Lori Erica Ruff Kept Her Past Locked Up in a Secret Safe
Marriage is a sacred act between two people that care deeply for one another. Different cultures define matrimony in different ways and tie the knot for various reasons. Whatever the motivation behind one person entering wedlock to another, both parties usually do know each other intimately. Or at least they should. But nobody in the world knew Lori Erica Ruff.
Six years after a heartbroken Texas man buried his wife and the mother of his little girl, he still doesn’t know exactly who she was.
Such is the mystery of Lori Erica Ruff, a woman who managed to fool everyone, including federal and private investigators, about her true identity before committing suicide, taking her twisted secrets to the grave.
To her husband, the tall, slender brunette was Lori Kennedy, a woman born in Arizona who had a rough childhood and didn’t want to discuss her past. To anyone else who knew her before, she was Becky Sue Turner.
Both names are false.
She created a false identity for the sole purpose of getting lost in America,” stumped Social Security investigator Joseph Velling, who has been painstakingly investigating her case for the last six or so years.
Velling calls her Jane Doe.
Officials have ruled out that she was in the witness protection program. Her photo was run in every facial recognition database. Her fingerprints were run. Both to no avail. Her DNA is on file incase they can find someone to match it to. Velling has been digging into her case ever since. He says he will not give up. Until her real identity is found or someone recognizes her, the Ruff family cannot tell her little girl who her mother really was.
“It must have been for some horrific reason … either she was running away from a crime or an abusive family or relationship,” he said.
There was always something off about her. That much is known by her surviving in-laws, but everything before she moved to Dallas and married Jon Blakely “Blake” Ruff, is fabricated, with her history spanning at least four other states.
Authorities say it all started in May 1988.
An unknown woman in Bakersfield, Calif., requested the birth certificate of 2-year-old Becky Sue Turner, a girl who died in a house fire in Fife, Wash., in 1971.
The request wasn’t unusual at the time and was granted, authorities say.
But one month later, this woman used it to obtain a valid Idaho identification card bearing her photo with the girl’s name. The girl’s parents would later tell investigators that they didn’t know this woman who stole their daughter’s identity when presented with her photo.
Weeks later, the woman’s bizarre identity trail continued to Dallas, where she legally changed her name to Lori Erica Kennedy and applied for a new Social Security number.
Back then, as with the birth certificate record, it was far easier to apply for a Social Security number than it is today, say detectives.
“Once I have that name change and the Social Security number, I’m really a whole new person,” Velling has said of her transformation.
She’d use this number to apply for a Texas driver’s license in 1989, listing herself as 19, an age that will perhaps now forever be disputed.
She went on to attend a community college after obtaining her GED, which did not require high school transcripts, and graduated with a business administration degree from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1997.
Joe Velling arranged the clues around the big table: a birth certificate for a girl in Fife. 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 years. As an investigator for the Social Security Administration (SSA), he’s nabbed more con men 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.
One of the first things Velling did in this investigation was to contact the Kern County Clerk Recorder to see it they had a record of the application for the birth certificate. They had no records from back in 1988. There was not way to trace back to who requested the birth certificate. They do know that we had the birth certificate and the receipt for $11.00 in JANE DOE’s box.
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 the mystery. If Lori wasn’t really Lori, who was she? And why would she go so far to hide her past?
Changing her identity through a witness protection program is doubtful. The government would have given her a new identity. She wouldn’t have had to commit Social Security fraud to create one herself.
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. He’s used every trick at his disposal, followed every lead.
We’ll start the story where the facts are certain: Lori’s marriage into the Ruff clan.
The Ruffs are a close-knit East Texas family, warm and friendly people who sent their kids to boarding school and socialize at the country club. They live between Dallas and Shreveport in Longview, a mid sized 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, in telecom management from DeVry, and 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.
In 2003, Lori met Blake Ruff, family in East Texas in a Bible study class. Blake Ruff admitted that he is not completely sure what drew him to Lori. He describes her as being incredibly secretive, particularly regarding her past. She had told him she was from Arizona, that both her parents were dead, and that she had no siblings. She also said her father was a failed stockbroker.
Ruff’s parents wanted to meet their son’s girlfriend, so they had lunch. They asked the basic questions: Where are you from? What about your family? Where did you go to high school?
Jane Doe told them her parents were dead. She didn’t have any brothers or sisters.
Though Ruff’s family thought this was strange, he didn’t push her for answers. She told him she had destroyed old family photos because she ‘had a bad life’.
‘He didn’t follow up with the question, “Well, what was so bad about it?”‘ Velling said.
‘Blake is the type of guy who takes everything you say at face value,’ Ruff’s brother Miles said.
Ruff and Lori married in 2003. Jane Doe as Veller calls her, refused to have a wedding announcement in the local paper, which the family found strange.
A year after the engagement, they got married without family or friends in attendance at a small church outside Dallas. The couple moved to a small town in Texas 125 miles from where the Ruffs lived.
Though Ruff tried to be neighbourly, his wife was standoffish. One neighbour said the couple socialized only once in the six years they lived there. Jane Doe worked as a marketing consultant, running a business as a mystery shopper from home.
But it was far from a happy marriage, as the Ruffs’ relationship with Lori grew harder and harder to manage.
After getting married, the Ruffs moved to Leonard, Texas. They tried several times to have a child, but had trouble conceiving and suffered multiple miscarriages. This led investigators to believe that Ruff was older than she claimed. She eventually gave birth to a baby girl via in vitro fertilization in 2008.
Like her small-town neighbours, Jane Doe didn’t socialize much with her family.
‘Maybe she wasn’t even comfortable around her own self. How would she be comfortable around the family?’ Ruff has said, wondering now. ‘I’m assuming something really tragic must have happened…Something awful, is what it appears to me.’
The Ruffs weren’t so sure of this woman whose past was all empty spaces. But Blake didn’t seem to mind the gaps.
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.
After Blake and Lori married, they bought a house on 2 acres outside of tiny Leonard, Texas (population 1,900). It was 125 miles from the Ruff home in Longview.
Neighbours on their single-lane road couldn’t figure them out. Blake tried to be neighbourly. 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.
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 the summer of 2010, he moved out of Leonard and back in with his parents. Later, he filed for divorce.
Denny, the neighbour 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 counselling 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 brother, 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 the fall of 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.
When the Ruff family woke up on Christmas Eve, 2010, things didn’t look all that inviting outside. It was cold out, in the low 40s, and the sky was cloudy, threatening to rain at any moment. The news in Longview, Texas that morning was focused on the death of a 15 year old girl outside a William’s Chicken. The girl was sitting in her mother’s car when she was struck by a stray bullet. A tragedy, to be sure, but one that had nothing to do with the Ruffs. So, like most of us do, the Ruffs heard the news, shook their heads sadly, and continued to plan their day.
Sitting outside in the driveway of the Ruff family, was a tragedy they didn’t know about yet. During the night, Lori Erica Ruff, the estranged wife of Jonathan “Blake” Ruff, drove up to the house, put her car in park, and shot herself. A troubling end to a troubled life.
Blake was inconsolable.
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 the funeral, a few members of the Ruff family headed to Lori’s home to clear it out. 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.
When they arrived, they couldn’t believe what they found.
The home was a wreck – the baby’s bed was stained from urine and feces, piles of dirty dishes littered the kitchen, and dirty clothes covered most of the floors. Trash bags filled with shredded documents were piled in corners. Every scrap of paper was covered in Lori’s scribbles – some of the papers were written on, then written over, as if Lori had run out of paper, but still needed to write.
Inside a closet was a lockbox marked “Crafts”. Miles, Blake’s brother in law, broke it open with a screwdriver.
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.
Becky Sue Turner died in a fire in 1971. She was two years old.
The Ruff family handed over the lockbox to a family friend who just so happens to be a Congressman. The Congressman gave it to Joe Velling, an investigator for the SSA, concerned that Lori/Becky was a Russian agent. While Velling doubted the KGB angle, he still took the case on – after all, it’s his job to track down identity thieves.
Inside the lock box, along with the name change documentation, Velling found the birth certificate for the real Becky Sue Turner, an ID card from Idaho, torn out pages from an Arizona phone book, and scraps of paper with scribbled notes, including the name of an attorney and the words “402 months.” Velling didn’t know what the hand written notes meant, but he did know one thing, Lori/Becky planned this all out very well.
The first clue that Lori/Becky knew what she was doing was the use of Becky Sue Turner. Becky Sue, the real Becky Sue, died in Fife, Washington, but was born in Bakersfield, California. Among the scraps of paper in the lockbox was a news clipping about the death of Becky Sue, which means that Lori/Becky Sue specifically chose this little girl. More to it, having died in a different state than she was born in made it less likely, in the 80s at least, that other states would be able to find that Becky Sue had died.
Lori/Becky Sue used the birth certificate of the real Becky Sue Turner to get an ID card in Idaho in 1988. Two months later, the fake Becky Sue Turner showed up in Dallas and had her name legally changed to Lori Erica Kennedy. As Lori Erica Kennedy, this mystery woman applied for, and received a new social security number.
Now legally Lori Erica Kennedy, she took a test to get her GED, then entered college, the University of Texas in Arlington, where she majored in business. Velling was able to find a few people who remembered Lori from college, but none of them could give him any new information about her.
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 Jane Doe 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 the 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.”
It is one thing to suspect Lori Erica Ruff of being a simple identity thief, but it is another thing to understand why. Some people can explain all of this with nothing more sinister than the Witness Protection Program. Others, including the private detective that was tasked with finding out more about her, consider that an incident in her past concerned her sufficiently to create an entirely new identity. Such things have happened in other cases, and are often traumatic events. If Lori was trying to escape her past, then it could explain her reluctance for publicity.
Velling obtained samples of her DNA and had it compared to the 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.
Along the way, he 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.
Same thing with Mr. Turner. Another dead end.
Jane Doe adopted her false identity before digital photos, before email, before the Internet. All the technology we have today hasn’t helped solve the case.
“Can you tell how frustrating this is?” Velling said.
It’s odd that she kept all this evidence in the strongbox. …why would you keep all this stuff, but not provide the answer to your identity? But it’s likely that she kept things like the birth certificate for the same reason that anyone keeps a copy of their birth certificate–because it’s hard to get a replacement. I guess there’s no real way to know what she was thinking, though.
In the six years since Lori killed herself outside of her in-laws’ home on Christmas Eve, Joe Velling is no closer to solving the mystery. This, clearly, isn’t the most important case Velling has on his plate, but it is the one that haunts him the most, the one that has the biggest question marks surrounding it.
Why did this woman throw away her previous life? She was clearly running from something, but what?
Somewhere out there, there must be someone who knows more to the story – someone that Lori was running from, hiding from, fearing would find her. Something in this woman’s past drove her to desire a new start with a new family, but kept her from being able to fully integrate into a new setting. The split between her two lives seemingly drove Lori insane, leading to her tragic death. Still, above all else, one question stands out from all the others – in 1988, a young woman left behind everything that she was, so why didn’t anyone go looking for her?
Chances are, we’ll never know. Whatever it was that made Lori go to such extremes, whatever she was hiding, she took the answers with her.
Meanwhile, 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.