In opposite corners of the country, two families were on flip sides of the same tragic mystery. One, in the Philadelphia suburbs, 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.
The other, in Texas, had lost a wife to suicide in 2010. When they broke open a strongbox she left behind, they learned that she was not who she claimed. So who was she? All their digging through the fake IDs and documents she'd locked away turned up nothing.
It had been a long road to get to this point. The SSA investigates identity theft, and Lori Ruff clearly had stolen someone else's identity — that of Becky Sue Turner, 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.
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 has been trying to solve the mystery.
Late last year, a California scientist called Velling with a theory: Lori Ruff came from a Philadelphia-area family, 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 her home in King of Prussia 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 her. There is no doubt they have spent thousands of hours doing this.
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," she recalled. "I'd say 'I shine light on things.' "
But 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 Ruff, she immediately thought about DNA. Lori Ruff and her husband, Blake, had a daughter in 2008 and that daughter shared Lori Ruff's DNA. If the daughter provided a DNA sample, there was a way to subtract Blake Ruff's DNA profile from the daughter's, leaving what is essentially his wife'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 Ruff's brother-in-law.
Fitzpatrick found a number of people whose DNA matched up with Lori Ruff's, but most of them were distant cousins. They wouldn't be any help in identifying her.
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 Philadelphia 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 Ruff'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 Ruff's mother almost certainly was one of Michael Cassidy's aunts. But which one? And what was Lori Ruff'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."
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 Ruff 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 one-by-one. Finally, he got to Lori Ruff'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 recalls. 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 Ruff'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 her daughter 30 years ago, and now she learned Kimberly was dead.
Certainly, there is much that we don't, and can't, know about Kimberly McLean'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 McLean grew up in Wynnewood, along with a sister. Deanne was a stay-at-home mom. Kimberly McLean's father was a carpenter and volunteer firefighter. The girls attended grade school at St. Margaret's in Narberth, and earlier at Queen of Peace in Ardsley.
"She was just very withdrawn," said Louise Chakejian, a Wynnewood neighbor whose daughter played with Kimberly McLean. "But I wouldn't say she was always unhappy." McLean's mother, Chakejian said, "was a very good mother. She liked to sing to the kids and make up crazy words in the songs, 'crinkle crinkle little star.' "
"She was very quiet and reserved," said Dave Rullo, who knew her from high school and grade school.
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 McLean was an adolescent, her parents divorced. Deanne met a man named Robert Becker, remarried and moved the girls to Wyncote where Kimberly McLean attended Bishop McDevitt High School.
This was around the time the troubles 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 her.
In 1986, when she was 18, she moved to King of Prussia, Cassidy said. Then one day, she told her mother 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 she 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 Ruff didn't pick up her 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.
When her father died, he named Kimberly and her sister in his will. James H. McLean, a cousin, recalls that his family also tried to track Kimberly down at that point.
"As I was only 7 when she disappeared, the only things I remember from those days was my father hiring a private detective to try and find Kimberly," he wrote.
Kimberly never collected her half of the inheritance.
She got her GED, graduated from the University of Texas, and met Blake Ruff through church. They 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 mother there to help.
"Her birthday was October 16, 1968," he repeated several times. Every year when that day came around, Lori Ruff 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 Ruff 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 Ruff'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 with the publication of this story, 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."
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 Inquirer and Daily News contributed to this report.