May 2, 2009
Family Secrets: An Adopted Man's 26-Year Quest for His Father
Richard Hill Uses Latest DNA Techniques And Lots of Shoe Leather to
Solve a Riddle
By GAUTAM NAIK
May 2, 2009
Richard Hill's father, on his deathbed, revealed a secret to his 32-
year-old son: Richard was an adopted child.
The younger Mr. Hill was quickly able to learn who his biological
mother was. But cracking the identity of his birth father -- shrouded
in coverups, lies and false trails -- took 26 years. In the end, Mr.
Hill solved the mystery with the help of sophisticated DNA-based
For most people who practice it, genetic genealogy is a hobby. But as
the tests grow more powerful, people are starting to unearth family
secrets. Many offspring of sperm-donor fathers are using Internet-
based DNA searches to locate their so-called biodads. Others hope to
identify unknown family members by connecting DNA profiles with last
In men, the Y chromosome is passed on from generation to generation,
from father to son. So, usually, are last names. Accordingly, men with
a close Y-chromosome match are more likely to have the same last name.
A handful of Web-based businesses now offer DNA searches for male
adoptees. Genetic searches along female lines are possible, but less
effective, in part because many women take their husbands' names when
As he lay dying in 1978, Richard Hill's father gave his adopted son a
clue. "He told me that my birth mother was a cute little Irish girl
named Jackie from the Detroit area," says Mr. Hill, a semiretired
marketing consultant who lives in Rockford, Mich.
That clue led Mr. Hill to several people who had known his mother. He
learned that by the time Jackie turned 19, in 1945, she had been
married, had given birth to a boy and was separated from her husband.
Before the divorce was complete, she became pregnant again, by another
man. Jackie secretly gave birth to her second son in the home of a
couple in Lansing, Mich., Harold and Thelma Hill. They were childless
and keen to adopt. They named the baby Richard. After the birth,
Jackie moved out. She died in a car accident a few months later, at
the age of 21.
"When I was born, in 1946, society was pretty harsh on children born
'out of wedlock,' " writes Mr. Hill on a Web site he recently started,
DNA Testing Adviser, where he offers free advice on family trees and
adoption searches. "So in the unforgiving culture of the 1940s, my
adoptive parents made a decision that few would make today. They
decided to pass me off as their natural child."
In 1981, after a few months' searching, Mr. Hill figured out his birth
mother's full name. He was helped by Jeanette Abronowitz, founder of
Adoptees Search for Knowledge, a Michigan organization that says it
has helped about 2,000 adoptees find one or both birth parents. She
also helped Mr. Hill make contact with Jackie's first child, his half-
The search for his biological father looked impossible. Jackie had
left a string of misleading clues to mask the man's identity.
According to Mr. Hill's adoptive mother, Jackie once claimed that her
second baby's father was a serviceman. But one birth certificate,
prepared by Michigan authorities, named the Hills as the biological
parents. Another correctly listed Jackie as the mother but named her
ex-husband as the father. (That was implausible, Mr. Hill believes,
because the estranged couple lived far apart after a bitter breakup.)
In late 1989, a judge gave Ms. Abronowitz permission to open Mr.
Hill's adoption file. There, Jackie offered yet another name for the
father -- Conrad Perzyk. Ms. Abronowitz tracked Mr. Perzyk to a town
called Adrian, Mich. He confirmed that he and Jackie had worked at the
same bar and had dated.
The childless Mr. Perzyk was thrilled to learn he might have a long-
lost son. He met Mr. Hill in January 1990 and the two hit it off. "It
was the perfect ending," says Mr. Hill. Unfortunately, a $600
paternity test ruled out Mr. Perzyk as his father.
Through Mr. Perzyk, Mr. Hill learned that Jackie had dated other men,
including the owner of the bar where she worked. He got a copy of his
mother's work record from the Social Security Administration and found
that she had worked at Dann's Tavern in Lavonia, Mich., which was
owned by a man named Douglas S. Richards.
Mr. Hill was stumped. The bar no longer existed. And finding someone
with a name as common as Richards seemed unlikely. He gave up the
About 13 years later, in December 2006, a friend mentioned that he had
used an online service, called Family Tree DNA, to trace his
genealogy. Mr. Hill sent a cheek swab to the Houston company. It then
compared several of his DNA markers on the Y chromosome to the DNA
profiles of thousands of other men who had provided DNA for
He got lucky. Based on a comparison of 25 DNA markers, Mr. Hill
happened to get one perfect match. It meant that there was an 85%
chance that he and the matched man shared a common ancestor within
eight generations. More to the point, it suggested that there was a
strong chance this man had the same last name as Mr. Hill's biological
Mr. Hill emailed the man, a Wylie Richards, who lived in Florida. Mr.
Richards pointed out that his family's roots were in North Carolina,
not Michigan. So Mr. Hill tried another tack. He went through all his
notes and documents to see whether there was any mention of someone
named Richards. There was: Douglas S. Richards, the owner of Dann's
Tavern, who had once dated Jackie.
"I felt in my gut I had found him," says Mr. Hill.
The notes described Douglas Richards as a married man in his thirties.
Through one of Jackie's close friends, Mr. Hill discovered that
Douglas had moved to Texas and later died. In the records of a Texas
newspaper, Mr. Hill found a 1986 obituary for a rancher named Douglas
Richards. It listed his surviving brothers.
With the help of the bulletin of a Michigan genealogical society, he
found a woman who provided another clue: Her father had four brothers
-- including a Douglas Richards. Though now dead, each had lived
around Detroit in the summer of 1945. Mr. Hill figured that any of the
five Richards brothers could have known and had an affair with Jackie.
Mr. Hill came across Genetrack Biolabs Inc. of Vancouver, British
Columbia, which offers DNA sibling tests. In April 2007, Mr. Hill
wrote to one son of each of the Richards brothers, entreating them to
be tested. "...That is the only way I can solve the central mystery of
my life," he wrote. They all agreed. Mr. Hill paid a total of $750 for
the five tests.
Unlike paternity testing, sibling DNA tests are never definitive. All
they can measure is a level of probability that two people are full or
half siblings. By two measures, the Genetrack test showed that Douglas
Richards was the brother most likely to be Mr. Hill's father. Because
of that and other evidence, Mr. Hill was sure his quest had ended. "I
have an incredible sense of relief that I found him," he says.
Mr. Hill, 62 years old, now attends Richards family reunions and
collects family tales about his father's life as a serial
entrepreneur, rancher and storyteller. After the war, his father
married and had a son and daughter. That son, Douglas Richards Jr.,
lives in Bertram, Texas, where Mr. Hill says he and his wife have been
welcomed as guests.