In two states far apart, two families were on flip sides of the same tragic mystery. One, in Texas, had lost a wife to suicide in 2010, then learned that she was not who she claimed. So who was she? All their digging turned up nothing.
The other, in Pennsylvania, had lost a family member, back in 1986. The young woman had fled abruptly, leaving no clue. Where was she? They spent 30 years hoping she was alive and safe.
Earlier this year, a former Social Security Administration (SSA) investigator, Joe Velling, became convinced that the dead woman, known as Lori Ruff, and the Pennsylvania woman were one and the same.
It had been a long road to get to this point. The SSA investigates identity theft, and Lori clearly had stolen someone else’s identity — that of a 2-year-old girl from Pierce County, Wash., who had died in a fire decades earlier. An aide to a Texas congressman had asked Velling to look into the case, after being contacted by the Ruff family.
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Gallery: Evidence Lori Ruff left behind
There was no indication she adopted the new identity for financial gain. So why did she do it? Velling used every tool he had, but turned up nothing. This was highly unusual.
With the support of the Ruff family, Velling turned to a reporter he knew at The Seattle Times in 2013, hoping that crowdsourcing would provide an answer. Surely somebody would recognize her from years ago. The story, which ran on the front page and later in publications all around the world, captured the online imagination.
For three years, a large cadre of dogged online sleuths tried to solve the mystery.
Late last year, a California scientist called Velling with a theory: Lori Ruff came from a family back East, she said. The Cassidys. Based on the evidence she provided, Velling believed she was right. Earlier this year, he took a plane to Philadelphia to knock on the door of one member of the Cassidy family. He had no idea what he was walking into. He didn’t even know the missing woman’s name.
The Ruffs had provided him some photos, and he began laying them out on the table.
“My God,” the family member said, “that’s Kimberly!”
Kimberly McLean, who left home at 18 and never came back.
Building a family tree
During the past three years, theories about Lori Ruff’s identity have run the gamut. Had she run away from a polygamous cult? An abusive partner? Had she committed a terrible crime? Was she in a witness-protection program? Some were even more outlandish. Did she really take her own life?
But as Velling would soon learn, the truth was much less sensational than all of the theories.
And also, in a way, even more puzzling than the mystery itself.
For most of the online sleuths, investigating the Lori Ruff case was a matter of poring through records of missing-persons photos looking for women who resembled Lori.
Colleen Fitzpatrick, a nuclear-physicist-turned-forensic genealogist, went about the investigation differently. As a scientist, she worked on lasers and optics for 25 years, often using beams of light as a yardstick for measuring something.
People used to ask what I did for a living. I’d say I shine light on things.
Colleen Fitzpatrick, a nuclear-physicist-turned-forensic genealogist whose research helped solve the Lori Ruff mystery
In the early 2000s, she began writing a book about her hobby. “Forensic Genealogy” explained methodologies she had developed to solve different kinds of puzzles. Some have called it “CSI meets Roots.”
She has helped Holocaust survivors search for family members and adoptees find birth parents. She has helped estate lawyers track down heirs. In one case that made the news, she was able to find the identity of a child who died on the Titanic in 1912 by tracing his ancestry through his relatives’ DNA.
When Fitzpatrick read the story about Lori, she immediately thought about DNA. Lori and her husband, Blake Ruff, had a daughter in 2008 and that daughter shared Lori’s DNA. If the daughter provided a DNA sample, there was a way to subtract Blake’s DNA profile from the daughter’s, leaving what is essentially Lori’s.
The Ruff family sent a saliva sample to 23andMe and Ancestry.com, companies that analyze DNA and provide tools to help people trace their family histories online. The family figured that the girl would one day want to know about her mother.
“We were just wanting to at least have the ability to give her the answers,” said Miles Darby, Blake’s brother-in-law.
Fitzpatrick found a number of people whose DNA matched up with Lori’s, but most of them were distant cousins. They wouldn’t be any help in identifying Lori.
Just one person came up as a first cousin: a man named Michael Cassidy. There were no other details, just a name, and there are probably thousands of people by that name in the United States. Which was the right one? Contacting him via the genealogy sites drew no response. It’s unclear if he even saw the messages.
The Ruffs, along with Fitzpatrick and Velling, had reached a dead end.
And so they waited. Fitzpatrick periodically checked back in with the sites, working other angles as they popped up. All told, she figures she spent hundreds of hours on this. There were some clues pointing to the Pennsylvania area.
But for years, there was no real breakthrough. Then, finally, the name of a third cousin came up. That was too distant of a relative to provide answers to Lori’s identity.
But she could provide some clues through her family tree.
Fitzpatrick created a family tree based on the third cousin’s ancestry, tracing her family’s roots to an Irish great-great-grandfather who was born in 1848. Then — and this is the key — she traced that family tree all the way down another branch and came to a familiar name: Michael Cassidy.
“Suddenly, I had Lori’s extended family in front of me,” Fitzpatrick realized.
With the family tree built, Fitzpatrick was able to zero in on the right Michael Cassidy, who lived in the Philadelphia area.
Between Facebook, online obituaries, public records and people-finder tools used by private investigators, she put together a picture of the Cassidy family. She gleaned from the family tree that Lori’s mother almost certainly was one of Michael’s aunts. But which one? And what was Lori’s real name? There was no way to know.
She called Velling. He was convinced she was right.
When Velling flew to Philadelphia in March, he decided to forgo Michael Cassidy and instead approach another family member.
But how would he introduce himself? Hi, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I think you’re related to this woman — who we also don’t know the name of. Can you help?
But it had to be done. “I had a boss that said, if something lands on your lap, do something,” Velling recalled.
I had news. Bad or good, I had it. And it had to get relayed.
Joe Velling, a former Social Security Administration investigator who pursued the Lori Ruff mystery
When he arrived at the relative’s workplace, he had no identification showing he was a federal investigator. He was just a retired government employee, after all. He wore a suit, kept a nonthreatening demeanor and hoped for the best.
“Do you have a moment for me to tell you a story?” he remembers saying to the woman before launching into the tale of Lori and the DNA and the great-great grandfather.
But the story is so convoluted, it wasn’t really getting him anywhere. Then he pulled out the photos, laying them on the table. Finally, he got to Lori’s most recent driver’s license picture, taken when she was around 40. That’s when it clicked. “My God, that’s Kimberly!”
“The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I realized she knew who this person was,” Velling recalled. He had fielded countless emails from well-meaning people who thought they had an answer. They were contacting him long after The Seattle Times published Lori’s story. Now, he knew the answer.
The next day, Velling spoke with the large extended family, answering as many of their questions as he could. “They were angst-ridden,” he said. One thing was certain: It was definitely Kimberly.
Her mother was Michael Cassidy’s aunt, Deanne. And Deanne was then married to James McLean.
Lori Ruff was Kimberly McLean.
Later, Deanne took a DNA test and confirmed the match.
To Deanne, now 80, the news was devastating. She had last seen Kimberly 30 years ago, and now she learned her daughter was dead.
Certainly, there is much that we don’t, and can’t, know about Kimberly’s disappearance. All of these events occurred a long time ago.
Deanne declined to speak with The Seattle Times, referring questions to her brother, Tom Cassidy.
Tom Cassidy provided some additional information. Kimberly grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, along with a sister. Deanne was a stay-at-home mom. Kimberly’s dad was a carpenter and volunteer firefighter.
Timeline: Kimberly McLean becomes a Jane Doe
Cassidy said there were rides on fire engines and a magnificent hand-built playhouse in the backyard. There were family vacations and day trips and family dinners every night.
When Kimberly was an adolescent, her parents divorced. Deanne met a man named Robert Becker, remarried and moved the girls to Wyncote, Pa., where Kimberly attended Bishop McDevitt High School.
This was around the time the trouble started, according to Cassidy.
“Kim never adjusted to the new house and the divorce,” he said. There were new rules, a new school, and at some point, it became too much for Kimberly.
In 1986, when she was 18, she moved to King of Prussia, Pa., about a half-hour away, Cassidy said. Then one day, she told her mom she was leaving for good. Don’t come after me, she warned.
The family never heard from her again. They tried everything they could think of, but Kimberly had ensured they would never find her by changing her name not once but twice.
“For the life of me, we can’t figure why,” Cassidy said.
So, Lori Ruff wasn’t in a cult, as far as anyone can tell. She wasn’t a spy. She was a teenage runaway.
After leaving home in 1986, there are two years that Velling can’t account for. Lori didn’t pick up the false identity until 1988. It’s clear she spent at least some time in Idaho, California and Las Vegas before moving to Texas, according to the investigation.
She got her GED, graduated from the University of Texas, and met Blake Ruff through church. She and Blake had a child. It was an ordinary life.
Two families connected
To Tom Cassidy, it underscores the sadness of it all, the futility.
Can you imagine, Cassidy asked? There was nobody from the family there to congratulate her on her college graduation. There was nobody there when she got married. She had a child without her mom there to help.
“Her birthday was October 16, 1968,” he repeated several times. Every year when that day came around, Lori couldn’t celebrate. “Can you imagine the burden of all that fakeness? How it all added up?”
The Ruffs saw what that entailed. They watched as Lori got progressively more troubled, culminating in her suicide.
“At least now we know her identity and know she had a family that loved her,” said Darby, Blake Ruff’s brother-in-law. Now, Lori and Blake’s daughter has a new set of grandparents on the East Coast, and a whole new batch of cousins. The two families have been connected.
To Velling, the real story of Lori Ruff is in some ways even harder to understand than any of the wild speculation.
“I wondered if she was AWOL from the Army. We wondered if maybe there was some connection to Las Vegas and she was caught up in some kind of crime-family stuff. Nothing like that ever turned up.”
As far as Velling can tell, she was never connected to any criminal investigation, as Kimberly McLean or as Lori Ruff.
Velling hopes the speculation stops now, but suspects it won’t.
“Most of us, we get lonesome and homesick the first time we go to college, when we join the military. You wait for that first phone call to talk to mom and dad. And yet at 18, she’s out there on her own,” he said.
We can’t fathom someone walking away with an intact family and never reconnecting.
Joe Velling, a former Social Security Administration investigator
On Monday, Lori Ruff’s name was removed from the federal government’s database of missing and unidentified persons.
Maureen O’Hagan is a Portland-based freelance writer and former Seattle Times reporter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dylan Purcell of the Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News contributed to this report.