africa. The Africans would later accuse Ruiz of cruelty, alleging that he had whipped four of their number for such infractions as stealing water.

After the Amistad was boarded by crew members of the U. S. S. Washington, Ruiz, who spoke English, told the story of the mutiny and improbable voyage to Long Island.  He repeated his story at a hastily called judicial hearing aboard the brig, and asked for the return of his slaves and cargo.  At the hearing, Ruiz admitted privately to an abolitionist named Dwight Janes that the Amistad captives were "just from Africa," and therefore not legally slaves.  Ruiz did not testify in subsequent criminal or civil trials, most likely because he feared a possible perjury prosecution if he were to state under oath that he did not know the blacks had recently arrived in Cuba from Africa.

In October, 1839, Ruiz was staying in a rented hotel room in New York City when he was served in a civil suit charging him with assault, battery, and false imprisonment.  Ruiz would spend the next month before trial in a New York jail, while Montes was on his way back to Cuba.

Judge Judson found that Ruiz was without legal title to his would-be slaves, and that his only remedy was to find the owner of the Cuban baracoon who illegally took $20,000 for the blacks.