DNA test unravels long-solved baby-snatching case
By Stefano Esposito Sun-Times Media June 3, 2013 10:56PM
Paul Fronczak, 49, thought he had been kidnapped from Michael Reese Hospital when he was just two days old and found 14 months later alone in a stroller in Newark, N.J. But he recently learned through DNA testing that there was a mistake: The kidnapped baby and the Newark toddler aren’t the same person. In other words, he’s not the real Paul Fronczak.
Updated: July 5, 2013 2:44PM
Almost 40 years ago, 10-year-old Paul Fronczak was snooping for hidden Christmas presents, when he came across a dusty box in a crawl space in his parents’ Oak Lawn home.
To his amazement, the box contained a story he’d never heard: He’d been kidnapped from Michael Reese Hospital when he was just two days old. It was all there, in countless newspaper clippings and sympathy letters from people across the globe, including the pope.
The story, the young Fronczak learned, ended happily, when he was found 14 months later alone in a stroller outside a variety store in Newark, N.J.
Except, the happy ending wasn’t true.
Fronczak, now 49, has learned recently — through DNA testing — that there was a mistake: The kidnapped baby and the Newark toddler aren’t the same person. In other words, he’s not the real Paul Fronczak.
“I really feel in my heart that the real Paul Fronczak is alive and well and out there, and nothing would make me more happy in this life than to find the real kidnapped child and at the same time, I wouldn’t mind finding out who I am,” said Fronczak, who is married with a 4-year-old daughter and works as a college administrator in Nevada.
That’s why he’s going public now with his story.
Fronczak’s parents, who still live in the Oak Lawn home where their son grew up, agreed to the DNA testing late last year, but they’ve been traumatized by the results and don’t want to re-live the past.
“We went through this once, and we certainly don’t want to go through this again,” Fronczak’s mother, Dora Fronczak, told the Chicago Sun-Times Monday, before ending the conversation.
On April 27, 1964, Dora Fronczak was feeding her newborn baby in the maternity ward at Michael Reese, when a woman posing as a nurse arrived and said little Paul needed an exam in the hospital nursery, according a Sun-Times story at the time. The new mother, not suspecting anything suspicious, handed over her baby. The visitor left, got in a cab and was never seen again.
Hundreds of Chicago police officers and FBI agents searched for the infant. Chicago-area doctors were told to demand a full identification of any infant less than two weeks old brought in for an appointment. Reporters shimmied up telephone poles to get photographs of the Fronczaks inside their home. In early May, a weary Dora Fronczak made a simple public plea: “Please return the baby.”
Then on July 2, 1965, a boy resembling the missing baby turned up abandoned in Newark. Without DNA or fingerprints, there was no proof it was the Fronczaks’ infant, but the couple clung to that belief because investigators suggested the child was likely theirs.
“If they are telling you this is your son, I would imagine you would believe them,” Paul Fronczak said.
Growing up in Oak Lawn, Fronczak never knew about his past, until he found the box — and even then his parents didn’t want to go into the painful details.
But something didn’t make sense to Fronczak: He looked nothing like his parents.
The nagging doubts never went away, and when the technology became available and affordable, Fronczak picked up a $50 DNA swab kit at his local pharmacy. Last October, while his parents were visiting from Oak Lawn, he asked them a question: “Did you ever wonder if I was really your child?”
His mother said, yes, they’d thought about it, and both agreed to a cheek swab.
The DNA test confirmed that Fronczak wasn’t the kidnapped baby. He told his mother about it in a heart-felt email — “By sending a letter, she could process it at her own speed,” Fronczak said.
“All these things I took for granted my whole life, all of a sudden were gone: My name, how old I was,” Fronczak said.
As Fronczak tries to learn his true identity — reaching out to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Ancestry.com, among other organizations — he says he doesn’t want to hurt the only parents he has ever known.
“My parents come from a generation where if you don’t talk about something, you can make like it never happened — and this happened,” he said. “It was a major, major tragedy that happened to two wonderful people. It went unsolved, and I’m doing this because I want it solved.”
Agents at the FBI office in Chicago expect to decide in the next few days if they will take another look at the kidnapping.
“By the end of the week we should have a handle on whether we’re going to re-open this or what can be done after the passage of 50 years,” said FBI spokesman Frank Bochte.
One deciding factor will be whether records of the investigation still exist.
Files are generally destroyed after 15 or 20 years if there’s no legal reason to store the documents, said Bochte, who, when asked Monday, was unsure if a request for the case file had been made.
“The file may have been placed in the closed status, which may have started the destruction clock. If it’s still in existence, it would have been shipped back to our records management division in Virgina,” he said.
Contributing: Mitch Dudek