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

(NEW YORK) — This report is part of Season 2 of the ABC News podcast, “Have You Seen This Man?,” hosted by “The View’s” Sunny Hostin. 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. A four-part Hulu Original limited series on the global search for Ruffo is currently in production from ABC News Longform. MORE HERE

An unassuming Brooklyn computer salesman who in 1998 committed one of the nation’s most outlandish bank frauds before making a brazen escape is now the subject of an intensifying global manhunt by the U.S. Marshals.

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 provided ABC News unprecedented access to their manhunt for the second season of the podcast “Have You Seen This Man,” launching Wednesday.

(U.S. Marshals)
U.S. Marshals’ wanted poster for John Ruffo.

The case has for decades baffled investigators, who 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.

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

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.

(U.S. Marshals)
U.S. Marshals provided this age progression image of John Ruffo.

The podcast, produced by the ABC News Investigative Unit and hosted by Sunny Hostin, has uncovered surprising new details about the bizarre double life Ruffo 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 been assigned to an elite pair of investigators who have expertise in cold cases, Deputy Marshals Danielle Shimchick and Chris Leuer, both based out of Virginia. In recent months, the search for Ruffo has intensified considerably, as Shimchick and Leuer have developed new and promising leads about his escape.

Among those most invested in his capture is the woman who had been Ruffo’s wife at the time of his disappearance, Linda Lausten. 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.

(U.S. Marshals)
John Ruffo pictured with wife Linda.

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.

“Even the Marshals told me that it’s almost unheard of that a person would be sentenced to that lengthy sentence and be allowed to turn themself in alone, knowing what a high risk he was,” she said.

This is the second season of the “Have You Seen This Man” podcast. The first season followed the manhunt for long-escaped murderer Lester Eubanks, an Ohio killer who once sat on death row. The podcast generated hundreds of tips for the U.S. Marshals. Eubanks remains at large.

Listen, subscribe and rate “Have You Seen This Man?” on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn and Audacy.

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