lori ruff, little girl lost
false identities, DNA tracking, and our appetite for tragedy, oh my
One of the oldest stories: a stranger arrives from out of town, and everything changes. Lori Erica Kennedy arrived in Dallas in the early 2000s; she joined the local church social community, a Christian singles group and a Bible study, where she met and eventually married Blake Ruffin 2003. Although Lori didn't quite fit in with the Ruff family - they found her withholding and distant - they moved into a pleasant suburban neighborhood in Leonard, TX and had a daughter.
Despite marriage counseling, Lori and Blake's marriage deteriorated; their daughter proved to be a source of conflict with his parents. Lori didn't have any parents involved in her daughter's life; she said she was an only child whose parents had passed away, and didn't even have any family photos - she had burned them, she said, reminders of "a bad life." Lori eventually she cut off contact with the Ruffs, too, who told Blake they thought he should leave the marriage. When Blake moved out of their shared home with the intent to divorce her, Lori's mental health took a serious hit. Although Lori had always been markedly protective of her daughter, even taking the infant to the bathroom with her rather than leaving her alone, neighbors reported both Lori and her daughter looked underfed. Lori began sending "threatening" emails to the Ruff family and they filed a cease and desist for harassment. Shortly after, on Christmas Eve 2010, Lori drove to her in-laws house and died by suicide parked in their driveway.
Despite the conflict, the Ruffs were Lori's only surviving family; they went to the house she had lived in with her daughter and found it "in disarray, with piles of dirty dishes, laundry, and trash stacked up around the house, as well as shredded documents and papers with incoherent scribblings on them." They also found a lockbox in her office: inside was a birth certificate for Becky Sue Turner, who was later confirmed to have died in a house fire as a child, as well as name change paperwork documenting that Lori had legally changed her name to Lori Erica Kennedy from Becky Sue years earlier. Other papers inside the lockbox had handwritten notes with cryptic references like "North Hollywood police," "402 months," and "Ben Perkins," none of which anyone was able to connect to anything about Lori's life. There was no information on where or who Lori had been before she came to Texas, but it was clear she had had another life and identity before meeting Blake, one that she had effectively erased.
This point, where Lori Ruff's life ended, is where the rest of the world's relationship with her began. The timing coincided with increased recreational internet usage and the formation of the intense, all-consuming digital communities and subcultures that flourished on message boards and forums before the advent of social media as we now know it - for instance, DIY 'websleuths' interested in true crime who took it upon themselves to crowdsource investigations the police weren't solving. The mystery of Lori Ruff's identity was profoundly tantalizing; it had the appeal of a contemporary Who Put Bella in the Witch Elm? or Tamám Shud case, where there was no confirmed crime but the obscured identity of the dead person and a collection of opaque related facts seemed to suggest there must be.
Digital sleuths latched onto a series of mannerisms and details from Lori's life, mining them for tells about what had led her to falsify a whole personhood and tells that could help link her to her original identity. She had an eccentric interest in childlike things, it was reported, buying an Easy Bake oven for herself as an adult and dressing up in matching tea party outfits with her young daughter. She had unusually long fingers & hands, with the pastor at her church noting, "They were the “longest hands I’d ever seen on a person... 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." The clean cut she had made of any previous identity was impressive, even before the internet archived everything about us; many people speculated she had worked with a professional identity broker, maybe meaning she had criminal or mob ties. Every detail spawned an attendant noir narrative; every idiosyncrasy could be a tip of a medical diagnosis, previous lifestyle habit, or dark backstory. Even the family that had rejected her, the Ruffs, were caught up in the grip of the mystery; her ex-husband was devastated by her death, telling a Seattle Times reporter:
“Maybe... 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.”
For a long time, it seemed likely that Lori Ruff's story would remain a mystery forever; but the biopolitical bell of the state tolls for us all eventually. In 2005, Colleen Fitzpatrick self-published her book about forensic genealogy, her vision for using DNA data from commercial direct-to-consumer companies like 23andMe as crowdsourced DNA samples to track down suspects in criminal cases. She embarked on a PR campaign for it, writing articles for websites and magazines about its potential, and was finally contracted first by an investment firm who needed to track down landowners to try to purchase their land for development. Her career took off from there, using piecemeal DNA-matching practices that relied on finding 'partial matches' that denoted a distant relative of the target and then doing investigative interviewing and research to hunt down the full match. She identified remains from the Titanic, from a plane crash, and most recently and famously, assisted in the identification and arrest of the Golden State Killer, Joseph DeAngelo. In 2013, Colleen Fitzpatrick found out about the Lori Ruff story and (as far as I can tell) volunteered herself. She took on the project of using a DNA sample from Lori's daughter and eventually found a likely third cousin, part of a large extended family from the East Coast/Midatlantic, probably a cousin. When the social security detective the Ruffs had contracted knocked on the door of the family member Fitzpatrick had found with photos of Lori Ruff, they immediately identified her: "'My God,' the family member said, 'that’s Kimberly!' Kimberly McLean, who left home at 18 and never came back."
Where the story of Lori Ruff ends and of Kimberly McLean begins - or the inverse, I guess - is where things lose traction for a lot of people.
"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 [social security detective Joe] Velling would soon learn, the truth was much less sensational than all of the theories."
Kimberly McLean had had an outwardly normal, albeit not ideal, middle-class life before she turned 18:
"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. “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, [Lori's uncle, Tom] 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."
For a group of people who had spent years developing evidence supporting theories that Lori was a Russian spy, a mob witness in hiding, a cult escapee, and more, this news was incredibly anticlimactic. Further exploration into Lori's (I tend to refer to her with the name she chose) backstory reveals a little more tragedy & melodrama; cousins and family friends who spoke to the original Seattle Times journalist who broke the story and later wrote the book The Woman in the Strongbox reported that alcoholism was a prevalent issue in the family, especially with Lori's biological dad, Jim McLean: "dramatic, scary, terror-creating, devastation-wreaking, horror movie alcoholics." Other cousins honed in on Lori's issues with her stepfather, saying "I know Kim didn't like him, but I have no idea why... there were family stories about Kim running away and ending up at her dad's house before getting dragged back home." For a lot of us, that descriptions will read like a neon sign; many of us have experienced the kind of home life that gets referenced obliquely in this way in public spheres, and we know what the reality is like, and why Lori might want to leave it, or even leave behind the person it had happened to.
I'm not personally married to the idea, though, that Lori's home life was a nightmare that just wasn't legible to investigators 40 years later; I'm more interested in interrogating the idea that her desire to change identities could only rationally be explained by a certain magnitude of trauma, and by the inarguable disappointment (!) that Lori might not have suffered in interesting enough ways. The assumption by so many people was that Lori was in danger, a potential victim hiding from a vengeful ex, cult leader, mafioso, or government. If she was instead a child who, like many children living in dangerous and unstable circumstances, believed that experience was a function of her fundamental character&personhood and therefore decided to change it, is she less sympathetic?
I don't know the details of what Lori's home life was like, but I also grew up in one that was middle-class and in many respects basically fine, and simultaneously harmful & unsafe in ways that left lasting impacts. I started lying at a young age, inventing siblings, pets, you name it. I was preoccupied with the idea of home invasion and kidnapping, devising a new name and backstory (Sylvia!) that I thought would somehow keep me safe if I could convince a kidnapper of it. Even as an adult, I relished the fake names I'd give to nosy men at bars, developing full lives for them with my friends. (I wrote all about this here, albeit paywalled.) Children growing up in unsafe environments typically have very little control over their experiences or themselves; they're often grasping at any opportunity for agency, to take charge of their own narrative, to see if they can impact anything in their own lives.
Most of all, children in unsafe homes tend to believe that they are the source of the problem; in what trauma researcher Colin Ross calls the 'locus of control shift,' it's often easier for children in traumatic situations to believe they're at fault, because their own behavior is something they could potentially change; if one accepts that their experiences are their caregivers' fault, it also means accepting they're helpless in the face of it. It's easy to see how ideas of identity and behavior blend together here: my stepfather is like this because of something I did becomes my stepfather is like this because of who I am. The question becomes a reasonable one: what if I was someone else?
I'm so drawn to Lori maybe because of how successfully executed this malformed little CPTSD kid collective daydream, and also how it failed. The tragedy of building a new life and new self only to have the same ghosts follow her - her new family giving up on her for being so weird and hard to get close to, her friends and neighbors offput by her oddities, her husband leaving her - the ultimate fear, to be abandoned once someone sees you for who you really are. It confirms the secret terror I suspect she carried with her her whole life - what if she changed everything she could only to find that it wasn't enough, and the bad thing about her was a stain she couldn't get out? After Blake left, Lori met with their pastor to show him notebooks with pages and pages on "what was wrong with her and how she could get him back."
Joe Velling, the SSA investigator who spent years trying to uncover Lori's original identity, said in 2016 he can't make sense of what he found; he says he suspects some people who were following Lori's story won't believe it.
“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... We can’t fathom someone walking away with an intact family and never reconnecting.”
Lori’s family of origin and the Ruffs, including her daughter, connected and began building a relationship after her identity was discovered in 2016. It feels bittersweet; Lori’s daughter will have some family and some connection to her mom; also, all Lori’s hard work to compartmentalize the first half of her life from the second (and/or to protect her daughter from anything she feared from her family of origin) undone. I’m not sure what kind of closure anyone involved in Lori’s story thought was possible from uncovering her past; if the question really was how Lori felt and why she made the choices she did, forensic genealogy isn’t going to provide the answers. I think a lot about the parts of her file that remain without explanation: a North Hollywood address and phone number, Ben Perkins’ name. It feels resonant with the idea of Lori as a person, not a true crime Laura Palmer, that these things felt so secret and important to her that she locked them away, while shaking out to be meaningless to the rest of us; it seems right she had some thoughts & plans that she hasn’t had to share with us after the fact.
A note from the projector booth: like many people, I am increasingly disquieted by how clearly Substack is run by morally agnostic assholes, by their enormous direct payments to people like Glenn Greenwald and Jesse Singal, and by their business model contortions intended to avoid having technically ‘hired’ said people. The whole deal has been pretty well summed up in one of this weeks’ Today in Tabs, another Substack newsletter put off by its own platform’s stance. Like many people, I am thinking of whether it’s best to move this project to a different platform; if you have thoughts or tips, I welcome them!
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