By Eliot Duke
Dunn Daily Record
DUNN – A family looking for a missing loved one found the happy ending they were hoping for.
John Gregory Ruble, a 38-year-old Army veteran suffering from dementia and Huntington’s Disease, disappeared from his Maine hometown on Aug. 23. The North Carolina State Highway Patrol found his abandoned Jeep Wrangler on Interstate 95 three days later near the Long Branch Road exit (Exit 71) in Dunn.
Employees at the Circle K near where Ruble’s Jeep was found recalled seeing him at the store around the time of his disappearance, but police and the family had little else to go on.
A random phone call from an unknown number placed to a family business provided the real first break.
“Somebody saw a phone number at his mother’s office,” family friend Billy Pfaff, a long-time private investigator with decades of experience, said. “The caller said his name but we had trouble getting the caller ID. We finally got the number and called it.”
John’s sister, Kate, called the number and managed to speak with her brother. Not knowing the situation or Ruble’s mindset, family members started asking him basic questions about his health and location. Pfaff managed to take that information and devise a search area using specific landmarks of where Ruble could be. Pfaff and his girlfriend, Ruble’s cousin, jumped back in the car and headed to Georgia from Florida after spending the previous week around Dunn searching for clues and passing out hundreds of fliers.
“We didn’t know why he left,” said Pfaff. “I came up with seven locations and started checking addresses. We wanted to be careful. He didn’t know me and we didn’t want him to run again.”
Pfaff arrived in Georgia on Monday evening and stopped by a local store to pick up some supplies after leaving home in such a hurry. An anxious Pfaff headed outside as his girlfriend waited in the check-out line. As he walked out the door, a face looked back at him.
“He was standing in front of me,” Pfaff said. “He looked in bad shape. I didn’t want him to run because he didn’t know who I was. I followed him and kept changing my clothes. I was afraid he might run if he thought someone was following him.”
Pfaff kept an eye on Ruble for a little while, watching him wander aimlessly about and hoping he didn’t take off into the woods. Pfaff finally decided not to risk losing sight of Ruble any longer and approached the disheveled man who hadn’t been seen by any of his family in three weeks.
“I went up to him and said I was looking for him for a very long time,” said Pfaff. “I didn’t want to lose him. My girlfriend is his cousin and he recognized her.”
It turned out Ruble walked more than 300 miles from Dunn to Georgia after his Jeep broke down. Ruble tried to hitch a ride from truck drivers at the Circle K but found no takers, so he elected to start walking. He lost his phone along the way and managed to buy a cheap replacement, but couldn’t remember any of his contacts. He figured out where his mother worked and made the call that eventually led family to his whereabouts.
The three-week trip took its toll on the veteran.
“I found him walking in circles,” Pfaff said. “His ankles and calves and legs were swollen so bad from walking. He lost eight toe nails. He’s been walking in circles for weeks. He even got a police escort near the state line.”
Pfaff credited Detective Chad Garvin with Dunn Police Department for playing an instrumental roll in helping bring Ruble home. Being able to ping Ruble’s phone provided key information regarding his location that helped narrow down the search.
“Honestly, I didn’t do anything,” said Garvin. “I just did what any investigator would do and that’s work the case to the best of my ability. I didn’t do anything out of ordinary. I believe it was by the grace of God they found John. I took it as if how would I want to be treated if I was in their situation.”
Garvin took the case on Sept. 10 and spent much of the Labor Day weekend on the phone, reaching out to different law enforcement agencies involved in the search.
“By the time I got involved on Friday morning, they had already been here and distributed 700 fliers,” Garvin said of Pfaff. “They already had contacted and had a story in the paper. They ran out of fliers and were printing out more. I woke up Tuesday morning to a text saying they had found John. Again, I don’t think I did anything special.”
“I’ve traveled across the world and worked with all types of law enforcement,” said Pfaff. “I’ve never met someone like Chad. He’s a hero and is a big asset to that community.”
Ruble reunited with his family and is on the way to a VA hospital near his sister where his loved ones plan to get him the help he needs.
The odds of finding Ruble dropped by the day. Thanks to the combined effort of law enforcement and a family’s love, Ruble reunited with his family after more than three weeks missing and 1,000 miles away from home. The people involved credited a higher power for making the mini-miracle happen.
Considering the odds of such an ending, it may be hard to argue.