It was winter in the White Mountains of Arizona when the phone rang. “We have a newborn baby girl available.” The adoption agency was nearly 200 miles away, a four-hour drive even if the roads weren’t covered with snow and ice.
“Of course, we’ll take her” said Liz as her excitement level rose reflecting the months of waiting for that call.
The woman’s voice betrayed her apprehension as she went on, “But, there’s a problem. The child must be picked up tonight.” Obviously, that was a bit of a challenge, but it was a minor inconvenience compared with the anticipation of finally having a child in the house. “We’re on our way.”
“Wait” the woman said. “There’s one more problem. The baby has red hair.”
There was a pause. Liz waited for the other shoe to drop. “So, what’s the problem?”
The woman’s relief was apparent. “You’d be surprised how many people don’t want to adopt a red-haired child.”
“We’re on our way.” Liz could barely contain herself.
That was more than forty-one years ago. And it was the beginning of not only our age of parenting, it was also the event that opened the door to our world of genetic genealogy.
We embraced Tempest (named for a storm after seeing her red hair) as if she was our own. But we had heard too many stories about adoptive families deceiving their kids and trying to convince them they were their natural born children. We could envision nothing but trouble coming from such an approach over the long run. In our view, it was simply wrong to live a lie, even if it was with the best of intentions. We believed that even in the best case, we’d be teaching the child that truth and honor were expendables. How could we raise her to value truth if we didn’t honor it?
We never so much as considered doing anything other than making it clear whenever the question arose that we loved her without conditions, but that we were not her birth parents. We assured her that when she reached the appropriate age, if she had a desire to find her birth parents, we would do everything within our powers to help her in the quest.
Tempest grew up an only child in a happy home surrounded by family on all sides. She was raised in a small town with grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, a dog and a cat. By most standards, she was a pretty normal kid. She did fine in school. She traveled to many countries, experienced many cultures, and enjoyed opportunities few kids ever get. She was an accomplished ballet dancer and even spent one summer studying and performing with the Marin Ballet near San Francisco. She passed time on ocean going yachts, houseboats on Lake Powell, studying history in Boston, learning Spanish in Mexico, sailing the Caribbean, seeing the White House, Congress and “The Mall” in Washington. She was deprived of little.
But when she turned nineteen, the day finally arrived when she wanted to learn more about her roots, her ancestry, and her genetic family. As promised, we jumped in with both feet (or in this case, all four feet). Although Howard had been an investigative news reporter for five years, we were at a loss as to how to get the ball rolling. DNA testing for the masses was in its infancy. This was going to be your basic grind-it-out gumshoe challenge.
We discovered that the State of Arizona had a program where you could hire a “Confidential Intermediary”. We tracked one down and hired her. The State granted C.I.s the authority to view the original adoption file. It contained the name of the birth mother, the place of birth, and maybe other minimal information about the adoption. Sometimes, it also contained the name of the birth father. But over the years, we learned that even when the name was shown in the file, it was often fictitious. Sometimes, the mother didn’t know the name of the father. Sometimes, the mother wasn’t sure who the father was and picked the name of the one of six possible fathers she liked the best. Sometimes, she wasn’t sure of parentage and she knew it would be unacceptable to simply write “someone on the football team at Acme High School” as the potential father. Suffice it to say, the information contained in the file was better than no information at all, but possibly not much better.
Just in case the obstacles weren’t great enough, the State of Arizona restricted the C.I. from sharing anything that could be construed as being “identifying” without the express consent of the birth parent. In order to get the consent, the birth parent first had to be found. That alone could be a monumental task. If the C.I. succeeded, then contact had to be made. That’s not as easy as you might suspect. For example, in Tempest’s case, the C.I. located the birth-mother and managed to get a phone number for her. Repeated calls went unanswered and messages were ignored for months. We later learned the birth mother assumed the calls were from bill collectors and she didn’t want to talk with them.
Finally, if the parent is located and if contact is made, the C.I. must get permission to put the adopted child in contact with the birth parent. Now consider that many of these women had the child out of wedlock, left town for a few months, placed the child for adoption, returned and lived the lie for years. It was her little secret. Often, the birth father never had a clue he’d sired a child. Often, when contacted, the birth mother refused to acknowledge the child’s existence. She’s built a life and views the existence of a “surprise” child as a threat to her entire way of life. Once the birth parent is located and spoken to, there is absolutely no guarantee she (or he) will grant permission to the C.I. to share her identity with the child.
In the search for Tempest’s birth parents, we did everything we could be extract subtle clues from the C.I., clues that with some creativity, we could parlay into “identifying” information. It didn’t work for the birth mother; we’d just have to be patient and hope the C.I. did her job well. We did manage to discern a couple of clues about the birth father listed in the file, clues that would years later serve us well.
The meeting was finally arranged.
The investigator finally enticed Tempest’s birth mother to return a call.
Tempest had feelings of ambivalence. Like many adopted children, she had wondered why she had been given up. Were the birth parents famous movie stars or politicians who couldn’t afford damage to their high-profile reputations? Were they members of the jet-set with their yachts and Gulfstream jets? There had to be good reasons for what felt like abandonment. She would soon find out.
Like so many in her position, Tempest would soon learn the reality wasn’t even close to the dream. When we arrived at the trailer, we were greeted by the birth mother, her current husband, and three of her other four children (one was still in prison). The birth mother was welcoming and shared some of her story. She had five kids in all with five different fathers. Tempest was the middle-child, the third of the five. It struck us as odd that only the middle-child would be placed for adoption. As she began to explain, we understood why the newborn child had to be picked up immediately after she was born.
The birth mother insisted she didn’t remember the father’s name, but she had no trouble recalling that he had been prone to violence. He contested the choice to place Tempest for adoption and there was fear at the hospital he would resort to violence to take the child. When pressed about the birth father’s identity, she insisted for years after the initial meeting that she didn’t remember his name. As you’ll learn later, there was more truth to her claim than even she knew.
The balance of the day went as well as could be hoped. We all shared a meal. There was a feeling of great satisfaction on our part that Tempest would finally have a past, a history, a genetic and cultural heritage. She would now have a “hook” in the universe on which she could hang her self-identity. Her sense of homelessness would finally be eradicated.
Imagine everyone’s surprise when Tempest asked about her more distant family members and her birth mother replied, “I don’t have any idea. I was adopted at birth and haven’t any knowledge as to who my parents were.” It was like turning the key in a door and as it opened seeing that it revealed nothing more than a solid brick wall.
The birth father’s identity would now become the next mountain to climb. The birth mother had offhandedly mentioned, “He’s probably in prison.” We found it curious that she didn’t know his name, but she thought she knew where he was. Strange that someone can not know who “he” is, but could know where “he” (who?) is.
We mentioned this to the C.I. who ran with it. She took the name of the birth father mentioned in the file and began a systematic search of the records of convicts in Arizona with that name. She was excited when she called us. “I think I’ve found the father,” she said. She spoke as she read the crime, the sentence, and the anticipated release date. She didn’t view those facts as “identifying”.
Her enthusiasm went flat when she read the birth date of the convict. “Oh no. That can’t be him. This man was born just a couple of years before Tempest.” Obviously, she had the wrong person, but she didn’t put the pieces together. If a man with the same name (and it wasn’t Smith, Johnson, or Brown) was in an Arizona prison, then there was a good possibility that he was the namesake son of the man we were seeking. We didn’t know his name, but we did know about his criminal history.
By that evening, we had found the State of Arizona’s Department of Corrections website. We learned we could call up the records of each and every inmate in the state, one at a time, and compare them with the information we now had from the C.I. Howard sat at his computer from 6:30 p.m. that evening and viewed inmate records one by one. At 3:30 a.m., he called out to Liz. “I’ve got him!”
We now had the name listed in the adoption file as the birth father. And we now might have the son of that man. We scrambled to find someone outside the prison that was related to the convict. It took a couple weeks, but we finally located an optometrist in the Pacific Northwest that appeared to be related in one way or another. It took some time, but we finally made contact. When we explained who we were and what we were trying to accomplish, he was willing to help in any way he could. What we learned left us stunned.
The young man that had been found in prison by the C.I. was in fact the namesake son of the listed birth father. The man to whom we were speaking was the brother of the birth father. He informed us that his brother was more than a little “off” and was indeed in prison. We had been unable to find him because he had legally changed his name prior to being sent to “the big house” for crimes that kept him from even being eligible for parole for thirty more years.
It seemed we had solved our mystery. We had the birth mother (without a history) and it looked like we had the birth father (with a history we didn’t want to know). But before we could rest easy, the old investigative reporter in Howard had to have corroborating evidence. We needed proof. The prison was nearly 150 miles away, but Howard knew he was going sometime soon.
As it happened, Howard, Liz and Liz’s sister, Victoria, had occasion to take a trip to Nogales, Mexico. The three of them got in their car and pointed it toward Nogales. The plan was to visit Mexico and then head north for a mini-vacation in Tucson, Arizona. The plan included one additional stop that neither Liz nor Victoria knew about, the maximum-security prison near Tucson.
It was shortly after lunch time when the car made a mysterious turn at a sign labeled, “Arizona State Prison Complex”. It didn’t take Liz but a second or two to put the pieces together, but Victoria wore a face of bemused confusion. “What are we doing?” As the explanation poured forth, her expression changed. I had no explanation for how wide her eyes became as she pondered her immediate future.
None of us had ever visited a prison, but we had seen Humphrey Bogart vehemently proclaiming his innocence while talking on a black telephone and looking through a thick, bullet-proof window. I guess we didn’t know what to expect, but it had to be something like that.
It was a warm day when we turned into the prison parking lot. I was in shorts. Liz wore shorts and a sleeveless top. Victoria wore her death mask while she whined that she hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye to her kids. As we opened the door, we undoubtedly established the world’s record for the most naïve visitors to “the joint”.
We walked into a dank, cinder-block room with a few plastic chairs, a concrete floor, and the personality of an abandoned storage building. There was no welcome greeter, no souvenir shop, no artwork on the walls, no elevator music. At one end of the room, a guard sat behind a window. He didn’t look at all like the one guarding Bogart. I approached him and said we had come to visit Michael Felon (obviously not his real name). I honestly don’t recall the expression on his face, but I’m sure it was one of incredulity. In the course of the next twenty minutes, we learned a few things about visiting prisons. But to summarize them, you don’t just walk in the door and visit a prisoner. It just isn’t done.
You must fill out an application and submit it for approval. They have to do a background check on you. That takes a minimum of about three weeks. If everything works out and you’re approved, they set a date and time for the visitation. They inform you that under no circumstances do you carry weapons. There’s a dress code. When visiting felons that have been locked in a cage for years, women are not allowed to visit wearing shorts, sleeveless blouses, jewelry, or anything that could be weaponized. It quickly became apparent that we weren’t destined to be anything other than items of amusement for the guard. We sure weren’t going to be visitors. It was a nice try, but …
As we started to turn and leave, a door opened behind the guard. A woman walked in and spoke briefly with him. Soon the door opened into the room where we were standing. She introduced herself as the Warden of the prison. For unknown reasons we have pondered for years, the Warden seemed to warm up to us. She said, “We can’t normally do this, but if you want to fill out the application, I’ll have the guard do the background check right away. It’ll take twenty, maybe thirty, minutes, but if you clear it, I’ll get you in to see the prisoner today.” We were stunned.
Twenty minutes later, the Warden came out, results in hand, and asked to see Howard in private. She took him into a small room and explained he hadn’t cleared the background check. Now his eyes were wider than Victoria’s. But the Warden chuckled and said it was probably nothing of consequence (it turned out to be a misfiled traffic citation from years back) and that she was going to let us visit.
We were to meet her at her vehicle in the parking lot and she would escort us into the maximum-security unit that was Michael’s home. At this point, Victoria had reached her fear limit and opted out of going further into the depths of the prison complex. She would wait near the entrance.
As we approached the max-unit, I asked the Warden if I should have removed the Swiss Army knife that was in my pocket. The Warden now joined the ranks of the wide-eyed people in attendance. She gasped and said that I couldn’t take a knife in with me. In retrospect, I guess it makes sense that you shouldn't risk arming someone who is spending life in prison for murder. After ditching the knife, we got to the door. The Warden turned us over to a guard and then promptly departed. She apparently shared the good sense shown by Victoria and elected not to enter a place with so many dangerous people. Before she walked away, she said, “There’s one more thing I need to tell you. Michael is one of those prisoners who is pretty much incapable of telling the truth. If he’s talking, he’s probably making up something that isn’t close to the truth. You need to keep that in mind.”
The next thirty feet were straight out of a prison movie. The guard put us through x-ray, then opened a large metal door that led into another chamber. The sounds of heavy metal doors slamming closed resounded behind us and echoed in front as another one opened.
When we finally reached the end of the maze of metal and steel, we were looking for the bullet-proof glass and the black telephone and maybe a glimpse of Humphrey Bogart himself. The guard ushered us into a room that looked like a classroom for 4th graders. A half-dozen or so less than full-sized tables sat in the open space. Little chairs sat around the tables. The guard told us this is where we would meet the prisoner. Indeed, there was a bullet-proof glass window in one corner of the room, but as the guard had deserted us, we realized only he was to be behind the glass. He wasn’t taking any chances. After all, the guys that lived in this place were dangerous criminals. We sat down and waited and if I’m to be fully honest, worried. If the prisoner got out-of-control, what were we to do? Beat him with a kiddie-chair?
After what seemed to be an eternity, a door opened and a very large man with the countenance of an undertaker came walking down a short hallway. It was Michael. As he entered the room, he assumed a sour look and with words caked in contempt, he said, “I understand you want to see me. What do you want?”
We garnered all the experience we’d ever had in dealing face-to-face with dangerous felons with aggressive attitudes in a hostile prison environment… which was none, and we tried to make our case in as friendly a manner as we could. Gradually, he warmed up somewhat, and started to share his story or stories as there were. The Warden was right. He spun some pretty wild yarns about changing his name to show his loyalty to the Irish cause of independence. He was imprisoned on trumped up charges because the government (not sure which one) knew he had been stealing single-engine Cessna planes and flying them across the Pacific to be used by the Irish Republican Air Force. Never mind the fact that the planes would have run out of fuel long before they reached the coast of Ireland. Why would we begin to doubt this man?
When we finally guided the conversation back to Tempest’s birth mother, Michael lit up a bit. “Oh, yes. The French artist”, he said. (She was neither French nor an artist. I wonder who was making this up.) He did talk enough about his relationship that we left confident that they had known each other, spent time together, and that his name didn’t show up on the birth-certificate by mistake. Before we left, he made it clear that this better not be a trick so Tempest could get her hands on his estate. To the best of our knowledge, his estate had to be valued at upwards of five dollars. I can understand his concern.
End of story? Not hardly. For a brief period, we rested comfortably with the knowledge that we’d found both mother and father. But this was in the period in time when commercial DNA testing was becoming increasingly sophisticated and prices were falling for the tests. We still had the mystery of the birth mother’s heritage being completely unknown. We set our sights on finding the maternal grandparents. We ordered an autosomal DNA test for Tempest.
After analyzing the results, a couple of things became apparent. First, we started piecing together the clues that would ultimately lead to the answers to the questions about the family line on Tempest’s birth mother’s side of the family. As that picture came into focus, we were rendered speechless when we learned that not only had Tempest been adopted and that Tempest’s birth mother had been adopted, we learned (and you can’t make this stuff up), Tempest’s maternal grandmother had been adopted at birth. A closed door in front of a brick wall in front of another brick wall. That challenge would entertain us for some time to come.
But the second thing emerging from the DNA test results was an absence of something. No matter how hard we looked, we could find no evidence of Michael’s family existing anywhere in the record. Could it be that Michael Felon actually was not Tempest’s birth father? He clearly believed he was. The birth mother believed he was. She named him on the birth-certificate. But the DNA evidence strongly suggested it was someone else. By virtue of the fact that she’d had five kids with five fathers, it could be argued that she’d lost count of partners and guessed wrong. We asked the birth mother if the father could have been the man we’d discovered through DNA. “Oh, yea!” she said. “I forgot about him. He was a neighbor. I had a water heater leak and he came over to help me fix it.”
Frankly, it didn’t take long to prove the hypothesis. The evidence was overwhelming and clear. Tempest’s birth father lived in West Virginia and (we later learned) had no idea whatsoever that he had fathered a child named Tempest. He was delighted to learn of his new-found daughter and was anxious to meet her. Tempest discovered she had half-siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, some living not far away. We hosted a family reunion at our house in Arizona. Nearly two dozen relatives attended. Everyone knew “dad” wasn’t able to attend. What they didn’t know was that we had arranged to secretly fly him in and when all the members of the “new” family had been introduced, one more guest arrived. It was Tempest’s birth father. It was a touching and emotional reunion.
There’s a great temptation to use the hackneyed expression, “And they lived happily ever after.” For the most part, in was a joyful event. Tempest lost a felonious father and replaced him with a friendly, outgoing and loving one. Admittedly, Tempest now loses the entire value of Michael Felon’s estate, but the smiles of her family members are worth more than money can buy. The infectious laugh of her birth father will echo in her dreams for the rest of her life.
If the truth be known, it seems for every mystery solved, two more appeared. So little time, but so much to do.