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Inside the US Marshal manhunt for long-missing fugitive behind $350M bank swindle

U.S. Marshals

(NEW YORK) -- An unassuming Brooklyn, New York computer salesman who in 1998 committed one of the nation’s most outlandish bank frauds before making a brazen escape has been the subject of an intensifying global manhunt by the U.S. Marshals for years.

John Ruffo swindled banks out of more than $350 million and was scheduled to start serving a 17-year prison sentence when he vanished. The U.S. Marshals have labeled Ruffo one of their 15 most wanted fugitives and have few leads on his current whereabouts.

Investigators, family, friends and colleagues have spent the last 24 years in disbelief and shared their thoughts and updates with ABC News for the Hulu Original limited series Have You Seen This Man, which premieres on March 24.

Investigators said they never fully understood why Ruffo was granted the unusual privilege of being allowed to self-report for such a hefty prison term. On the day he was supposed to show up at prison, he rented a Ford Taurus, drove to Queens, New York, to turn in the ankle monitor he had been wearing, took $600 out of an ATM, left his car in long term parking at JFK airport, and disappeared.

A grifter with a history of elaborate cons and an un-memorable everyman appearance, Ruffo has proven an unusually challenging target, investigators said. The Marshals believe his disappearance was aided considerably by more than $13 million in stolen money that has never been found.

Ruffo’s fraud was deceptive in its simplicity. Teaming up with a former executive from the Phillip Morris tobacco company, he devised a false story about what they said was a super-secret research effort to develop smoke-free cigarettes. Ruffo’s computer firm was supposed to be supplying computers for the project -- but the entire enterprise was a mirage. As millions poured in from banks, Ruffo attempted to invest the money on Wall Street, figuring he could pocket the gains and pay back the loans. But he was not a shrewd stock picker. He and his co-conspirator were arrested when the ruse fell apart.

The Hulu series is inspired by the podcast of the same name produced by the ABC News Investigative Unit and hosted by Sunny Hostin. The podcast's second season focused on the Ruffo case and uncovered surprising new details about the bizarre double life he led in the months and years leading up to his disappearance.

“I mean, it's a crazy story,” said Judd Burstein, the veteran attorney who represented Ruffo after his arrest in 1997. “He was very disciplined. He was the ultimate double life person.”

The job of finding Ruffo has now been assigned to an elite pair of investigators who have expertise in cold cases, Deputy U.S. Marshals Danielle Shimchick and Chris Leuer, both based out of Virginia. In the last year, the search for Ruffo has intensified considerably, as Shimchick and Leuer have developed new and promising leads about his escape.

One lead came from by Carmine Pascal, Ruffo's cousin who alerted the authorities when he thought he saw the fugitive sitting in the stands of a baseball game in 2016. In October 2021, footage from the game was released to the public, and authorities ultimately determined the man was not Ruffo.

Pascal talked with ABC News about the case along with Ruffo's former co-workers, current and former Marshals who have been on the hunt and some of Ruffo's associates, such as his former barber.

Among those most invested in his capture is the woman who had been Ruffo’s wife at the time of his disappearance, Linda Lausten, who also spoke extensively to ABC News. Lausten was among those who lost their homes when Ruffo failed to report to prison. His $10 million bail had been secured by six houses belonging to his family members -- all of which were seized by the government after he fled.

Lausten said she remains baffled that he was allowed to slip away. She has always maintained she knew nothing about Ruffo's crimes and has never been accused of any wrongdoing in connection with his crime or escape. Lausten has since remarried and said she wants to see Ruffo caught.

“I'd like to face him,” she said. "I kind of what to tell him what he did to his family, what he did to me. I want to know how you can do that."

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