Like most kids before Christmas, 10 year-old Paul Fronczak was eager to learn what presents would be waiting for him under the tree. As he ducked into the crawlspace, he discovered boxes that had been tucked away towards the back. His anticipation grew as he began to peer into the boxes, imagination wild with what he might find. What he uncovered stored in those boxes was a family secret that would change his life forever.
On April 27, 1964, Dora Fronczak rested in her hospital room in Chicago next to her newborn son, Paul. A nurse entered the room and informed her that it was time to move the baby to the nursery (commonplace at the time), scooped up the baby, and left. A few hours later, a second nurse visited Dora’s room to take baby Paul to the nursery. Confusion turned to horror as a mother’s worst fear was realized: her newborn baby had been stolen.
Though the kidnapper had only a few hours to escape, they were never seen again, but authorities never stopped looking for baby Paul. A year later, a small toddler-aged boy was found abandoned outside of a store in New Jersey. DNA testing was not yet available, and blood tests were inconclusive. It was the shape of the child’s ears that caused authorities to believe the baby could be Paul Fronczak. The toddler was eventually sent to live with the Fronczaks in Chicago, and the case was considered closed.
It was this secret that 10-year-old Paul had uncovered that day in the crawlspace. As he took in the numerous cards, letters, and newspaper clippings displaying his name in large, bold headlines, he knew that he had uncovered something big.
Though Paul moved upwards of 50 times in his life, he kept those newspaper clippings with him, their words needling his curiosity. It wasn't until 2012, when commercial DNA testing became more popular, that Paul had the means to answer the questions that had been swirling in his mind for years.
Paul had been living in Las Vegas when his parents came to visit him. On a whim, he asked them to take a DNA test, and they agreed, though they had second thoughts the moment they returned home to Chicago. They called Paul, begging him not to submit the tests. Though he relented at the time, he did eventually submit the tests and they confirmed his suspicion: he was not his parents’ natural born son.
After doing research into her own family, Investigative Genetic Genealogist, CeCe Moore, knew that she could help Paul solve his unique case. She reached out to him on his Facebook page to offer assistance, but at the time, Paul’s focus was on working with a local reporter to get his story out in the media. It worked, and he was inundated with messages from people sending tips, information, and potential leads. Unfortunately, CeCe’s note slipped through the cracks.
A year later, the television show 20/20 became interested in airing an episode on Paul’s case. Having worked with CeCe previously, they asked her if she would be willing to help, which, of course, she was. 20/20’s producers told CeCe that they’d already located Paul’s second cousin through the databases, so they envisioned the case would be solved quickly, in time to air the following month.
CeCe began researching Paul’s second cousin and immediately hit a roadblock. His second cousin had been adopted, and without his family tree, it was impossible to figure out Paul’s true identity. Paul’s remaining top matches were Ashkenazi Jewish and were not as closely related as they originally appeared. While they looked to be third cousins, CeCe explains they may have been fifth cousins eight times over, which meant starting over.
The first step was to upload Paul’s DNA to all three databases that were available at the time (Ancestry DNA, 23andMe, and FamilyTree DNA). CeCe points out that the databases were much smaller at the time than they are now, with less than a million people in all three combined. The next step was for Paul to have Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA testing done. With testing completed, CeCe examined Paul’s ancestral origins. She noted that he has a unique combination of ancestral lines containing Jewish, Southern European, and Northern European roots.
Paul’s case was one of her most difficult to unravel. After working on her own for several months, CeCe later enlisted a team of volunteers to help, including Carol Rolnick, Michelle Trostler, and Allison Demsky. Altogether, over two years was spent pouring through Paul’s family tree.
Paul was at work when he received a text from CeCe that read, “You need to call me. It’s important.” When the call connected, she said, “Well, the whole team’s here. What do you think of the name Jack?”
Paul thought for a moment and then responded, “That’s a good name. It’s a strong name.”
CeCe replied, “That’s your name.” Before Paul could process this, she continued, “You had a twin sister, but she’s missing.”
It was Paul’s Facebook page that once again played a vital role in propelling his story forward. A tipster wrote about a man in Michigan who could possibly be the real Paul Fronczak. Comparing DNA from one of Paul’s cousins to a woman who was potentially the real Paul’s daughter allowed CeCe to confirm that they had located him after all these years. He has since been introduced to the mother that he was stolen from, and their relationship continues to grow.
During the keynote presentation at ISHI 31 in September, Paul revealed that he’s actively working on solving the mystery of his twin sister. Unfortunately, Paul does not hold out hope that he will find her alive, believing that an accident or something worse claimed her life.
Earlier this year, before the pandemic began, Paul and his team visited a home in New Jersey that once belonged to his Grandmother to search for Jill. Using radar technology, they located a couple of possible gravesites, which Paul had the chance to explore. Upon digging down six feet into the Atlantic City soil, water started to come up from the ground, but before giving up, his shovel made a “tinkling” sound. It had made contact with a bone. Unfortunately, analysis of the bones determined them to be animal bones and not human. Though this search didn’t pan out, Paul remains determined that he will one day find his sister.
Paul’s story captivated the ISHI 31 audience as it did us, and questions and comments poured in after the presentation concluded. We did not have time to address all of them during the conference, so we have asked Paul to answer them for our readers.
View the Keynote Presentation
How has solving the mystery of your identity affected you personally?
It’s had a really big effect on me. I realize now that not knowing who I was affected my behavior and led me to be a kind of wanderer, going from job to job and never feeling like I was rooted anywhere. And when I had my daughter Emma, I knew that had to stop. Finding out my real identity allowed me to feel more secure in who I am, and as a result I feel more grounded, and I feel like I can be a better parent to Emma. I always tell people that living with a lie is a really hard thing to do. You can get away with it, but it’s really hard and it takes a toll.
Have you been able to meet many members of your biological family?
Yes I have, though not as many as I would have liked. For instance, I don’t have a relationship with either my biological brother or sister. They simply didn’t want to deal with the consequences of their family’s past. But I did meet a cousin named Lenny who is a really great guy, and also a well known doo wop singer, and he and I jammed together, and it was the first time I got to know a blood relative who had music in his blood, like I do. It was a thrill.
Has your mother been able to meet with the “real Paul”?
Have you met the “real Paul”?
Have there been legal consequences for the person who stole baby Paul from the hospital?
Is the person who posed as the nurse who stole Paul the same person who raised him?
You know, I would love to answer all of these questions, and I will answer them soon, but I just can’t right now. This whole process is still unfolding, still happening as we speak. I’m still discovering things about what happened with the real Paul Fronczak, and when the time comes I promise I will share that story with the world.
What advice do you have for people who are in a similar situation (not knowing their real identity)?
I always say that they have to make the decision on their own about whether or not to pursue the matter of their true identity, but before they do, they should understand that either decision has consequences, not all of which are good.
Doing nothing is a definite choice, and I can understand why people make it, because digging up the past can be very disruptive. But doing nothing leaves a lot of unanswered questions that in my experience never really go away.
Then again, deciding to go on this journey of learning your true identity also has serious consequences. It can completely disrupt your life, disrupt your relationships, disrupt your emotions. I mean, my marriage fell apart while I was in the middle of my own journey, and that is a pretty significant consequence to have to live with.
So try to understand what you are getting into, and then make the decision for yourself. I would never advise people outright to do what I did. All I can say is that I felt like I had no choice. I needed to know the truth of who I was.
Where could someone start their search for birth parents?
Well, if they haven’t already joined an ancestry website and submitted a DNA test, that’s a great place to start. And if that gets confusing, there are a number of online groups that offer support and help for those searching for their biological families.
The first step is the DNA test, and the next step is research. Gather everything you know to be a fact about who you are, or where you came from, because you never know which little detail will lead to a breakthrough. Start a notebook and write everything down. Look for groups that can help you. Find new relatives and reach out to them and ask questions.
There is no one path to doing what I did. But the big thing is taking that first step. Even if you think it’s an impossible journey, don’t be afraid to get started. If you keep at it, doors will start opening.
What are your future plans?
I want to continue to be a great and loving father to Emma, and I also want to help other people search for their families or their true identities, so I am working on a way where I might be able to do that on a larger scale than just answering emails. Possibly a TV show. But helping others is a big part of this for me. It can be a terribly lonely business, and to know of others out there who have felt like you, or feel like you do, can be enormously helpful.