Credit: Jessica Haye & Clark Hsiao
Credit: Jessica Haye & Clark Hsiao

Super Sleuth

Colleen Fitzpatrick solves historical mysteries, deciphering centuries-old records and spelunking through the past, near and distant, like a time-traveling gumshoe.
Writer: 
May 15, 2013

Maurice Conway does not recall being particularly polite when the phone rang that first evening, and he had every right not to be. He was fifty-seven years old and retired because of a bad heart that had required doctors to splice veins around the clogged spots in his arteries, and he’d given up cigarette only five months earlier, which will make any man irritable.

On October 24, 2007, he was settled in a comfortable chair in his house near Askeaton, an Irish village from which he has never roamed far. His cell phone rang. The number is unlisted, and yet a stranger with an American accent was jabbering at him.

“There was this woman on the phone,” he says, “and she told me about this arm that was found in the snow, and she talked to me about this Kevin McGregor and the U.S. Army and this plane crash that I’d never heard of.”

“There’s a phrase we use over here,” Conway says. “ ‘It’s all double-Dutch to us.’ And it was all double-Dutch to me. So, no, I wouldn’t have been very polite.”

He told the woman on the phone, “It’s very difficult for me to understand what you’re on about. Could you call back in an hour?”

Fitzpatrick was for many years a scientist, and for some of them an actual rocket scientist.

Deadly discovery: A remote site in Mount Sanford, Alaska, above, brought challenges in identifying victims of the 1948 crash; right, the Northwest Airlines DC-4. Credit: Associated Press.

So Colleen Fitzpatrick Ph.D. ’83, who used to be a rocket scientist but now practices a softer science called forensic genealogy, rang back. And she explained again. In 1948, a Northwest Airlines charter with a crew of six carrying twenty-four merchant seamen from Shanghai to New York crashed into the side of a remote Alaskan mountain. Forty-nine years later, two pilots and aviation-history buffs named Kevin McGregor and Marc Millican finally found the wreckage on the side of Mount Sanford and, poking up from the ice, a severed hand and forearm. The U.S. military, through its Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab (AFDIL), already had eliminated twenty-eight of the victims as the owner of the arm, which left two. One was Frank Van Zandt.

Fitzpatrick’s job was to find a living relative of Van Zandt (the genealogy part) to compare a DNA sample (the forensics) from the severed hand. The difficulty, though, was two-fold. One, Van Zandt had no direct descendants. Two, Fitzpatrick was working with mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from generation to generation exclusively through females. That meant she had to trace Van Zandt’s family tree back through his mother and grandmother and so on until she found a kind of genetic matriarch, from whom she could then work forward through a separate, unbroken branch of daughters and granddaughters until she found one of Van Zandt’s distant, living relatives.

This is not easy.

And this is why Maurice Conway was befuddled. Conway, a retired machinist in an Irish village, had never heard of Van Zandt, the merchant seaman flying home from Shanghai sixty years earlier.

But Fitzpatrick (who, by the way, remembers Conway being perfectly polite, all things considered) persuaded him to swab the insides of his cheeks with a DNA test kit and mail it back to AFDIL.

A few weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, Conway got a message on his cell phone. “A very, very jubilant Colleen Fitzpatrick,” he says. “She was screaming, ‘It’s a match, it’s a match!’ ”

And that is why it is now definitively known that a severed hand frozen in a glacier since 1948 belonged to Frank Van Zandt, second cousin twice removed of Maurice Conway, two men separated by 5,000 miles and sixty years.

There are 6.3 billion people on the planet,” Fitzpatrick is saying one afternoon in January, “and I needed to find one.” She pauses for a beat. “And I found him.” She’s a petite woman of fifty-seven with a puff of auburn hair and a round face, which she arranges into a firm, proud smile when she says that. The Hand in the Snow, as the Van Zandt episode came to be called, was one of the first major media splashes for Identifinders International, the company she runs out of her Huntington Beach, California, home, with her partner (business and domestic), Andrew Yeiser. But it is not particularly surprising that she found Maurice Conway, either. Forensic genealogy is a niche profession, and a relatively new one at that—it apparently wasn’t even recognized as a distinct discipline when Fitzpatrick self-published her first book, Forensic Genealogy, in 2005—and it has some jingly definitions (“CSI meets Roots” being the most pop-culturally relevant if generationally mangled example). But Fitzpatrick, who has a gift for reducing complicated concepts to simple conversation, can dumb it down. “I find people for a living,” she says.

“There are 6.3 billion people on the planet. I needed to find one.”

It’s more complicated than that, of course. She finds people, yes, and she’s very good at it. But she also solves historical mysteries, deciphering centuries-old records and spelunking through the past, near and distant, like a time-traveling gumshoe. She was part of a team that identified a Baby Doe who drowned when the Titanic sank, and she has twice helped expose popular Holocaust memoirs as frauds. Last year, she plugged a DNA sample from a crime scene twenty years old into databases to narrow the search for the killer of a teenaged girl in Seattle to a genetic line related to Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower. Granted, that is a rather large pool so many generations later, but still a smaller one than detectives had generated in the previous two decades.

More important, though, are the routine cases, the anonymous clients who are looking for someone and, through that someone, maybe something more. For them, she finds connections they’ve ached for, sometimes for decades.

On the coffee table in her den, for instance, there is a framed certificate that says “For Colleen Fitzpatrick” across the top. “Guru, guide, diplomat, friend, and sleuth extraordinaire. With boundless admiration, affection, and appreciation.” It’s from a septuagenarian man, and his family, who’d been adopted as a child and had been searching for his birth parents for decades. They’re long dead, but now the old man knows where he came from. “She solved a 56-year-old riddle in only nine months,” it reads at the bottom, “January-September 2012.”

“You need to know who you are, where you come from,” Fitzpatrick says. “There’s some kind of very strong biological connection to know: to know who you look like, if you look like your mother or your father, that they like hot food like you do, that they were gifted musically like you are. If you don’t know where you come from, there’s this big hole in your life.”

Courtesy of Colleen Fitzpatrick.

And every now and then, there is a man like Maurice Conway. When you cold-call a person about a frozen, severed limb, when you reach across all those miles and all those years, the focus can change and the past can be brought into the present. “You begin to ponder the big picture of our nature,” she says. “You begin to realize there’s more to life than birth and marriage and death records, that there’s this big connectedness. There’s something really profound that we have, and sometimes you don’t know you’re missing it until you find it.”

She was not formally trained for this business of finding people. Rather, Fitzpatrick was for many years scientist. She spent the early 1980s at Duke, smashing neutrons into calcium molecules as part of earning her doctorate in nuclear physics. She spent a couple of years after that lecturing in physics at Sam Houston State University, in Texas—“My two years as cannon fodder,” she says—but got distracted by the optics lab on campus.

She happened to attend a seminar by T.H. Jeong, one of the foremost experts on holograms, and was rapt as Jeong reproduced a three-dimensional image of a little toy duck. Yes, it might seem silly—there’s not much practical application for a fancy representation of a child’s toy—but Fitzpatrick was fascinated by the process, by the precision of the technique and the materials and the interplay of light on solid matter. “There’s physics, there’s chemistry, there’s perception,” she says, “so many different areas that combine, literally, into what we define as the big picture.”

She began spending Friday nights in the optics lab, when the building was still and quiet (slight vibrations and even the change in air pressure from a closing door can ruin a hologram), trying to reproduce that image of a toy duck. It took her five years, by which time she’d left academia for a job at an aerospace firm, where she worked on laser-radar amplification. Holograms weren’t part of her day job, so she built her own optics lab in her garage, weighting down a table with a half ton of sand to steady it. It was a hobby, really: Her first perfected hologram was of a small, pink angel her grandmother had given her, and she created others that a friend inlaid into a coffee table so that, from the proper angle, there appeared to be flames flickering in the wood.

In 1989, though, after a second job at a different firm working with lasers, she opened her own shop, Rice Systems, Inc., and started hunting for government contracts. She won her first one in May 1990 from the U.S. Army’s Aviation Systems Command to develop, in the military’s highly hyphenated terms, “non-destructive testing of metal-matrix composite materials for high-performance aircraft engines.” In layman’s terms, she was going to use holograms to look for flaws in airplane parts. Her idea didn’t work, but she’d learned how to write grants and navigate the government bureaucracy. She landed a couple more small contracts, then some larger ones, and her business grew. Through the 1990s, she worked on an optical gyroscope for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a contraption for NASA to see how crystals grow in space, and an eye-pressure gauge that doesn’t use that annoying puff of air.

By the early 2000s, Rice Systems had grown to a staff of ten. Fitzpatrick was contracted to develop the optical and environmental sensors for the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO), a nuclear-powered spacecraft that was going to explore Europa and, possibly, Ganymede and Callisto. It was a huge contract, both in terms of money and exposure. But NASA’s priorities shifted with the political winds of the Bush years, and JIMO was cancelled. For Fitzpatrick and Rice Systems, it was a final, crippling setback.

“The building’s burning down around you, sixteen years of your life is going up in smoke, and I said, ‘Okay, it’s time to regroup,’” she says.

Mystery solver: Fitzpatrick helped identify a baby boy, Sydney Leslie Goodwin, who drowned on the Titanic. Credit: Bettman/CORBIS.

She turned to genealogy. Actually, Fitzpatrick had been a genealogist, albeit an amateur one, long before she was a physicist.

She grew up in New Orleans, the oldest of four children born to a florist and his wife, and surrounded by grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, an extended family of dozens. And they told stories, the older ones did, of the Fitzpatricks and Kellys (her mother’s side) that had come before, stories of yellow fever and tuberculosis and of the Kelly who was the first man with a bathtub in his neighborhood. “They were referring to people who died years before they were born; they’d never met them, yet somehow their oral history was spot-on,” she says. “When you have that kind of childhood, you don’t come to love history—you’re born living history.”

One day in 1968, when Fitzpatrick was thirteen years old, her maternal grandmother found in a closet an iron box that had belonged to her grandmother. Inside was Fitzpatrick’s great-great-great grandmother’s marriage contract, the equivalent of a prenup, written in French and dated 1854. “This was wonderful,” she says now. “Everything about it was interesting, because it was a connection to her.”

She took the document to her high-school French teacher (Fitzpatrick speaks five languages fluently, and can get by in a couple more), who helped her translate it. The contract also had a reference number on it, which she sent to the village in France where it originally had been filed, and the clerk there sent her back a copy of the marriage license, which included the names of the bride’s and groom’s parents. She used that information to request more records. “And I did that again and again and again,” she says, “until I got back to the beginning of the records in 1664.”

She’d reached back thirteen generations to the Ulmer family in the Alsatian village of Sigolsheim, where they most likely had fled from Germany during the Thirty Years War. But then she noticed something odd in the birth records from that era: For ten years, there were no live births. That led her to research historic weather patterns and medical practices and anything else she could think of until she finally deduced that Sigolsheim had suffered a decade-long scourge of ergot, a fungus that grows on rye and induces miscarriages. (It’s also where LSD comes from. “The village where my family came from had been on acid for ten years!” she says.)

Solving that riddle took more than thirty years, another hobby Fitzpatrick worked on sporadically. Yet history—the common history of common people—remained a passion. For five years, for instance, beginning in 2000, she coordinated the compiling of an Internet database of 2.5 million birth, death, and marriage records from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century New Orleans, a task carried out by about 200 volunteers who transcribed records ten pages at a time.

“When you’re a rocket scientist,” Fitzpatrick says, “you just can’t leave a hobby alone.” So when she regrouped, she turned to what she knew and loved best. She wrote Forensic Genealogy—“I didn’t even know forensic genealogy existed as a profession”—and she and Yeiser set up their own publishing house, Rice Book Press, to print it. She sold copies at genealogy conferences and seminars, and her name got around (though she already was fairly well-known in certain genealogy circles) as an expert in this new field. Then, one day in 2006, she got an e-mail message from a man she’d never met; she never spoke to him and never would. He was searching for a woman in a Taiwanese village who held the title to some unclaimed property. Could Fitzpatrick help?

Why, yes, she could. She required skills in neither forensics nor genealogy: She used Google, and it took her less than ten minutes.

She didn’t know what to do, whether she could charge for something so simple and, if so, how much. She asked Yeiser. “Charge him an arm and a leg,” he told her, “but get the arm up front with a four-day guarantee. After four-days, get the leg.” So Fitzpatrick e-mailed her offer, which was accepted, then four days later e-mailed the Taiwanese woman’s address in Tapei. The man, who she believes was a real-estate investor hunting owners of abandoned properties, was none the wiser and extremely grateful. “And that was the first of eighty arms and legs I got from him over the next two years,” she says.

Hardly any of those other seventy-nine searches were as easy as the first. They didn’t involve forensics—no matching of DNA samples—but most required her skills in genealogy, tracing people through old records. Her business grew, and she took on more clients, finding lost relatives and birth parents, roaming across the planet by phone and Internet. It is not lucrative work, but it’s immensely rewarding. Because every now and then, there comes a Hand in the Snow and all that follows.

She pauses for a beat. “And I found him.”

AFDIL wanted to figure out who that severed limb belonged to partly out of respect for the dead yet largely as a science experiment, developing techniques that might eventually help identify 809 Korean War casualties buried in a Hawaiian cemetery. Given the Hand in the Snow’s age and condition, it seemed a good test subject. Indeed, that it belonged to Van Zandt also was confirmed with fingerprints, no small feat considering those fingers had been desiccated by the elements for six decades and, after it had thawed, had been embalmed.

Because she was trying to match mitochondrial DNA passed solely by mothers to their children, Fitzpatrick began her search for a match with Van Zandt’s mother. From Van Zandt’s birth certificate, she learned his mother’s maiden name was Margaret Conway and that she would have been born in 1876. Frank’s brother Orville’s marriage certificate, which she found in the archives in Bennington, Vermont, told her Margaret had emigrated from County Limerick, in Ireland.

How it works: The yellow circles represent people in a DNA project. The variable is the distance the circles are away from each other. The closer the circles are in the diargam, the more closely those people are related. If two people match on their DNA, they share the same spot in the diagram, and that circle gets larger. The red labels are the DNA markers, signaling where two people have a mismatch. If two people are separated by three mismatches - for example, on DNA markers 385, 290, and 455 - they are a genetic distance of three apart, explains Fitzpatrick. Image courtesy of Colleen Fitzpatrick.

There were records of six Margaret Conways born in County Limerick between 1872 and 1877, but none of them on a date that would fit Van Zandt’s mother. The search appeared stalled. But what if, Fitzpatrick mused, Margaret Conway was as mildly vain as so many other people? What if she’d lied about her age when her son was born?

Turns out she had. Fitzpatrick figured out the Margaret born to John and Ellen Conway was Frank Van Zandt’s mother. Ellen’s maiden name was Drum. So she began searching forward on the Drum line, starting with Ellen’s sister Elizabeth. And she found an unbroken line of females, the names changing with each generation of marriage, from Anne O’Shea to Bridget Sheehy to Cathleen McNamee, who married a man named (coincidentally) Conway and, in 1951 gave birth to a son she named Maurice.

When Fitzpatrick called him that first night, when it was all double-Dutch to him, Maurice was skeptical but also curious enough to agree to the DNA test. “Colleen had such a convincing voice,” he says. “Somebody genuinely looking for help, that was the tone of her voice. Sincere. That’s the word.”

But while the match in the lab showed that they were genetically related, Maurice still needed to prove their shared lineage— to demonstrate that the DNA link was because he and Van Zandt had descended along a related female line. So he combed through archives and wandered cemeteries, searching for people he never knew were his kin. “It was very exhausting,” he says. “I spent an awfully long time in graveyards. For those four months, I ate, I slept, and I spoke to the dead, looking for inspiration. And that bothered me as well. To me, Maurice, I was disturbing the dead, inquiring into the dead. I was actually disturbing their peace.” And he disturbed their secrets. Elizabeth Drum’s daughter Anne—Maurice’s great-grandmother—was born in 1856. “But the skeleton in the cupboard is October 1857,” he says. “That’s when Elizabeth got married.” This would have been a terrible scandal, a child out of wedlock, and no one in the family had known of it. “But that mixed emotion turned to admiration,” Maurice says. “Just nine years earlier, we’d had the famine, but she had the strength to keep her child. I fast-forward a hundred years, to 1956, and those women were sent to a home, and they never saw those babies again. And without Anne O’Shea, there would have been no Maurice Conway.”

But that was the only skeleton rattling in the cupboards. And here’s what else Conway found: his family. He has dozens of cousins on his mother’s side in and around Askeaton, but they’d never been close, never more than nodded at each other on the street. Through his research, he leafed out the wide family tree, and on March 6, 2008, sixty of his relatives gathered to learn of their shared history. At least twenty of them Conway had never stood in the same room with before, and he believes that was the first gathering of his mother’s side of the family in which a Conway was present, let alone hosting.

“Prior to this happening, I just had my own family, my father and my brothers,” he says. “But now I have a wider family to pray for and to remember at Mass.” He pauses. “It’s a beautiful story.”