Joe Velling arranged the clues around the big table: a birth certificate for a girl in Fife, Wash. An Idaho ID card. Pages from an Arizona phone book. And scraps of paper with scribbled notes, including the name of an attorney and the words "402 months."
These, he explained, came from the strongbox. And the strongbox is at the center of a mystery that has vexed him for nearly two years. As an investigator for the Social Security Administration, he's nabbed more con artists than he can count. But this case with the strongbox has him at wit's end - not so much a whodunit but a who-is-it?
The woman in question was known as Lori Ruff. A 41-year-old wife and mother, she never quite fit in. She was a vegetarian in East Texas. A pretty brunette who dressed like a matron. A grown woman who wanted a child's Easy-Bake oven for Christmas.
The strongbox was Lori's. For years, she kept it tucked in a bedroom closet, among a long list of items her husband, Blake Ruff, knew he was never to touch. Blake being Blake, he obeyed.
Lori died in 2010. That's when Blake's relatives found the box. Its contents told an astonishing story: The woman they knew as Lori was someone else entirely. She had created a new identity two decades earlier.
That brings us to our mystery. If Lori wasn't Lori, who was she? And why would she go so far to hide her past?
Velling's investigation has taken him from his office in Seattle to an oil-boom family in Texas, from a mail drop in Nevada to a graveyard in Puyallup, Wash. He's used every trick at his disposal, followed every lead. Finally, as a last resort, he called the newspaper.
"I might have a story for you," he began.
We'll start the story where the facts are certain: Lori's marriage into the Ruff clan in 2003.
The Ruffs are a close-knit East Texas family, warm and friendly people who sent their kids to boarding school and who socialize at the country club. They live between Dallas and Shreveport, La., in Longview, a midsized city that feels like a small town. They're in the banking and real estate business, and are well-known around town. Blake's paternal grandparents had set down roots there during the oil boom of the 1930s.
"They're what everybody here likes to call 'boomers,' " Blake's mother, Nancy Ruff, explained.
Blake earned bachelor's degrees in economics from the University of Texas in Austin and in telecom management from DeVry. He worked for years on commercial accounts for Verizon. His family describes him as an agreeable guy and honest, almost to a fault.
Ask him what drew him to Lori, and his answer isn't entirely clear. "She was tall, you know, an attractive person," he will say, and leave it at that.
His brother-in-law, an attorney named Miles Darby, says that's typical Blake. "He does not have much of an inner monologue," Miles said. Or, for that matter, an outer one. His speech is stilted. Ask one question and he answers another. It's not that Blake is trying to be evasive. He's just different.
Often, he'd follow the lead of his identical twin brother, David. When David bought a black Tahoe, Blake did too, Miles said. And when David joined a church Bible study class and met the woman he would later marry, Miles knew where Blake was headed.
He met Lori Kennedy at the Northwest Bible Church in Dallas, and they soon began to court. "That's the Christian term," Blake noted. She was smart and fond of animals, and enjoyed going out for tea.
DEFLECTING HER PAST
Blake's parents were eager to meet his new lady friend, so they invited him and Lori to lunch. Tell us about your youth, Nancy asked, trying to be friendly. Your family. Tell us your story. Her parents were dead, Lori said. She had no living brothers or sisters, aunts or uncles. No one.
High school? Lori skipped straight to college. It went on like that all afternoon - Nancy asking and Lori deflecting.
The Ruffs weren't so sure about this woman whose past was all empty spaces. But Blake didn't seem to mind the gaps.
"Blake is the type of guy who takes everything you say at face value," Miles explained, not unkindly.
Lori once told Blake she had destroyed all the old photos of her family because she'd had a bad life. "He didn't follow up with the question, 'Well, what was so bad about it?' " Velling said.
When Blake decided to marry Lori, Nancy wanted to put an announcement in the local paper: Blake Ruff, son of Jon and Nancy Ruff, and Lori Kennedy, daughter of ... daughter of whom? Lori wouldn't allow it.
"She said, 'We don't do things like that,' " Nancy recalled.
Less than a year after they met, Blake and Lori ran off and married in a small church outside Dallas. The only person in attendance was the preacher.
ON THE TRAIL
In September 2011, Velling was at a meeting in Washington, D.C., when a congressman's aide gave him a three-ring binder. It contained items from Lori's strongbox and other documents pulled together by the Ruff family. By this point, they knew Lori wasn't Lori. They wanted help figuring out who she was.
The SSA, which investigates the fraudulent use of Social Security numbers, was an obvious place to turn. As the special agent in charge of the Seattle investigations office, Velling is an expert in identity theft. He's busted crooks who open credit cards in strangers' names. He's brought down con men who have swindled banks out of millions. He's tracked cheats who adopt a new identity to avoid supporting their families.
"My immediate reaction was, I'll crack this pretty quickly," he recalled thinking when he saw the binder.
The congressman was a friend of the Ruff family, but he also served on the House intelligence committee.
"He just wanted to make sure she wasn't a KGB mole," Velling said. Far-fetched? Maybe. Still, you don't take on a new identity just for the heck of it. There's got to be a reason.
It seems clear Lori didn't do this for the money. So what was it? Velling checked off the possibilities. Was she running away after committing some horrible crime? Was she the victim of one? Was she fleeing an abusive relationship? Did she break free from a cult?
He knows one thing for sure: "There's no doubt she planned it out."
LIVING IN A COCOON
After Blake and Lori married, they bought a house on two acres outside tiny Leonard, Texas (population 1,900). It was 125 miles from the Ruff home in Longview.
Neighbors on their single-lane road couldn't figure them out. Blake tried to be neighborly. Lori didn't. They'd see her in the evenings, walking the perimeter of the property, avoiding eye contact.
"She really didn't like people as much as she liked working at home on her computer," Nancy explained.
For work, Lori called herself a marketing consultant. Mostly, she ran a home business as a mystery shopper. One day she might be testing new products; another she'd eat at a hamburger joint and report on the service.
In six years, neighbor Denny Gorena remembers socializing with them exactly once. Most of the time, Lori and Blake lived in their own little world.
THE NEW MOTHER
More than anything, Lori wanted a child. Several times, she miscarried, according to Blake. The family now suspects part of the difficulty was that she was older than she claimed. She had repeated fertility treatments until, finally, in the summer of 2008, she gave birth to a baby girl.
The way Lori held her daughter, it didn't appear she'd spent much time around babies, Blake said. She was extremely protective. If the baby tried to chew on something, Lori would snatch it away. She wouldn't let Nancy baby sit. Come to think of it, Nancy said, she didn't leave her alone with the child at all.
"This is grandbaby number nine!" Nancy said. "We're all baby people."
Lori's greatest pleasure was dressing up and going out to tea shops, where the two of them would pose for mother-daughter photos.
But tensions were building between the Ruff family and Lori. On one hand, she spent hours tracking their genealogy and collecting their family recipes. But on visits, it wasn't unusual for her to sneak off for a long nap. When the rest of the women gathered in the kitchen to talk and cook, Lori didn't join them.
"Maybe," Blake said, trying to understand, "she wasn't even comfortable around her own self. How would she be comfortable around the family?
"I'm assuming something really tragic must have happened," he says in retrospect. "Something awful, is what it appears to me."
A funny thing happens when you take on a new identity, Velling said. You get a fresh start. But it's also a chain.
"It can take a stranglehold on you," he said. "You have got to hold to that story all the way through. In the end, I think that's what happened to her."
Blake said that as time wore on, the situation with his family grew more difficult. Lori constantly found fault with them. She'd hold on to every perceived slight and complain about them incessantly. She didn't want her daughter to visit with them.
For Blake, who is very close with his family, it was excruciating.
Finally he had enough. In summer 2010, he moved out of Leonard and back in with his parents. Later, he filed for divorce.
Denny, the neighbor, said the first time he saw her after that, she and her then-2-year-old looked very thin.
"She was frantic, about to the point of incoherence," he said. "From that point on, I never saw her focus again."
Denny suggested Lori come to counseling at the church where he serves as pastor. She brought in notebooks in which she rambled about "what was wrong with her and how she could get him back," he said.
As Lori sat down to talk, Denny couldn't help but notice her hands. They were the "longest hands I'd ever seen on a person," he said, and they were always moving. She'd fidget with her hair or hold her hand out and gaze at it. Then she'd turn it over, gaze some more, and finally put it back in her lap.
"Her hands were important to her, for some reason," he said.
Lori spoke in circles, covering the same ground over and over. She'd say, "This is what's going on with Blake and me ... " And the next sentence was, "This is what's going on with Blake and me ... " It would go on like that for an hour.
"When she had a particular thought, her mind was stuck on it," Denny said. To him, it seemed like obsessive-compulsive disorder. Blake said he remembered her taking medication for ADHD or Tourette's syndrome.
Blake came in for counseling sessions, too, and brought along his twin, David. It was strange, Denny said. David did most of the talking, as if he was translating for Blake.
In the end, the counseling could not repair the marriage.
"Honestly, I don't think she was capable of getting the help she needed because she was so obsessed about whatever she was obsessed about," Denny said.
In fall 2010, Lori began sending threatening emails to the Ruffs. She caused a ruckus during one custody exchange, the family said. Afterward, they noticed one of their house keys was missing. Nancy recalls hearing the squeak of their backyard gate one morning just before Christmas.
The Ruffs were so concerned they asked a judge to order Lori to cease and desist.
On Christmas Eve 2010, Blake's father, Jon Ruff, shuffled out to get his paper. As he raised the garage door, he saw a black Tahoe idling in the driveway. He immediately went inside and called police.
It was Lori. She had shot herself.
Blake was inconsolable, according to Miles.
Inside the car, police found an 11-page letter addressed to "my wonderful husband" and another to their daughter, to be opened on her 18th birthday.
"These were ramblings from a clearly disturbed person," the police report stated.
After Lori's funeral, Miles and a few other family members drove to Leonard. They had felt for years that she was hiding something. Miles said he was sent to "scrub that house down to see if we can find out who in the heck she was."
By this point, he wasn't taking any chances. As they pulled up at the house that afternoon, they called a sheriff's deputy to meet them.
"I didn't know if it was booby-trapped," he explained.
The place was a wreck. The baby's bed was soiled; there were piles of dishes and laundry and trash bags of shredded documents.
"She'd basically given up the will to live," Miles said.
Everywhere, there was paper filled with Lori's scrawls. When she ran out of space, she wrote over top of whatever she had just jotted down.
Before Miles set out, Blake let him know there were places Lori had told him never to look. The strongbox, hidden in a closet, was labeled "crafts."
"So what do you think I did?" Miles said. "I took a flathead screwdriver and broke that thing open."
Inside was a court document from 1988 showing she had changed her name. Before she was Lori, she was Becky Sue Turner.
"We go, 'Bingo!' We figured it out," Miles said. "She's Becky Sue Turner."
It just so happened that a private investigator lived next door, so Miles asked him to do a little digging, as well. He came back with more: the real Becky Sue was long dead.
"Three children perish in fire at Fife," a 1971 headline read. She was just 2 years old.
TRAIL OF DEAD ENDS
Lori ... Becky Sue ... Velling just calls her Jane Doe. He's paged through the clues to her life over and over.
"The reason I can't find anything prior to 1988 is because she's very good," he said.
He pulls out a timeline. On one side is Jane Doe's life as Lori and, briefly, Becky Sue. On the other side is nothing.
It took her two months to take over the identity of someone she wasn't. First, she got a copy of Becky Sue's birth certificate from Bakersfield, Calif. In those days, many counties would just mail a copy to whoever asked.
Notably, Becky Sue was born in one state but died in another - it says so in a news clipping. That suggests Jane Doe knew what she was doing, because this kind of separation reduces the chances of being tripped up by some state database.
She got an Idaho ID card in Becky Sue's name in Boise, claiming she was 18 years old.
"What this tells me is that Jane Doe was in Idaho in 1988," Velling said. This tidbit, discovered just last week, strengthens the hypothesis that she was from the Northwest. She also kept a mail drop in Boulder City, Nev., which forwarded her mail to Dallas.
After getting the ID, she went to court in Dallas to change her name, legally, from Becky Sue Turner to Lori Erika Kennedy.
Next came the most important step: getting a Social Security card, the holy grail of identity theft.
Today, most children get Social Security numbers at birth. Back then, you could easily get your card as a teen. That's what Jane Doe did. She became Lori Kennedy, a blank slate, with government ID.
"Once I have that name change and the Social Security number, I'm really a whole new person," Velling said.
The whole process took less than two months.
As Lori, she got into college without providing any high-school transcripts. "She took the GED," Velling said. "No clue there." She graduated from the University of Texas in Arlington with a degree in business.
He tracked down a few friends and colleagues from years ago. One said she had been working as a dancer at a "gentleman's club" in the early 1990s, according to Velling. A clue, perhaps. But no one he found knew anything about Lori before 1988.
In the strongbox there also were letters of reference from an employer and a landlord. And the scribbles: North Hollywood police. 402 months. Ben Perkins, an attorney.
Was she in legal trouble? Facing 402 months in prison? Velling chased the leads.
The job reference appears to be bogus, signed by someone who never existed.
Lawyer Ben Perkins? He had no recollection of her.
Velling ran photos of Jane Doe through every facial-recognition database he knew. Nothing. He sent her fingerprints to the FBI. They didn't match anyone in their criminal files.
"If she was facing prison time," he thought, "you would have thought there would be fingerprints."
He had her fingerprints compared with those on file with the Department of Homeland Security. Nothing.
He learned from medical records that she had breast implants. And for a moment, Velling thought he had a solid lead - implants, he learned, have serial numbers, and serial numbers lead to doctors' records. But it appeared she got them after she had become Lori. And besides, she was cremated.
"This case is so difficult," he said, "because the trail's dead."
DNA TURNS UP NOTHING
Velling obtained samples of her DNA and had it compared with genetic material in other databases. No match. More recently, he entered it into a nationwide archive of missing and unidentified persons, called NAMUS. He also made an entry on ancestry.com, a genealogy website, hoping that, at some point, her DNA would find a family match.
And he waited for someone to step forward.
He also got to wondering: How did Jane Doe choose Becky Sue?
There are document brokers who specialize in this sort of thing, sure. But maybe she had seen the obituary years ago. Or the tombstone? Or could it be she knew Becky Sue Turner's family? He had to find them.
Sitting in the living room of Becky Sue's mother, he pulled out Jane Doe's picture. She just shook her head, and Mr. Turner did, too. Another dead end.
Jane Doe adopted her false identity before digital photos, before email, before the Internet. And all the technology we have today hasn't helped solve the case.
"Can you tell how frustrating this is?" Velling said.
He realizes, of course, this isn't his most important case. Yet whenever there's a lull, he comes back to Jane Doe. He thinks about the story told by the strongbox, which traces a path through California and Nevada, Idaho and Arizona and, finally, Texas. Surely somebody out there knows her story.
The Ruffs are wondering, too. They want to solve the mystery. At the very least, they want to be able to tell Blake and Lori's daughter who her mother was. Yet they worry they'll find out something terrible, something they wish they had never known.
"She must have had someone," Nancy said, "or she wouldn't have wanted to keep so many things hidden."
Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story.