Lori Ruff committed suicide on Christmas Eve, 2010, by shooting herself in her in-laws' driveway. The details of her death are clear. But the family she married into knew virtually nothing about her life. After her death they learned that she'd stolen the identity of a child who had died in a fire in 1971. But who was Lori Ruff, really? Brooke talks to The Seattle Times’ Maureen O’Hagan, who's asking readers to help solve this mystery.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Last Saturday, the Seattle Times published a feature titled, “She Stole Another’s Identity and Took Her Secret to the Grave.” Who was she? Clearly, this is a mystery, one about a Texas woman named Lori Ruff who committed suicide on Christmas Eve 2010 by shooting herself in her in-laws’ driveway. While the details of her death are clear, the family she married into knew virtually nothing about her life. But they quickly learned that she had stolen the identity of the two-year-old girl made Becky Sue Turner, who died in a fire back in 1971, and then she changed her name again, to Lori Kennedy. So who was Lori Ruff, really?
The Seattle Times is hoping their readers will help them find out. It’s published her photo and also, says Seattle Times reporter Maureen O'Hagan, much of the contents of a locked box that Lori had forbidden her family to open.
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: They busted it open with a screwdriver, and inside it was a birth certificate in someone else's name, the dead child, Becky Sue Turner. There was a name change in which she changed her name from Becky Sue Turner to Lori Kennedy. And there was a, a bunch of other documents, including sort of scribbles on a few pieces of paper that we think might hold clues to her true identity, and we’ve posted all that stuff online.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how did you get drawn into this story?
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: There’s a Social Security Investigative Division, and they do all sorts of identity theft and fraud cases. One of the investigators is here in Seattle. His name is Joe Velling, and a congressman’s aide came to him and said, here’s a mystery, see if you can solve this. And he thought, oh, piece of cake, no problem. I do identity theft all the time. He spent a good year and a half, and he couldn't solve the case.
He called me up. It was probably almost a year ago now. I was able to convince my editors that this is a heck of a tale, and we may be able to help solve it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But why Seattle?
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: The child whose identity she stole was from a town just outside of Seattle called Fife.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: There are some other connections to the Northwest. She lived, it seems, for a time, in Boise, Idaho because her first piece of fake government ID – it was real ID but in a fake name – was from Boise. She had a P.O. box in Nevada and she got the child’s birth certificate in Bakersfield, California.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did you and the Seattle Times come up with the idea to get readers involved in researching the story?
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: A few years ago we had done a story on a guy who turned up here with amnesia; he had no idea who he was. And-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That really happens? [LAUGHS]
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: I couldn’t believe it but [LAUGHS], it’s true. So my colleagues here wanted to write the story. We don’t know who he is. We think readers can solve it. And the editors were a little bit skeptical about this whole idea. A rule of storytelling is that you have to give some sort of satisfying ending, and we don’t have that.
They somehow came around. We published the story. Within a few hours, some reader in China saw the story, recognized the guy’s picture and identified him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow.
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: So that sort of laid the groundwork, I think, for this. We talked a lot about it and how to approach it. We were concerned about what happened in the Boston bombing case, where suspects were misidentified by the crowd, I guess you’d call it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The crowd, particularly, although not exclusively, at the social network website, Reddit.
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: We sure didn't want that to happen, and we thought, this case is a little different because there’s no suspect on the loose that we have to worry about the crowd sort of pouncing on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how exactly are you reaching out to the public? I assume you're doing it through the newspaper. Are you putting it anywhere else?
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: We are. We’ve posted it on the Seattle Times Facebook page. We've done a lot of tweeting about it. We’ve posted it on Reddit. They have this page called the Reddit Bureau of Investigation. It's sort of made its way to other places, as well. But there are several ways that readers can contact us with this, and one is just a regular comments thread. There’s also a forum that we’ve created that goes directly to me, if they don’t want to post publicly in the comments thread. And I’ve been monitoring that, been monitoring Reddit, been monitoring the comment thread, to make sure that what happened in Boston doesn’t happen here, but also, to see if there’s any good clues .
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s some of the most useful stuff that you’ve gotten so far?
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: There was somebody who has expertise in what she called forensic genealogy. The investigator, Joe Velling, contacted her to see what that was all about. Some people said, I think I know her from back in the day in Pennsylvania, and you might try looking here and there. There’s nothing that you can really grab onto, but it’s all very tantalizing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah. Somebody thinks that Lori Ruff might actually be Christie Lynn Farni, who she knew had been abused by her father, disappeared on her way to school from a foster home, whose life was incredibly troubled, and Lori Ruff displayed a lot of mental illness, some compulsive behaviors. Maybe it adds up to nothing, but it's an effort to tie a lot of loose strands about her life together.
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: It’s sad, in a way, to think about who she might've been before. You don't just pick up and leave your life behind, unless there’s a good reason to do that. Whatever the answer is, I think we’re gonna find there was some trauma in her life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you really think you’re going to be able to solve this thing?
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: I go up and down. [LAUGHS] I sure hope we are. All it’s gonna take is somebody to say, “I sat next to that girl in math class in high school” or “That’s my sister.” It may not be immediate, but I can see it happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is this basically just kind of a game, kind of a crowdsourcing marketing game, because our newsrooms have fewer and fewer reporters in them and there are big issues that affect people's lives every day that go underreported? Part of me wonders, is this how you should be spending your time?
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: Well, I thought about that. This, this came up organically. It wasn’t some sort of marketing scheme coming down from the publisher's office: we got to increase clicks.
What I look for is a good story, and some are hard news stories and some are human interest stories. And I think this is just one of those human interest stories.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Maureen, thank you very much.
MAUREEN O’HAGAN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Maureen O'Hagan is a reporter for the Seattle Times.