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Published Saturday May 2nd, 2009 at 7:10pm

Original Article by Gautam Naik

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 biologicalmother was. But cracking the identity of his birth father -- shroudedin coverups, lies and false trails -- took 26 years. In the end, Mr.Hill solved the mystery with the help of sophisticated DNA-basedgenealogy tests.

For most people who practice it, genetic genealogy is a hobby. Butas the tests grow more powerful, people are starting to unearth familysecrets. Many offspring of sperm-donor fathers are using Internet-basedDNA searches to locate their so-called biodads. Others hope to identifyunknown family members by connecting DNA profiles with last names.

In men, the Y chromosome is passed on from generation to generation,from father to son. So, usually, are last names. Accordingly, men witha close Y-chromosome match are more likely to have the same last name.A handful of Web-based businesses now offer DNA searches for maleadoptees. Genetic searches along female lines are possible, but lesseffective, in part because many women take their husbands' names whenthey marry.

Richard Hill's birth father, center
Richard Hill's birth father, Douglas S. Richards, center, with his brothers in the '40s.

Ashe lay dying in 1978, Richard Hill's father gave his adopted son aclue. "He told me that my birth mother was a cute little Irish girlnamed Jackie from the Detroit area," says Mr. Hill, a semiretiredmarketing 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 beenmarried, had given birth to a boy and was separated from her husband.Before the divorce was complete, she became pregnant again, by anotherman. Jackie secretly gave birth to her second son in the home of acouple in Lansing, Mich., Harold and Thelma Hill. They were childlessand keen to adopt. They named the baby Richard. After the birth, Jackiemoved out. She died in a car accident a few months later, 5t the age of21.

"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 andadoption searches. "So in the unforgiving culture of the 1940s, myadoptive parents made a decision that few would make today. Theydecided to pass me off as their natural child."

Richard Hill with his adoptive parents in 1947.
Richard Hill with his adoptive parents in 1947.

In1981, after a few months' searching, Mr. Hill figured out his birthmother's full name. He was helped by Jeanette Abronowitz, founder ofAdoptees Search for Knowledge, a Michigan organization that says it hashelped about 2,000 adoptees find one or both birth parents. She alsohelped Mr. Hill make contact with Jackie's first child, hishalf-brother.

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 thather second baby's father was a serviceman. But one birth certificate,prepared by Michigan authorities, named the Hills as the biologicalparents. Another correctly listed Jackie as the mother but named herex-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 thefather -- Conrad Perzyk. Ms. Abronowitz tracked Mr. Perzyk to a towncalled Adrian, Mich. He confirmed that he and Jackie had worked at thesame bar and had dated.

The childless Mr. Perzyk was thrilled to learn he might have along-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 $600paternity test ruled out Mr. Perzyk as his father.

Through Mr. Perzyk, Mr. Hill learned that Jackie had dated othermen, including the owner of the bar where she worked. He got a copy ofhis mother's work record from the Social Security Administration andfound that she had worked at Dann's Tavern in Lavonia, Mich., which wasowned by a man named Douglas S. Richards.

Mr. Hill was stumped. The bar no longer existed. And finding someonewith a name as common as Richards seemed unlikely. He gave up thesearch.

About 13 years later, in December 2006, a friend mentioned that hehad used an online service, called Family Tree DNA, to trace hisgenealogy. Mr. Hill sent a cheek swab to the Houston company. It thencompared several of his DNA markers on the Y chromosome to the DNAprofiles of thousands of other men who had provided DNA forgenealogical testing.

Jackie Hartzell
Richard Hill's birth mother, Jackie Hartzell in 1942.

Hegot lucky. Based on a comparison of 25 DNA markers, Mr. Hill happenedto get one perfect match. It meant that there was an 85% chance that heand the matched man shared a common ancestor within eight generations.More to the point, it suggested that there was a strong chance this manhad the same last name as Mr. Hill's biological father.

Mr. Hill emailed the man, a Wylie Richards, who lived in Florida.Mr. Richards pointed out that his family's roots were in NorthCarolina, not Michigan. So Mr. Hill tried another tack. He went throughall his notes and documents to see whether there was any mention ofsomeone named Richards. There was: Douglas S. Richards, the owner ofDann'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 histhirties. Through one of Jackie's close friends, Mr. Hill discoveredthat Douglas had moved to Texas and later died. In the records of aTexas newspaper, Mr. Hill found a 1986 obituary for a rancher namedDouglas Richards. It listed his surviving brothers.

With the help of the bulletin of a Michigan genealogical society, hefound a woman who provided another clue: Her father had four brothers-- including a Douglas Richards. Though now dead, each had lived aroundDetroit in the summer of 1945. Mr. Hill figured that any of the fiveRichards brothers could have known and had an affair with Jackie.

Mr. Hill came across Genetrack Biolabs Inc. of Vancouver, BritishColumbia, which offers DNA sibling tests. In April 2007, Mr. Hill wroteto one son of each of the Richards brothers, entreating them to betested. "...That is the only way I can solve the central mystery of mylife," he wrote. They all agreed. Mr. Hill paid a total of $750 for thefive tests.

Unlike paternity testing, sibling DNA tests are never definitive.All they can measure is a level of probability that two people are fullor half siblings. By two measures, the Genetrack test showed thatDouglas Richards was the brother most likely to be Mr. Hill's father.Because of that and other evidence, Mr. Hill was sure his quest hadended. "I have an incredible sense of relief that I found him," he says.

Mr. Hill, 62 years old, now attends Richards family reunions andcollects family tales about his father's life as a serial entrepreneur,rancher and storyteller. After the war, his father married and had ason and daughter. That son, Douglas Richards Jr., lives in Bertram,Texas, where Mr. Hill says he and his wife have been welcomed as guests.