Nowadays, if you want quick answers, all you need to do is ask the Internet. Crowdsource it. Take it to the Twitterverse. Right?
Not so fast.
Three weeks ago, a Seattle-based Social Security Administration investigator named Joe Velling asked for the public’s help in solving one of his most vexing mysteries: an identity-theft case dating back to 1988. The woman in question, known as Lori Ruff, took her own life in 2010; only then did her husband discover she was not who she claimed. Her death was the beginning of the mystery.
“If Lori wasn’t really Lori, who was she?” we wrote in these pages. “And why would she go so far to hide her past?”
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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. Finally, as a last resort, he called the newspaper.
The Seattle Times posted the story (along with a gallery of clues), tweeted it and put it up on Facebook. Readers responded. In droves.
“A good old-fashioned whodunit,” one called it in an email.
More than 4,200 of you recommended the story on Facebook. Someone even created a “Who is Lori Ruff?” Facebook page. There were hundreds of tweets and retweets.
Meanwhile, Lori Ruff’s case was picked up by NPR, by the Daily Mail (in the U.K.), by Fox News, by The Idaho Statesman, by the Yakima Herald Republic and the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette. Her story was translated into Croatian, Russian and the Indonesian language for publications there.
There’s no question it has reached hundreds of thousands of eyeballs. And some people have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to solve the mystery.
They have looked up Ruff’s bankruptcy records, analyzed her handwriting, noted discrepancies in the documents posted online, and tried to track down her landlord from an address on a 1988 ID card.
Someone even did an infrared scan of the online documents.
One reader said Ruff’s photo looked like someone he used to date. Another said she looked like a tennis pro from Alaska. A third said she looked like a woman who used to buy beer for underage kids in Pennsylvania. Others are convinced she resembles photos they found on missing-persons sites.
Many have suggested she was in the witness-protection program — a theory that is almost certainly not true. Some also think she was transsexual — again, not true.
Why so much interest?
One poster, who calls himself Theory and Fact, says he got hooked because he loves puzzles and detective stories. Laid up with a bad hip — and free time — he posted more than 100 comments.
“Now that I think about it, I’m sure I have been a bit overboard with it — a little OCD myself,” he wrote in an email. Her story, he wrote, is just so tragic, he feels compelled to help.
Meanwhile, Velling has chased down every promising lead. Some of them have been ruled out by DNA. Other tips have led to people who are way too old — or way too young — to be Ruff. Still others are simply impossible to follow.
“This one needs something to grab on to but all it gave us was air,” Velling wrote.
The bottom line is, the mystery remains. But the farther the story spreads, the more likely it is that someone from her past will step forward.
Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note, September 2016: The mystery has been solved. Click here to see who Lori Ruff really was.