These clues hold the key to the 23-year manhunt of fugitive bank swindler

ABC News' "Have You Seen this Man" looks into the hunt for John Ruffo.

March 24, 2022, 6:07 AM

This report is part of a three-part Hulu Original limited series "Have You Seen This Man?" which premieres on March 24. It follows the U.S. Marshals' ongoing mission to find John Ruffo, who engineered one of the most outlandish frauds in U.S. history, vanished in 1998 and has never been found. Ruffo's case was first featured in Season 2 of the ABC News podcast, "Have You Seen This Man?," hosted by "The View's" Sunny Hostin.

It's been a case that's stumped investigators for two decades.

John Ruffo was scheduled to begin his 17-year prison sentence in 1998 for conviction on numerous charges, including wire fraud and money laundering, for a scheme that defrauded more than $350 million from numerous banks. But he fled after he turned in his ankle bracelet.

He has been on the lam for over 23 years.

U.S. Marshals' wanted poster for John Ruffo.
U.S. Marshals' wanted poster for John Ruffo.
U.S. Marshals

The computer engineer and businessman baffled everyone in his circles, from his wife and co-workers to investigators and even his own attorney.

ABC News Studios looks into the global manhunt for Ruffo in the Hulu Original series "Have You Seen This Man," which premieres March 24. The three-part series is based on the second season of the ABC News podcast of the same name hosted by Sunny Hostin from "The View."

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Have You Seen This Man?

In 1998, a man was reporting to prison to begin serving a 17-year sentence. He rented a car. Returned an ankle monitor he had been wearing. Took $600 out of an ATM. Headed to an airport. And vanished.

Investigators, Ruffo's family and his closest confidantes provided ABC News with insight into Ruffo's mindset and access to every possible avenue they've looked at in their search.

"We find people all the time who've been on the run for 20-plus years. It happens. But it is difficult, because you're talking about a gentleman who's totally went off the radar," Eric Runk, the U.S. Marshals' acting deputy branch chief for international investigations, told ABC News.

Here are some of the major clues featured in the series that investigators say are key to finding Ruffo.

Appearance

Ruffo, 67, was last described by authorities as 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighing 170 pounds. He was balding and had a mustache and wore thick-framed glasses for most of his life.

Carmine Pascale, Ruffo's cousin, alerted the authorities when he thought he saw a man resembling Ruffo sitting behind home plate during a Los Angeles Dodgers-Boston Red Sox game on Aug. 5, 2016. The U.S. Marshals released the image from the television broadcast in October 2021. But 48 hours later, they determined the subject in question was not Ruffo.

"It does get frustrating. Especially every time you get a name, you think that this is going to be it, or at least one step closer," Deputy U.S. Marshal Paterno Valdenor, an L.A.-based Marshall who followed up on the tip, told ABC News. "In this particular case, every name I got, every name I checked off, is one step further away."

PHOTO: U.S. Marshals have been searching for John Ruffo since he vanished in 1998. Ruffo in an age-progression rendering.
U.S. Marshals have been searching for John Ruffo since he vanished in 1998. Ruffo in an age-progression rendering.
U.S. Marshals

One of the newest avenues of the investigation has been something Ruffo couldn't change so easily: his feet. Ruffo had extremely short and extremely wide feet, a shoe size 8EEE. Anyone who needs footwear in this size would need to make a custom order, according to investigators.

Skills and traits

Ruffo told tall tales and half-truths to pretty much everyone he knew, according to investigators. The FBI said Ruffo once claimed he worked for the CIA and also claimed he was captured by the Vietcong during the Vietnam War.

Former Deputy U.S. Marshal Barry Boright told ABC News that Ruffo was "a pathological liar."

"He was a fraud guy. Half of everything in his life was a lie," he said.

Ruffo's knack for exaggeration was a key element in his multimillion-dollar scheme. He teamed up with former Phillip Morris executive Edward Reiners and solicited financing from various banks for a phony proposal dubbed "Project Star," which claimed to be developing smokeless cigarettes.

Ruffo forged documents to secure over $350 million in loans and other funding that he and his accomplices used to speculate in the stock market and spend on lavish gifts.

The last known image of John Ruffo, caught on a security camera withdrawing $600 from an ATM in Queens, New York, before disappearing.
The last known image of John Ruffo, caught on a security camera withdrawing $600 from an ATM in Queens, New York, before disappearing.
U.S. Marshals

The scheme was uncovered in 1996 when one of the banks noticed an irregularity in the documents and contacted the authorities.

U.S. Marshals said they believe he could still be using those skills today to maintain his new identity.

"You just think about everything we know about him and how much he was able to lie and just kind of live a double life," senior inspector Chris Leuer of the U.S. Marshals, who is overseeing the Ruffo case, told ABC News.

Inside help?

The FBI contracted Ruffo and his company, CCS, for work during the early '90s, ABC News learned. Part of Ruffo's business was used as a front company, with agents placed inside, to grant legitimacy to the operation.

That operation was involved with tracking Soviets.

Ruffo's connections resurfaced during the federal investigation into his scheme.

During a raid conducted by the FBI on Ruffo's offices, agents found a photograph of him with the assistant director of the FBI's New York office and their swat team.

PHOTO: John Ruffo in an undated photo released by the U.S. Marshals.
John Ruffo in an undated photo released by the U.S. Marshals.
U.S. Marshals

Runk said the FBI didn't initially tell the U.S. Marshals of Ruffo's role as an FBI informant.

"The day that he did not turn himself in, and he left the country, I believe to this day there's got to be somebody in that FBI that helped him escape," John Von Ahnen, a former CCS employee, told ABC News.

Foreign ties

On the day he was supposed to show up at prison, Ruffo rented a car, which was later found at the long-term parking lot at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Investigators suspect he may have fled the U.S. and could be hiding abroad. Ruffo had traveled to Italy on several occasions and had a love for his ancestral home, according to investigators.

After Ruffo fled, his now ex-wife Linda Lausten searched his old suits and found the name and an address in Italy of his old New York barber inside one of the pockets.

PHOTO: John Ruffo is seen here in an undated photo released by the U.S. Marshals.
John Ruffo is seen here in an undated photo released by the U.S. Marshals.
U.S. Marshals

The barber moved to a tiny town along Italy's southeast coast years before Ruffo fled. ABC News visited him in his Italian home, but the former barber said he hadn't seen Ruffo and did not remember him.

Ruffo wrote in his diaries about alleged connections to a Soviet computer engineer whose defection was sought after by U.S. Officials. ABC News met with a man who claimed to have been that Russian national who corroborated some of Ruffo's stories but denied other claims the fugitive made.

While investigators aren't ruling out the idea that a foreign entity could have assisted the fugitive, they admitted it is an extremely difficult lead to pursue.

"I really don't think the Russians would even tell us if they did know where he was," Runk said. "Or maybe they're hiding him out. I just don't know, I don't want to guess."