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It’s been more than two decades since John Ruffo was convicted of a $350 million bank fraud scheme and then failed to report to a federal prison for his sentence, slipping from authorities' grasp.
Ruffo had been slated to begin a 17-and-a-half-year prison sentence on Nov. 9, 1998 at a New Jersey federal prison, but the “master manipulator” never showed, according to a release from the U.S. Marshals Service. He has been on the U.S. Marshals' 15 Most Wanted list for more than 20 years,
Investigators subsequently discovered that, rather than reporting to prison, Ruffo rented a car in Manhattan, withdrew money from an ATM and disappeared. The vehicle was eventually found abandoned in the long-term parking lot at John F. Kennedy Airport, but there was no sign of Ruffo, who authorities say had “strong international ties” to Europe, the Caribbean and South America.
For decades, Ruffo has continued to evade authorities. And now, the Hulu Original series “Have You Seen This Man” will take a new look at the baffling case.
The series, which was produced by ABC News Studios and premieres on Thursday, and will reveal new clues that could help find the missing computer engineer and businessman, according to ABC News.
“We find people all the time who’ve been on the run for 20-plus years. It happens,” Eric Runk, the U.S. Marshals’ acting deputy branch chief for international investigations, told the news outlet. "But it is difficult, because you’re talking about a gentleman who went totally off the radar."
Authorities believe Ruffo is likely living overseas — and have spent decades pursuing leads across the world.
“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 in the agency’s 2020 release. “While it remains possible that he is in the United States, we strongly believe that John Ruffo is living overseas, likely in Europe, the Caribbean, or Central or South America."
"It only takes one tip for us to catch up with Ruffo," he added. "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 said to have had a particular affinity for Italy and, although his now ex-wife Linda Lausten discovered the Italian address of his former New York barber inside of the pockets of one of his suits after he fled, the barber told ABC News when he was tracked down in Itay that he had never seen Ruffo in Italy and didn’t remember him.
Investigators are now hoping some of Ruffo’s more distinctive skills and traits could lead to his capture. For instance, due to his short stature — he stood 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed approximately 170 pounds in 1998 — and wide feet, Ruffo wore the very unique shoe size 8EEE and would likely need to custom order his footwear.
The U.S. Marshals have also described the fugitive as someone who is “known to be computer savvy and enjoys fine wines, gambling and nice hotels.”
“He is reportedly lactose intolerant,” authorities continued. “Ruffo was known to be a storyteller, someone who liked to stretch the truth, and had a desire to impress others. He has been called a master manipulator.”
“He was a fraud guy,” Former Deputy U.S. Marshal Barry Boright told ABC News. “Half of everything in his life was a life.
Ruffo was convicted in 1998 for his role in “one of the largest bank fraud scams in American history,” according to authorities.
Ruffo, who had once worked as an FBI informant, helped defraud more than $350 million from multiple banks, about $13 million of which has never been recovered.
He and former Phillip Morris executive Edward Reiners had claimed to be working on a fake project known as “Project Star” which purportedly had developed smokeless cigarettes. The pair solicited financing from various banks for the fabricated product totaling more than $350 million before their scheme was uncovered in 1996, according to ABC News.
Ruffo had been out on a $10 million bond and then disappeared after turning in his ankle bracelet.
In 2016, Ruffo’s cousin, Carmine Pascale, believed he may have spotted the missing man sitting behind home plate at a Los Angeles Dodgers game against the Red Sox.
The U.S. Marshals Service asked for help identifying the mysterious baseball fan in October, according to CNN, but later determined the man had not been Ruffo.
The last confirmed sighting of Ruffo was at the ATM he used shortly before he disappeared, authorities said.
It’s possible that Ruffo may have escaped custody with inside help from someone in the FBI.
Ruffo had allegedly once served as an FBI informant and had contracted with the FBI in the early 1990s to allow agents to use his company as a front while they tracked Soviets.
During a raid at his office during the federal investigation of fraud, agents discovered a photo of him with the assistant director of the FBI’s New York office and their SWAT team.
But more than 23 years after he slipped out of investigators’ grasp, Ruffo's location still remains a mystery.
To learn more about Ruffo and where he could be hiding today, tune in to “Have You Seen This Man,” now streaming on Hulu.
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