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A wanted man who has eluded authorities for 23 years following his conviction in a multimillion-dollar bank fraud scheme was possibly sighted at a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game five years ago, officials said this week.
Ruffo defrauded American and international banks of more than $350 million, officials said. He was last seen withdrawing money from a New York City bank machine on Nov. 9, 1998, then vanished with as much as $13 million. He'd been ordered to report to federal prison in New Jersey the same day. Ruffo had been out on a $10 million bond at the time of his disappearance. His rental car was later found abandoned at New York's John F. Kennedy airport.
At the time, the bank scam Ruffo was found guilty of orchestrating was one of the largest in American history. Over the years, authorities have released a number of age-adjusted images showing what Ruffo may look like today, to no avail. Authorities consider him armed and dangerous; he would be 66 years old today. Law enforcement had long suspected that he fled the U.S. at some point.
On Aug. 5, 2016, a short, bald man with a mustache clad in a blue t-shirt, who resembled Ruffo, was spotted on TV at Dodger Stadium during an MLB game against the Boston Red Sox. The tip, one of the most concrete leads investigators had received in years, quickly caught the attention of the U.S. Marshals Service, who are still attempting to identify the game attendee in question more than half a decade later.
“The ones that are the worst are when you have no resolution,” Deputy Marshal Danielle Shimchick, the case’s lead investigator, told ABC News. “That’s what bothers me, is that you just don’t know, is that him or not? The Dodgers footage, is that him? Is that Ruffo? Or is it not?”
Investigators, who pinpointed the seat where the man was viewing the game narrowed down their location to Section 1 Dugout Club, Row EE, Seat 10. The original ticket holder, however, later told U.S. Marshals he’d given his seat up. The ticket was supposedly passed on multiple times and the individual pictured at Dodger Stadium has ultimately still not been identified.
Carmine Pascale, the wanted man’s cousin, tipped off federal authorities after becoming convinced he’d seen Ruffo behind home plate while watching the MLB game while watching from his home in New Hampshire, according to ABC News.
“I'm watching and right behind home plate, they did a close up of the batter and there's Johnny,” Pascale recalled. “And I said, ‘Holy Christ, there he is.’ And I immediately called the Marshals. I froze the frame, kept it right in front of me.”
The tip reignited interest in the case. The fan's resemblance to Ruffo, some investigators said, is uncanny.
“It does look like him,” Deputy Marshal Pat Valdenor told ABC News. “It could be him. So that was my starting point. That was the lead that I got.”
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Dodgers confirmed the 2016 incident with Oxygen.com but declined to comment further, noting the team fully cooperated with authorities.
Michelle Darringer, a risk management liaison for the Dodgers, recalled that there was a law enforcement presence at the team’s front offices following the possible sighting.
“Our receptionist called me saying, ‘There are U.S. Marshals here,” Darringer told ABC News. “They want to see you. I do remember them telling me that he was one of the most wanted persons. ... It was a tip that this person had been at the game and they needed to try to confirm that.”
U.S. Marshals are now asking members of the public to come forward if they have any additional information that could assist investigators in identifying the mystery fan.
Ruffo has several international ties in the Caribbean, South America, and Europe, investigators said.
“He slipped away nearly 22 years ago, but the world is a lot smaller today than when Ruffo fled,” U.S. Marshals Service Director Donald Washington said. “It only takes one tip for us to catch up with Ruffo. By now, he is likely well established and comfortable in whatever alias he is living under. He could be anywhere on the globe.”
Ruffo is known to go by the aliases Joseph Ruffo, John Russo, Jack Nitz, Bruce Gregory, John Peters, and Charles Sanders. He’s described as being white with balding brown hair. He weighs approximately 170 pounds and is about five feet, six inches tall. Officials noted Ruffo was known to frequent casinos and luxury hotels and described him as a "master manipulator" and a "storyteller." He's also lactose intolerant, according to authorities.
Ruffo’s case is the focus of the second season of ABC’s true-crime podcast, “Have You Seen This Man,” which explores the wanted man’s disappearance.
Anyone with information related to Ruffo’s whereabouts is urged to contact the U.S. Marshals at 1-877-926-8332.
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