Maybe she was a springtime baby in the 1960s. Maybe she’s 54 years old or 56.
She could be named Ruffin after a father she never knew. Or maybe Conyers after a mother she never met. Maybe she has a middle name after all.
The possibilities flutter about as she shuts her office door and steps into the dusty construction yard in North Baltimore. Diesel trucks rumble out; men in work boots load tools for job sites. It’s 7 a.m. and she’s been awake for hours. She throws open her arms and sings:
Follow the yellow brick road. Follow the yellow brick road … through the parking lot, skipping … Follow, follow, follow, follow, follow the yellow brick road.
Like Dorothy, her quest lies on the road ahead. It’s a quest 26 years in the making.
On this April morning, the woman who is missing child No. 1201298 will discover her identity.
She dressed to celebrate: fresh pair of high-top sneakers, stylish white trench coat. There’s a yellow flower pinned to her shoulder and yellow flowers printed on her sleeves.
“Yellow is the light that brings the missing children home,” she says.
At the curb, she strikes a pose for two girlfriends she’s bringing along. They pile into the swanky Ford Expedition she rented like they’re headed for a night at the club — not some municipal building in Lower Manhattan.
Buckle up. It’s three hours to the vital records office.
Time enough to hear the story of the longest living Jane Doe.
The Expedition follows I-95 north out of Maryland. In the front seat beside the driver, the woman watches the hillsides blur past. They found me.
She’s headed for 125 Worth St., the Health Building of New York. The granite building fills an entire city block. Inside, vaults hold the birth records of men and women born in the five boroughs for the past 112 years. Millions of birth certificates.
For most of her adult life, the woman has sought her birth certificate. She hired lawyers and paid application fees. She flooded city offices and courthouses with letters, then she filed away the rejection notes. She wrote the governor, the talk shows, even the president.
That certificate would identify her mother and father, but she had already uncovered their names. More importantly, it would list her name. She doesn’t know her name. Or her birthday.
Her letters pleaded: “Please help me find me.”
Years ago, she had promised herself that she won’t be buried as “Jane Doe.”
How can a woman raise four children, own a home and manage million-dollar contracts for a Baltimore utilities company without an identity?
It’s a story of trauma and hope that unspools, thread by thread, along the 190-mile trip to New York.
She doesn’t remember a happy childhood, not in the big red rental house at Walbrook Junction in West Baltimore. An only child, she lived with her mother, grandmother and aunt. Three grown uncles came and went. Everyone called her “Bolie,” short for an unusual first name. Symbolie.
She remembers her mother’s temper. And the beatings.
Beatings when she was noisy. Beatings when she was dirty. Beatings when she spoke out of turn. And beatings when she didn’t speak up. A belt, a stick, an open hand, you name it.
Her mother, Estelle Means, went by the name Kimnita. She moved between the Bronx and Baltimore. Court records list no charges against her, though legal troubles over debts followed her through life.
She died in December 2020, her daughter says.
“At 5 and 6 and 7, I remember washing her clothes. Doing her hair at 8 and 9. I didn’t know. As a child, you don’t know what’s right or wrong.”
Kimnita’s brother Julius, her last surviving sibling, remembers her as a complicated mother.
“She had a love-hate relationship with her daughter,” Julius Means says. “She loved her, and I don’t understand why she treated her so badly.”
“[Bolie] got a whuppin’ for things other kids never got a whuppin’ for, just petty stuff.”
The television became her refuge. On the screen, Bolie saw gentle mothers and cheerful kids. She saw life could have happy endings. She spent hours watching black-and-white movies and associated with one famous lost girl, Dorothy.
In the early 1970s, Kimnita married Robert Smith Sr., a Marine back from Vietnam. The marriage was tumultuous; they’d split, make up, split again. He raised Bolie as his own daughter anyway. When Kimnita grew angry, she’d sometimes tell him to beat the girl.
He’d take her in the bedroom, grab a belt, raise his arm — and whack the mattress.
Bolie understood to cry out on cue.
Of course, he noticed his wife and stepdaughter shared little resemblance. Bolie had a lighter complexion. But Kimnita had an explanation for the girl’s father.
“That he was a Puerto Rican out of New York, and that’s why Symbolie was lighter than she was,” Robert Smith says. “She left with Symbolie, from New York, when their relationship broke up.”
There was no reason to believe otherwise.
Eventually, the beatings gave way to new harm. She says two other men in the house sexually assaulted her, then justified their conduct by telling her that she didn’t belong in their family anyway. Terrified of them, she buried it inside and kept the abuse secret for decades. No one was charged.
By her senior year at Walbrook High School, the teen sought escape and considered joining the Marines like her stepfather. Except she needed a birth certificate to enlist. When she asked, she says, Kimnita erupted.
“I was always met with abrasive tones, profanity and punishment about my birth certificate.”
On graduation day, spring of 1984, she went alone. She looked out over the expectant faces of moms and dads. No one had come for her. No balloons, no cards. She made up her mind.
Within months, she packed a bag and threw it out the window. She went downstairs — “I’ll be right back” — and walked out the door. At the Greyhound bus station, the first departure went to St. Augustine, Fla.
And so she wouldn’t be followed and might leave it all behind, she bought a ticket under an assumed name. She became Monique Smith.
“I was always met with abrasive tones, profanity and punishment about my birth certificate.”
“Are you going to legally change your name?” her girlfriend asks as the Expedition heads up the New Jersey Turnpike, an hour and a half until New York.
Monique Smith swings around: “Why would I continue to live a lie?”
She picks up her story. On the Greyhound bus, a kindly older woman noticed the runaway and offered a room in her house in Florida. They arrived late at night. When Monique woke, she found the woman frighteningly drunk and the house filthy.
The woman knew a man who hired Monique on his landscaping crew. Some days, he drove the teen instead to a motel room, she says. Monique had paid the woman for groceries and rent, but she ran away to a boarding house. Now she was nearly broke.
She sought work, but the men who offered her jobs wanted sex. She had escaped abuse at home only to confront nightmares on the road.
“I was young, I was attractive, I had a curvy body, and I walked right into human trafficking,” she says. “I started prostituting and living that life. It became survival sex. And you’re trying to figure out what happened. Like, God, is this the world?”
She followed a boyfriend to Connecticut, married him in April 1986, and applied to the Hartford Police Academy. One day, the instructors rounded up the few cadets without a license and took them to the Department of Motor Vehicles for their driving test. She says no one questioned the name she wrote on her forms. Monique passed and squeezed back tears when they issued her driver’s license. For the first time in her life, she had identification.
“Believe you me, that became my Bible.”
When the department asked for her birth certificate, she dropped out. Another door slammed closed in her life.
Without her birth certificate, she couldn’t become a police officer like she couldn’t become a Marine. When her marriage crumbled, she found herself again alone in an unfamiliar city. Four years had passed since she ran away from Baltimore. She just went home.
The road had given her the confidence to stand up to her family. Monique rented an apartment and worked in health care, reviewing medical claims for insurance companies and The Johns Hopkins Hospital. The paychecks brought her safety, and the years went by. She had a baby with a new boyfriend, bought a house and graduated from a woman’s entrepreneurship program.
Monique wanted to open a 24-hour home day care for police and firefighters. She hired a contractor to outfit her house, bought desks and chairs, wrote a business plan and applied for a license. The life she dreamed of was within reach, if only for a moment.
“The paperwork came back invalid. They couldn’t do a background check,” she says.
Fed up, she called Kimnita to demand answers. Why did she have no papers? Why did she know nothing of her father? Why did she feel like a fraud?
Her mother’s words still haunt her.
“She said, ‘I’ll go my grave before I tell you.’”
* * *
Gridlock in the Holland Tunnel. Two miles ahead, across the Hudson River, waits the vital records office.
The Expedition inches forward. Monique wrings her hands. “I’m having the worst anxiety.”
When she hung up the phone with Kimnita years ago, she resolved to find her own answers. She wrote the Social Security Administration to request records with her name. Never again would she lose out because of missing papers.
Kimnita had applied three times from the mid-1970s to 80s for replacement social security cards for her daughter. She submitted her daughter’s name as Symbolie Smith, Symbolie Terrie and Symbolie Terri, her daughter’s birthday as May 11 and May 13, 1966.
“I’m sitting there and I have these flashbacks right in the moment. As a 7-year-old and 8-year-old arguing with my cousins like, ‘Give me my toy. I’m going to tell my mother.’ ‘Well, she not your mother anyway.’ All these conversations over the years started populating in my head.”
She called her stepfather. Robert Smith Sr. and Kimnita had separated. Today, he recalls reasons for his own suspicion.
“I overheard a conversation by one of Kim’s brothers that kind of made me stop and think. He made a statement that ‘She ain’t really my niece nohow,’ like that. I actually went to Kim’s relatives and I asked them about Symbolie. Was Kim her real mother? Of course, they lied. I think one or two of Kim’s relatives really wanted to tell me the truth, but they didn’t. So I really never did find out.”
There was something else that made him question Kimnita.
“She lied and told me she was pregnant and then had a miscarriage. I found out she couldn’t have kids.”
Growing up, Monique had vague doubts about her origins, but she pushed those thoughts from mind. The years had been about survival. Now she was peeling back the layers. Everyone in her family seemed to give a different explanation. In one, Kimnita had a baby with a man she met in the Bronx named Terrie. In another, Kimnita worked at a Bronx bar and helped an unmarried co-worker by adopting her baby.
The tangle of inconsistencies and conflicting stories led Monique to one conclusion.
“When I confronted her with, ‘You are not my mother,’ she shut down. Brick wall. Double concrete,” Monique remembers.
So began her 26-year search to find her mother and, in turn, herself. Monique sent letters to the The Salvation Army missing persons program and the show “Unsolved Mysteries.” She called the New York City police, but investigators found no reports of a baby girl missing from the Bronx in the late 1960s. She printed fliers — “Can you identify me?” — and passed her photo around the Bronx. On the streets, she met a reporter for the old New York Amsterdam News. The March 23, 1996 headline read:
“Baltimore woman seeks her past by adoption or abduction routes.”
Monique says she tried the FBI, but agents brushed her off. She called the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and opened a case on herself. Missing child No. 1201298.
“Oftentimes, infants are abducted because a woman can’t have a child and she’s longing to be a mom, and she goes and finds a baby,” says Becky Steinbach, spokeswoman for the center.
They have a term for women such as Monique. She’s a living Jane Doe.
“The ‘living Doe’ is really rare,” Steinbach says. “We have seen it in other cases where the child, who is an adult, starts to ask those questions and things don’t quite add up. So then they start to search for themselves.”
Meanwhile, Monique pledged to be the mother she never had. Her second marriage wouldn’t last, but she doted on her four children, papering the walls of her office with their photos. Her two sons would enlist in the Marines. One daughter would start a business; the other, play college basketball.
Monique showed a flair for self-promotion. She told her story on local radio and TV talk shows. In 2011, she self-published a memoir. She hired a crew to film her documentary titled “Longest Living Jane Doe.” Monique couldn’t find herself, not yet. But she found a purpose: She would speak for all the missing children.
White children outnumber Black children in Maryland, but about 70% of missing children are Black, according to state police statistics. Most often, Black teenage girls. There’s growing awareness to the disparity.
Monique repeated her message to anyone who’d listen. “Not all missing children are dead.”
State Police Sgt. Deborah Flory spent a decade searching for Maryland’s missing children. Though a child goes missing in Maryland more than 6,000 times a year, they’re almost always found.
In most cases, the children run away and return on their own. Or authorities find them. But child abductions? Well, that’s just the stuff of TV dramas.
“The ‘living Doe’ is really rare. We have seen it in other cases where the child, who is an adult, starts to ask those questions and things don’t quite add up. So then they start to search for themselves.”— Becky Steinbach, spokeswoman, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
At least Flory thought so until the phone rang at the Child Recovery Unit in June 2013.
Monique told the sergeant of her childhood trauma and years on the street, of her conclusion that she doesn’t belong to her family, and of Kimnita’s silence. The next day, FedEx delivered a thick envelope to Flory. Monique had documented every step of her search. Flory opened an investigation.
The sergeant questioned Kimnita at home, but found the woman uncooperative. The meeting ended within minutes, Flory remembers.
“She was mean. I get it. She wasn’t giving us anything.”
Police submitted Monique’s DNA in the federal database for missing and unidentified people — without a match. Monique tried Ancestry.com, too. Some 35 million people have taken consumer DNA tests, according to industry estimates. In 2018, the journal Science projected those tests could identify 60% of Americans of European descent.
On a whim, Flory sent a Facebook message to CeCe Moore, the TV personality and consultant known as the “DNA Detective.” Moore has helped police solve cold case murders.
One week later, the genealogy report arrived by email. Monique was floored; it was all there.
Her DNA matched five sisters and a mother in New York. Her mother, Margaret Conyers, died young in the 1970s. Her father may have the last name Ruffin. Monique’s oldest sister lived and the email listed a phone number. Monique rehearsed her pitch, steadied herself, then dialed.
When the woman answered, Monique went fast: about the search, the longest living Jane Doe, the DNA report — can you believe it? — this was her long-lost sister calling from …
Startled, the woman hung up.
Monique tried again later.
“I said, well, goddammit, you must be my sister because you’re feisty as hell and so am I!”
Turns out, Monique wasn’t the only one searching. Veronica Conyers, 63, spent years looking for her baby sister. She told Monique a grim story. Margaret Conyers had been a good mom until heroin hit New York in the 1970s. Then came dark times of abuse and neglect in the home. Margaret had seven girls, their various fathers long gone, and she died in her 30s. Monique vanished as a toddler, before the worst of it.
“I just remember her being in the house,” Veronica says. “I remember seeing her on the bed and the next thing I know she was gone.”
Monique had two clues now.
She knew the name of her mother. And where to find her papers.
* * *
“Three minutes away!” she blurts. “Three minutes until my life is going to change!”
She’s already dreamed up plans. Monique will get her passport to travel abroad for the first time, maybe Jamaica. She’ll throw herself her first birthday party and invite all her friends.
The Expedition heads up Broadway and turns on Worth Street. On the left, the 1930s Health Building — art deco style, bronze grills, torchieres — rises 13 stories. A palace of Oz.
Monique hops on the steps and grabs a stone column. “I LOVE NEW YORK!”
New Yorkers hurry past her without a glance. People slog in and out of the big doors with the enthusiasm inspired by a root canal. And she’s trying to rouse the sidewalk into song:
Hi! My name is — what? My name is — who? My name is …
She’s been here before. Two years earlier, Monique rode the train in with Veronica to find her birth certificate. Visitors type their names and dates of birth into the computers and print a copy. It’s routine, just a few minutes — if you know your name.
Veronica remembered her baby sister as “Sym-bowl-ley.” The two spent hours trying variations:
Symbolie Terrie. Symbolie Terry. Symbolie Conyers.
“She starts crying,” remembers Veronica, the gruff New Yorker. “I don’t do crying. I’m getting an attitude. I say, ‘Give it to me.’”
Cymbolie. Cymboli. Cymboly.
The sisters walk out defeated. Maybe she will never find her name.
Monique hopes her appearance on the HBO series “Black and Missing” in November would bring answers, but she’s frustrated again. The filmmakers used her story in episode four, but they didn’t try to help, she says.
Then the story of her search reaches The Baltimore Banner. An email to the New York health department finds officials willing to help. Monique admits she struggles to explain her situation. Everything gushes out in a torrent of names, digressions and theories. She called the health department before. She called the governor, even. Only, she needed someone to put the matter simply.
The process requires her to prove her identity to obtain her birth certificate. But she can’t prove her identity without her birth certificate. It’s a Catch-22.
Now Monique sends the health department the genealogy report with the names and birthdays of her late mother and sisters. A month passes, and the director invites her in.
She rides an elevator up and follows a staffer through the hall to a conference room. Monique’s case is unusual, but not unheard of here. Consumer genealogy websites opened the floodgates to family secrets.
Staff comb through millions of digital records to match names and dates to the living and the dead. The toughest searches send them into the vaults. It’s a wizardry of sorts: bestowing identities. And like Oz, there’s a man behind the curtain.
“Are you Milton?” she asks.
Milton Mino, director of the Office of Vital Records Services, waits with a manila envelope. She walks right up and gives the stranger a hug. He holds her stiffly; she cries on his shoulder.
With trembling hands, she eases the certificate from the envelope.
Silence now. She’s far away.
“Well, it’s all here.” She laughs. “This is incredible. This is freakin’ incredible.”
“What’s your birthday?” her girlfriend asks.
“May 13, 1966.”
She’s 55 years old. She was born 10:30 a.m. in the old Fordham Hospital in the Bronx.
“My name is Simboli Ruffin. First time I said it legally.”
Her mother offered a name of Margaret Mann, age 25, of the Bronx — not Margaret Conyers. She listed three previous children, though she actually had five. A sixth daughter would come. There’s no clue for these discrepancies.
“I won’t have to die with a fake name on my tombstone,” the new Simboli Ruffin tells everyone. “I told my kids to say, ‘Here lies a woman.’ Don’t put that fake name. I am not a Monique. I never was.”
What to make of it? Kimnita didn’t change her name after all.
“My name is Simboli Ruffin. First time I said it legally.”
Says Flory: “I’ve never believed that she was actually abducted. Technically, on paper, you are. But grabbed and run out to the car? I don’t think her mom had to be persuaded that much … Because of her mom’s condition, being a drug addict, it could have been a money situation. She could have been sold. Nobody knows. In other words, the woman who raised her knew her mother, knew the story. That’s why she would never say.”
Says Veronica: “We [sisters] always knew where each other were. We always had communication. We always had contact. We had visitation. But with Simboli, I couldn’t find her anywhere. She disappeared off the bed and she never came back.”
Says Julius: “Because there was never a missing person report filed or anything like that, I was led to believe that she was actually given away. I questioned my sister many, many times. I believe she wasn’t being honest. I can’t specify what she wasn’t being open with me about, but I questioned her so many times. Simboli was at wit’s end, serious depression. She [Kimnita] always told me the same story. It never changed. Thirty years later, she told me the same story.”
Simboli suspects one of her late uncles had known her as “Bolie.” The uncle had visited Kimnita in the Bronx. When Kimnita returned to Baltimore with the familiar child, she couldn’t change the girl’s name.
“He was going to say, ‘That’s not her name.’ That’s why she [Kimnita] changed the spelling of it and changed the last name,” Simboli says. “She couldn’t get away from it.”
It’s more difficult for Simboli to accept she may have been given away. Worse yet, bartered. Margaret Conyers didn’t send any other daughter out of state. She stayed in touch with her girls even after they left home. Why just Simboli? What was Kimnita hiding? Some family secrets will never be answered.
In the end of the film, the Wizard of Oz presents the scarecrow a diploma, the tinman a clock and the lion a medal. But each had brains, heart or courage all along. The true gift is self-assurance.
The longest living Jane Doe spent years in search of her name. On the journey, she raised four children, grew a small business, spoke for the missing — made a rich life. A certificate didn’t give her an identity.
That’s the gift of the wizard: to show her she was Simboli all along.