Dead identity thieves and the people who love them.
by Catherine Sinow; illustrations by Anna Cain
Lori Kennedy liked tea parties and animals. She was a grown woman who thought Easy Bake Ovens were cool, and she could fly a powered parachute. Blake Ruff was easygoing, tall with a receding hairline, from a wealthy Texan family. The two met at the Northwest Bible Church in Dallas in 2003 and fell in love.
One caveat: Lori refused to divulge any information about her past. She claimed she had a rough childhood, that she had no living family and that she had burned all her old photos. Blake, being the kind of guy he was, accepted this at face value. He asked no additional questions.
“He does not have much of an inner monologue,” Blake’s brother-in-law stated.
Blake’s family was close-knit and had a lot of money; they belonged to country clubs and sent their kids to boarding school. So, naturally, the warm Southern family was skeptical of Lori’s refusal to discuss her past. Blake’s mom, Nancy, wanted to put an announcement in the paper when he and Lori got married. Lori refused. The two eloped, with only the preacher in attendance.
The couple moved to Leonard, Texas, a run-down town with a population of about 2,000. Neighbors said that Lori often walked the perimeter of her 2-acre yard with her head down and never wanted to socialize. Blake recalled that Lori took medication for either ADHD or Tourette’s.
Lori worked as a mystery shopper, or someone employed by a retailer to pose as a customer in order to evaluate the service. She was also part of a group called Texas Business Women. According to the website, “TBW’s mission is to enhance women’s personal and professional skills through technology, networking and advocacy.”
Lori wanted a child, badly. She miscarried several times, which later led the Ruff family to believe she was older than she claimed. In 2008, Blake and Lori had a baby through in vitro fertilization. That’s when things got worse. Lori refused to let her in-laws hold her daughter, or even be in the same room with her. She complained about the in-laws nonstop, but she still feverishly researched their genealogy and secret family recipes.
Eventually the tensions grew so strong that Blake filed for divorce and moved back to Longview, Texas with his parents. Blake and Lori met with a pastor for “marriage therapy,” which failed because Lori refused to disclose anything. She began sending threatening emails to the Ruffs and created a “ruckus” at a custody exchange—no further details are available on what kind of scene that was. Lori’s neighbors would later report that she and her daughter were looking unusually thin. One day, Lori tried to steal the Ruff’s house keys, so the family filed a cease and desist order. On December 24 2010, Lori pulled her car into the Ruff’s driveway and shot herself in the head. Blake’s dad found her when he went outside to get the paper.
Miles Darby, Blake’s in-law, busted into Lori’s house, but not before calling the police to join him. “I didn’t know if [the house] was booby trapped,” he said.
The group found dirty dishes and laundry everywhere, and the crib was soiled. No word on whether the daughter was there or not, but she is still alive today. The first thing they went for was a lockbox in the attic labelled “crafts.” Blake had never touched it, as instructed. Miles cracked open the box with a screwdriver. That’s when they found an ID card and birth certificate in the name Becky Sue Turner.
The Ruffs consulted several private detectives who soon revealed that Lori Erica Ruff was not born as Becky Sue Turner. A narrative began to surface: a girl named Becky Sue was born in California in 1969, lived until the age of two, and died in 1971 in a house fire in Fife, WA, along with two sisters. Seventeen years later, Lori learned of the dead girl and decided to take her identity. Lori requested Becky’s birth certificate in Bakersfield, CA in May 1988. In June, Lori obtained an Idaho state ID in Boise. Although she always kept Becky Sue Turner as her birth identity, she later, for reasons unknown, sought a legal name change. In Dallas, sometime during July ‘88, she changed her name from Becky Sue Turner to Lori Erica Kennedy.
Lori then applied for her first social security card, which was feasible because back then, people received their numbers around the time of their first job, rather than at birth. Lori earned a Texas driver’s license in 1989, a GED in 1990, and then attended Dallas Community College. Someone who knew her around this time said she had worked as an exotic dancer. She graduated from UT Arlington in 1997 with a degree in Business Administration. Her vague resume stated she had worked in graphic design, tech support and marketing. She claimed to know a host of computer programs and languages, including C. I showed her resume to a software developer, who said:
“C requires more skill and knowledge of programming concepts than most of the other languages that are widely used, but given that this person included Powerpoint and Textpad on their resume, I doubt they’re actually any good at it.”
A lot of her resume is probably false, considering how a letter of reference from “Roger Steinbeck” in the lockbox turned out to be totally fabricated. It was written on stationery from a five-star hotel in Thailand. “Lori is an excellent worker, learns quickly, pleasant manners, and very productive...she was also a pleasant tenant very quiet and considerate of other tenants,” the letter reads. Roger’s signature looks similar to the signature on Lori’s drivers license.
Also within the “crafts” box was a piece of paper filled with incoherent scribblings. On it appeared phrases like “402 months,” “N Holloyood police,” “Mountain Bell (3 hours less),” plus the contact information of an attorney named Ben Perkins. Perkins, who had been disbarred from the California bar in 1989, had no recollection of Ruff. In fact, he said he’d never even had a white client.
Lori had two suicide notes with her in the car, one reading “To my wonderful husband,” and another for her daughter, to be opened on her 18th birthday. The Ruffs opened both letters immediately. The letters have not been released to the public, but police agreed that they were the ramblings of someone with a serious mental illness.
More data came up. Lori had a mail drop in Boulder City, Nev., which forwarded her mail to Dallas. She didn’t show up in any fingerprint and facial recognition databases, and Becky Sue Turner’s family didn’t know anything about her. She had breast implants. Joe Velling, a private detective on the case, traced the serial number—fun fact: breast implants have serial numbers—and it led back to “Lori Erica Kennedy.” The trail was dead, but an article was published in The Seattle Times. This made Ruff an online sensation among true-life mystery fanatics. Then the case went cold for about six years.
People had a lot of theories: she was a KGB spy, she was in the mafia, she had escaped from a cult. Some people thought that her use of a gun as a suicide weapon suggested that she was a trained assassin. She loved Cuban food—does this mean she was from Florida? Some even said that her death was faked or that she was born male. People online suggested a canon of missing people that Lori could have been. Some thought she was Cynthia Perry, a girl from North Carolina whose single, ambiguous photo looked similar to Lori. Another possibility was Jennifer Wictor, a girl from Arizona who would have sort of looked like Lori if she had undergone rhinoplasty to shave off at least half her nose.
Lori wasn’t so much of an identity thief as she was a “ghoster.” Rather than regular identity theft, which involves stealing identities to open credit cards or some other criminal end, ghosting involves totally abandoning an old identity and jumping into a new one, long term. This was a feasible practice before technology enabled officials to rapidly cross-check birth and death certificates. The practice was even more feasible before the Social Security System, when people didn’t need documents to register their own existence. Who knows how many people wandered around in the good old days, inventing new identities as they pleased?
Lori definitely knew what she was doing when she changed her name twice. One resource she might have consulted was “The Paper Trip,” a ‘70s booklet detailing a few ways to assume a new identity to avoid “Big Brother.”
“Classic paper tripping involves the use of a birth certificate of a person who died in infancy, or at an age before any ID was obtained in his name. Because birth and death records have never, until just recently in various areas, been cross-referenced, you can see that the birth certificate of such a person could easily provide a ‘clean’ basis for a new ID.”
The booklet continues: “The best kind of birth certificate for use in the classic paper trip will be that of a person who was born in one state but who died in another. At present, we are not aware of any cross-referencing across state lines...occasionally you will read stories of people who get caught pulling off a ‘paper trip.’ In almost all instances the person was using the birth certificate of a person who had been born and died in the same county.”
The book then goes into extreme detail on how to request someone else’s birth certificate, every place where you can do so, and at what cost.
If you try to steal an identity today, you’ll likely be caught. If you do manage to make the switch, detective work might catch you after the fact. Yet with the Internet in its fullest force, doing a lot of good but also publicly humiliating people on an unprecedented scale, new identities are something people need now more than ever.
That’s the thing about your identity: it holds all your positive attributes, like your loved ones and resume. But it also contains anything you need to run from. And unless you want to break the law, your core legal identity is something you’re stuck with.
Luckily, those in need can use the dark web to find identity brokers peddling their services for around $3000 a pop. For cheaper, you can also find a lot of credit card numbers and PayPal accounts for sale.
There are quite a few cases similar to Lori’s. An unidentified man checked into a Washington hotel under the name Lyle Stevik in 2001 and hung himself in his room. He had presumably borrowed his name from a character in Joyce Carol Oates’ “You Must Remember This,” and nobody knows his real name. An unidentified woman was shot to death in an Arkansas hotel by her lover and alleged pimp; she had previously used and been arrested under the names Cheryl Ann Wick, Shannon Wiley, Kelly Carr and Mercedes. Nobody knows her real name, either. A man named Frédéric Bourdin, alive today, claims to have impersonated over 500 identities. He once impersonated a missing teenager and lived with the family for five months before he was found out. Today, Bourdin has a family and claims to have stopped impersonating.
But there’s one particular case that bears uncanny similarities to Ruff’s. The two probably never knew one another, but both stole the identities of dead children. They both lived regular lives for decades under their fake names and their identity theft was only uncovered after they committed suicide by gunshot. And both were eccentric. The one we have yet to meet called himself Joseph Newton Chandler III.
Chandler worked as an electrical engineer in the Cleveland area and didn’t really talk to people.
Coworkers described him as unusual. He had supposedly built a device that played white noise so he could work in peace. Once he drove all the way from Ohio to Maine to go to an LL Bean. There were no spaces in the parking lot, so he turned around and drove home. The drive from Cleveland to Freeport takes about 11 hours. According to Reddit user JamesRenner who conducted his own small investigation, Chandler once showed up at a hospital with penile lacerations from attempting to masturbate with a vacuum cleaner.
With all this on the table, someone could easily armchair diagnose Chandler with schizoid personality disorder. Wikipedia: “Schizoid personality disorder (SPD) is a personality disorder characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships, a tendency towards a solitary or sheltered lifestyle, secretiveness, emotional coldness and apathy.”
Chandler committed suicide by gunshot in July 2002 after a diagnosis of colon cancer. He had already spent $80,000 on treatment, and his bank account contained roughly the same amount of money. For some reason, we know the exact variety of gun he used: a .38 caliber Charter Arms revolver. Some sources say it was purchased in the ‘70s, and others say it was purchased in 2002. Chandler had been dead for about a week when his body was discovered. The executor of the will, a co-worker named Mike Onderisin, hired an investigator to find Chandler’s next of kin. His paperwork listed a sister named “Mary Wilson” in Columbus. Her address led to a vacant lot.
Unlike Lori, Joseph didn’t keep a secret “crafts” box containing his past. His apartment provided no revealing information, except for a computer that the authorities broke by accident. His fingerprints were nowhere to be found, as he either burned or shaved them off regularly. The detective on the case, US Marshal Pete Elliott, discovered that the real Joseph Newton Chandler III died when he was eight, in 1945. His New York family was on a Christmas trip when they got into a car accident in Texas in which everyone died.
Nobody wanted Chandler’s estate, so it went toward solving his mystery. It seemed that he applied for the birth certificate and social security number in Rapid City, South Dakota in 1978, 10 years before Lori became Becky Sue Turner. Unlike Lori, Chandler stuck with the name of the dead child instead of changing it again.
Some believe Chandler could be a fugitive or even a Nazi war criminal, even though he was likely born during World War II. Others think he could be Stephen Craig Campbell, a fugitive with electrical engineering skills. It would make sense, except for the seven-inch height difference. Some think that Chandler resembles a sketch of the Zodiac Killer, but the resemblance is mild.
Consider that authorities and the web assumed Chandler was a fugitive, but assumed that Lori was innocently running from her past. Although these guesses are reasonable, there could be some sexism at play. How do we know Chandler wasn’t running from a cult or abusive relationship? Maybe he was so antisocial that he wanted to cut off his entire family. Personally, I suspect he might have been running from a large debt. Debt-related crime doesn’t involve anything violent or social that contradicts Chandler’s personality. It’s also such a significant crime that it might lead someone to change their identity.
In September 2016, the Seattle Times published an article revealing that Lori Erica Ruff had been identified. Private detective Joe Velling and a forensic genealogist named Colleen Fitzpatrick had teamed up and found her relatives through Ancestry. Lori’s birth name was Kimberly McLean, and she was from Philadelphia. Her old area code, when combined with one of the numbers on the paper of crazed scribblings, turned into the number for a Pennsylvania library.
Lori was born on October 16, 1968, less than a year before Becky Sue Turner. Lori’s mom declined to comment, but her uncle, Tom Cassidy, had a few things to say. Lori had a happy childhood with “rides on fire engines and a magnificent hand-built playhouse in the backyard,” according to the article. A childhood acquaintance said she was quiet and introverted. But when she was in her early teens, her parents divorced. She had to move, and a stepdad entered the picture. Tom claims Lori never adjusted to the divorce.
In 1986, at the age of 18, Lori ran away from home and left a note for her family telling them not to find her. The family didn’t file a missing person’s report because Lori left on her own volition. Her mother missed Lori every day but was not able to locate her again, even with the help of a private detective. Nobody knows what she was doing before she requested Becky Sue’s birth certificate in 1988, and nobody knows exactly why she left home. The uncle probably doesn’t know the whole story—I mean, how much does your uncle know about your personal life? People online were quick to take an “Aha, case closed” attitude. But the way I see it, we’ve learned the basics about Lori’s origins, but none of the stuff we really wanted to know.
Joseph Newton Chandler has not been identified. “There are a lot of questions,” said Eastlake Police Detective Christopher Bowersock, “and there is only one person who can answer all of them. And he is not here.”
True crime is an enormously popular topic of research. It’s, well, true, and it lets you attempt the mystery on your own, even successfully. Take for example Jason Callahan, who was a John Doe for decades. He was known among online communities as the Grateful Doe because he had two Grateful Dead tickets in his pocket at the scene. Thanks to online exposure of his facial reconstruction drawings, he was identified in 2015 as Callahan.
Some people get a little too interested in their favorite cases. For example, Jessica Chambers was murdered by arson in 2014. Her sleepy Mississippi town of 500 was terrorized by constant harassment from obsessed fans all around the country. A suspect has been arrested, but the harassment continues to this day.
Excluding fixated individuals, it’s understandable why true crime is so delicious. So many of these are gripping stories with irresistible details and a lack of a thorough answer fills people with hunger for new information. Lovers of mysteries—both real and fake—feed off the high of curiosity. Joseph and Lori are perfect examples; they’re people in the ether who probably never knew how interesting they were. They’ll probably remain did-you-know oddities forever, enticing us forevermore with their secret lockboxes and white noise machines.