Bernadette “Berni” Slowey, from Denver, Colorado, vividly remembers the day her two-year-old sister, Rose, simply vanished. Her sister’s disappearance occurred at the end of the Vietnam War during the chaos that ensued during the fall of Saigon. In the midst of all the chaos and trying to pack up her life and make it over to America to join her GI husband, Berni’s young mother lost her toddler on the streets of Saigon.
Berni told the story of her long-lost sister on the TED stage. For many of her friends, it was actually the first time they ever heard the story. Berni spoke of how her mother had to make an unthinkable choice and had to live with it for the rest of her life. But Berni never stopped wondering what happened to her sister. It took 44 years to finally get answers she has been searching for her whole life.
This is her story…
She’ll Never Forget
Berni Slowey couldn’t possibly forget the tragic event that occurred in her early years. This incident would go on to affect the rest of her life and lead her to constantly wonder if there was something she could have done to prevent it. Berni was born in Vietnam in the early 70s, at the height of the Vietnam War.
Berni and her younger sister, Rose, were born to their mother, a South Vietnamese woman, and their father, who was an American GI. And that the tumultuous time would go on to shape much of her life. By the time the Vietnam War finally came to an end after so many years, it was 1975. Berni was four years old; Rose was two.
Chaos in the Streets
The war ended in defeat for the Americans and those of South Vietnam, with North Vietnamese troops seizing Saigon. Marking their victory on April 30, 1975, Viet Cong flags were raised on top of the city’s Independence Palace. It was a time of utter chaos. As the children of an American serviceman, the sisters and their mother were in real danger as they could be seen as American sympathizers.
Rumors were swirling around that the North Vietnamese would have no mercy on anyone associated with the U.S. military. “There were a lot of rumors that Vietnamese women with Amerasian babies would be tortured,” Slowey said. As the Viet Cong were closing in on Saigon, American helicopters started flying in.
She Wandered Off
The mother and her daughters were given the opportunity to be airlifted out of Saigon before it was going to be overrun by the North Vietnamese. As the time to evacuate approached, and the helicopter was being prepared, Rose had somehow wandered off and disappeared into the chaos. As you can imagine, her mother went into a complete panic.
Berni remembers her mother was looking frantically for Rose but simply couldn’t find her. Among the panic of not finding her child was the ticking clock – the helicopter was about to take off. With time running out, her mother faced a terrible choice: one that no mother would ever want to have to face and one that would haunt everyone involved for the rest of their lives.
It Was Pandemonium
Berni remembers the Fall of Saigon very well, despite the fact that she was only four at the time. During her TED Talk in 2016, she recalled, “It was pandemonium. We would always hear the beating of helicopters, and we could hear the sirens and even the smell of war around us. But it became such second nature that we were just children in the courtyard, and all we wanted to do was play kick the can.”
On April 29, 1975, American helicopters were there to evacuate South Vietnamese and foreign nationals out of the city. In scenes that could easily be found in a war drama film, the last U.S. Marines fled the roof of the American Embassy by helicopter in the early hours of April 30.
Stay or Leave?
Before that last helicopter took off, Berni and Rose’s mother had to decide, in a frantic and hurrying moment, whether to stay and search for Rose, which meant missing her flight and risking the wrath of the North Vietnamese, or leave with her other daughter that she still had. “I can’t even imagine making that choice,” Slowey commented. ”I have two sons, and I can’t imagine being in that position my mother was in.”
Neither can any of us. It’s a horrible thought for us to imagine. But the tragedy is that this woman had to live it. In the end, Berni’s mother made the choice to get on the helicopter and come to America. She was unable to find Rose, so she picked up Berni and left. Her daughter was somewhere in the chaos of post-war Saigon.
The Amount of Guilt
Berni told this heart-wrenching story on the TED stage. She ended her talk by speaking of the intense guilt she always felt about her four-year-old self being aware of her sister’s disappearance. The guilt of never being able to track her down and find out what happened to her. She grew up with the gravity of the entire situation, knowing her mother made such an impossible choice.
“I never thought we were going to find my sister,” said Berni Slowey, now a mother, businesswoman, and documentary film producer in Denver, Colorado. “I could never understand it entirely, and my mother never spoke of it.” Her mother carried immense guilt and shame for having left her youngest daughter behind. And no one could deny it.
In an interview with the Northeast Denver newspaper The Front Porch in 2019, Berni described what she remembered were the circumstances around her sister’s disappearance. “We kids were playing in the courtyard of our apartment complex when, suddenly, my two-year-old sister, Rose, wasn’t there. My aunt, who was watching us, was frantic. Somehow Rose had gotten out through the gate and into the street.”
Berni remembers her mother looking for Rose in a panic, but she was lost to the chaos in the streets. “Mom had a terrible decision to make: keep looking for her missing child, or evacuate with the daughter she still had. As a mother, I can’t imagine having to make that choice. We thought we’d never see Rose again, that she was lost forever.”
Making a New Life in America
After such an emotional event, Berni and her inconsolable mother had to make the long and the arduous journey to the United States, where her husband, who had absolutely no clue as to what just happened, was waiting for them. They first landed in Grand Island, Nebraska, at first. By 1984, the family moved to Littleton, Colorado.
Berni’s mother and father went on to have three other children in the United States. They never spoke of the sister who was left behind in Saigon. This silence left the couple’s eldest child with so many unanswered questions. As Slowey told CBS Denver, “I could never understand it entirely, and my mother never spoke of it.” Even worse, Berni felt responsible for Rose’s disappearance.
Trying to Find Her
Over the years, Berni knew that Rose’s disappearance was just eating her mother up inside. She had to live with the shame and guilt of leaving her daughter alone in Saigon. Any mother would be eaten up by that. But the little girl’s disappearance was tormenting Berni as well. In 1995, Berni and her mother went back to Vietnam with the aim of looking for Rose.
Unfortunately, they didn’t find her and had to come back empty-handed. In 2012, her mother died from complications from diabetes. Tragically, she never got to find out what happened to her first daughter. Berni believes that her death was partially due to a broken heart. Berni knew that she had to keep searching for Rose.
Her Last Words
“One of the last things she told me,” said Slowey, ”was she always wished she could find Rose to bring her here, and so I know she really wanted a reunion, and I know it haunted her for the rest of her years.” In her search for Rose, she decided to get up on the TED stage. The reason for her doing the TED talk wasn’t just to share her story.
She was hoping that it might somehow reach her sibling, and the two could finally reunite. But she never heard from her and feared that she never would. During her TED Talk, Berni explained, “I thought that maybe it was my fault… I had done something wrong because my aunt had looked at me and asked me, ‘Why weren’t you watching your sister?’ And I thought that maybe my mother had blamed me.”
Was She Abducted?
Berni grew up and eventually became a successful banker. She got married and had two sons of her own. Throughout her adult life, Berni tried to get the word out about her lost sister. Berni said how “Everyone has their own version of what happened based on their personal perspective. My mother had thought Rose was abducted because kids were being kidnapped during that time.”
One day in December of 2018, Berni received an email from a woman named Vannessa Pham. Pham, too, had moved from South Vietnam to America in years following the war. And like Berni, she was also searching for lost family members. Berni would soon realize who this woman was.
As it turns out, Vannessa was, in fact, Rose, her long-lost sister.
They Were in the Same Country This Whole Time
From that first email, the two sisters learned of each other’s’ lives. Amazingly, the two had been living in the same country for many years. Berni learned that Rose’s name was changed to Vannessa after she came to the U.S. Vannessa told Berni how her adoptive mother never told her that she had been adopted or about how exactly she had been found.
But Vannessa spoke of how there were clues that she noticed as she grew up. Her siblings in her adopted family would make nasty comments about how she wasn’t really part of the family. Vannessa knew she looked different and knew there was a lot that wasn’t being told to her. “And it just grew more suspicious,” she said. “And there were more things.”
Finding Out the Truth
After all these years, it was in May 2018 that her adoptive mother finally told her the truth. She told Vannessa that she had been found wandering the streets of Saigon when she was only 2 years old. She told her that she really was adopted. “I remember crying so much when she told me that for the first time. It was a relief,” Vannessa said of that moment.
Her first thought was: “I need to go find my own family. I need to go find my mom; she might be looking for me.” But deep down, she didn’t hold out much hope for reconnecting with her family. In her own words: “I thought, ‘Just accept it, it’s been all your life.’”
A DNA Test
One evening, 45-year-old Vannessa was watching TV with her husband and three grown children. They saw a commercial for a DNA service. Vannessa decided to try it out on the off chance that it could connect her with her long lost family. “I was like; I’ll order that,” Vannessa recalled. She paid $99 for the DNA test, submitted the saliva swabs, and in a matter of days, she got the results.
The database told Vannessa that she had relatives in Colorado who also submitted their own DNA to the same database. “It just made me feel so happy. Oh my God, this is confirmation!” she said. That’s when Vannessa found herself at her desk, her fingertips on the keyboard, ready to send an email to this person she was told was a distant cousin.
Vannessa emailed this distant cousin in Colorado who put their DNA into the database. The person told her that she has a sister in the country. After a second more precise DNA test, results came back with a DNA match. She did indeed have a sister in the country. And within days, Berni and Vannessa were on the phone, comparing notes.
The two sisters swapped stories, and as you can imagine, the conversation was full of questions and emotions. They each spoke of what they recalled of Vietnam and their separation. But the joy of finding her long lost sister and her family was colored with sadness. Vannessa learned that her mother had died six years earlier.
A Surreal Reunion
“It felt like a thousand heavy weights dropped. It was like a big disappointment. And I was like, ‘I am only six years late,’” Vannessa recalled of learning that her birth mother had already passed away. Nonetheless, Vannessa and Berni arranged to meet up face-to-face. On January 4, 2019, Vannessa flew from her home in Orange County to meet her sister and her other siblings.
It was going to be the first time they would meet in 44 years. They met in Denver and spent a long weekend together, obviously crying, laughing, and talking non-stop. “I don’t know how long you have been searching,” Berni told her sister when they reunited. “But for me, it’s been a very long time. It’s surreal that you are here sitting next to me.”
What Really Happened to Rose
During their reunion, they discussed the events that occurred in 1975 in Vietnam. Berni discovered that Rose was found wandering around Saigon, and she was taken to a police station. It was there that she met the woman who would eventually become her adoptive mother. The South Vietnamese woman adopted the young Rose and integrated her into her family.
Regarding what happened after being found on the streets, Vannessa told The Front Porch, “I slept in a jail cell at night and played outside during the day. After about 10 days, a policeman put me on his motorcycle, bound for the Operation Babylift airplane to the U.S. But the motorcycle broke down, so we didn’t make it.” But that faulty motorcycle saved Vannessa’s life.
Moving to America
She explained how “The plane took off and exploded over the airfield, killing everyone aboard. So, the officer asked his co-worker if she could take me, and she adopted me.” Not making it to that plane was a factor in her still being alive today. Having agreed to take the toddler in, the woman renamed her Vannessa and raised her alongside her other children.
By the time she was 11, her adoptive mother had emigrated from Vietnam and took Vannessa with her to the United States. At first, they lived in Dallas, but they moved around a lot and lived in various cities on the West Coast. But before their move to America, Vannessa (whom Berni calls Vannessa Rose now) spoke of her early years.
Her World Changed
For her whole life, she was never told that she was, in fact, adopted nor that she was found on the streets of Saigon as a lone toddler. But as was mentioned earlier, she had her suspicions growing up that she was different. Vannessa realized that she didn’t look like her siblings nor her parents. After her mother finally told her the truth of her origins, her world changed.
Vannessa described her reaction after discovering that she was Berni’s long-lost sister. She told The Front Porch, “It was like a dream.” But the 45-year-old also described what it was like to hear about the death of her mother, and how it was like a weight had dropped on her. However, she had Berni and her other brothers and sisters to tell her all about their mom.
A Complete Shock to Her Father
Following their reunion in Denver in January, Berni then flew to Orange County a month later to visit with Vannessa and her family. The sisters are now in constant communication and plan to return to Vietnam together. They want to see where they were born, where they lost each other, and see if they can sort out what happened.
Vannessa also wants to one day build a relationship with her biological father. Their father has since remarried and lives in Dallas. As for him, the news of his long-lost daughter came as a complete shock to him. As an old man, he is fragile, and so they have started out by communicating through Facebook. He wants to take things slow, and Vannessa respects his decision.
Like her father, Vannessa was struggling to come to terms with the whole thing. She told CBS Denver, “This is a dream, and I’m afraid to wake up. I have been walking for so long. I have been gone, walking and wandering for 43 years, and I just want to come home, and I found my way home.”
The sisters hope their unbelievable story inspires others, especially adopted children, to continue searching for their families and never to give up. Vannessa said how their story has already inspired other Amerasian friends of hers in California who were adopted. They, too, bought DNA test kits and sought out their birth families. “It’s that simple and available at our fingertips,” Berni said.
While this is an incredible story on its own, another incredible tale of a lost child revolves around a boy named Bobby Dunbar.
This is the story…
Parents can make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes are worse than others. Take this parenting mistake, for example: not being able to identify your own child. In 1912, the Dunbar family went camping near a lake in Opelousas, Louisiana, and happened to lose their four-year-old son, Bobby.
Eight months later, the authorities found a young boy who they thought could be Bobby. Everyone was relieved; they had found the missing kid. Except, when another woman showed up claiming this Bobby was actually her son, things got complicated.
For nearly a century, the question of Bobby’s true identity has lingered. Was the boy really Bobby Dunbar? Now, thanks to modern science, the question can finally be answered.
A Scorching Hot Summer
Louisiana summers are a force to be reckoned with. If the sun doesn’t kill you, the humidity will make sure to come personally to your door to finish the job. In the summer of 1912, the Dunbar family was dealing with the worst of the late summer.
In an era before air-conditioning and ice dispensers, the only way to cool down during the scorching summers was to take a dip at the local watering hole or to find sanctuary under the shade of a tree. Having had enough of the heat, the Dunbars decided they were going out of town.
Down by the Lake
Bobby Dunbar was Leslie and Percy Dunbar’s first child, born in 1908. The family consisted of the three of them and Bobby’s younger brother. Like most parents, the Dunbars loved and adored their children and wanted the best for them.
In the unbearable heat, they decided they were going to cool off and enjoy some family time together down by the lake. On August 23, 1912, the Dunbars packed up and went up north over the city towards Swayze Lake.
At the time, they had no idea this fun little trip would haunt their family for generations.
See You Later, Alligator
Despite the name, Swayze Lake isn’t actually a lake. In actuality, the ‘lake’ is a swamp that’s crawling with alligators. Why go on a normal camping trip when you can spice it up and sleep in a flimsy tent next to a nest of Cretaceous leftovers?
Maybe the Dunbars should have rethought their vacation spot, but hindsight is 20/20. On the night of August 23rd, 1912, Bobby – who was four years old at the time – snuck away from the family tent and wandered off towards the bayou. That was the last time anyone saw or heard from him. Or was it? That was the question that would grip two families for generations.
At the Hands of Tragedy
When the Dunbars realized their son was missing, they were naturally horrified. It started an eight-month-long search for the missing boy. Mrs. Dunbar, in particular, was grief-stricken to no extent. The Caldwell Watchman, a Louisiana newspaper, featured a story about the incident in 1914.
“When he [Bobby] was missed, a search traced him to the banks of Lake Swayze…At first, it was feared that he had been drowned, but the lake failed to give up the body, and the little boy’s hat was found some distance from the lake a day or so later.” The entire town grieved with the Dunbars’ tragedy.
Searching for Bobby Dunbar
Authorities and locals looked everywhere they could for Bobby Dunbar. Each lead and clue they came across was carefully followed up on, but everything led to a dead end, and nothing came out of the search. Many people began to lose hope. Percy Dunbar even went as far as to offer a generous reward of $1,000 for anyone who could find his son.
In 1912, that sum was the equivalent of what would now be $25,000. The rest of the town pitched in with an additional $5,000 – about $125,000 today. Time passed, and even the family itself was starting to give up. Then one miraculous day, authorities came to the Dunbars with the news they had been hoping for so desperately.
The Search Is Over – Or Is It?
On April 13, 1913, authorities arrested a man who they suspected was involved in the case. It was a traveling tinker by the name of William Cantwell Walters near Columbia, Mississippi. He’d been traveling with a boy who matched the description of Bobby Dunbar. The same age, blonde hair, blue eyes – it was enough for authorities to take the boy from Walters and send him off on the next train to Opelousas.
When the boy arrived, the parents should have been over the moon. And they would have been if there hadn’t been a tiny problem: the Dunbars didn’t recognize their supposed son when the authorities brought him home. And thus began the mystery of Bobby Dunbar.
Still, despite the initial confusion, after carefully inspecting the boy for any identifying marks, the Dunbars were able to identify the child as their son. The news of Bobby’s return spread across town – but so did the news that the Dunbars initially weren’t a hundred percent sure that the boy was theirs.
But all misgivings were put aside, and the entire town was delighted that the family was whole again. When the Dunbars returned home, a parade was held in their honor. But rumors started circulating about whether Bobby was really Bobby.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
In Louisiana, kidnapping is a capital offense. When he was arrested, Walters claimed that the boy was the illegitimate son of his brother and a servant. The servant in question – the mother of the boy – was a woman called Julia Anderson, who had apparently given Walters permission to take the boy with him on his travels.
LA Times reported that Walters tried to claim innocence: “I know by now you have decided. You are wrong…it is very likely I will lose my life. On account of that, and if I do, the Great God will hold you accountable.”
An Unwelcome Twist in the Tale
The town, and more importantly the jury at his trial, didn’t buy it. Walters was convicted of kidnapping. And then someone entirely unexpected came into the picture with a story that people didn’t want to hear: Julia Anderson. She was the woman that Walters claimed was the true mother of Bobby-not-Bobby, and she validated Walters’ story.
According to Anderson, ‘Bobby’ was actually her son, Bruce Anderson, just like Walters had claimed. However, when she was asked to identify the boy as her son, she, too, was uncertain if he was hers. Still, upon closer inspection, she said with confidence that the boy was her own. Two mothers – both claiming the same boy as their son. Strange? Very.
How Credible Is a Mother in Grief?
Reporters had already gone ahead and printed stories about Ms. Anderson’s hesitation when seeing the boy, and this didn’t do well for the woman. They called her illiterate and a woman of ‘loose morals,’ discrediting her claims. It was entirely unfair, considering Mrs. Dunbar had also been unsure at first, but Mrs. Dunbar had had the support of her people. After being tried in court, Julia Anderson returned to Mississippi, with final custody of the child falling into the hands of the Dunbars.
The Dunbars raised the boy as their own son, Bobby, and had a few more kids. Though it was all said and done, the story of Bobby Dunbar went around the country and raised many questions about whether or not he was truly a Dunbar. Had the child Louisiana authorities found really been Bobby? It was going to be a long, long time – nine whole decades – before anybody would know for sure.
Margaret Dunbar Pursues the Legacy
Even after the case had been put to rest, the Dunbars and the Andersons still had lingering doubts and questions about what exactly had happened back in 1913. After all, it is difficult to let go of the fact that your family may not actually be your family. Margaret Dunbar Cutright grew up knowing the story of her grandfather and this cloud of question marks in her family’s lineage. The way she was told the story, the boy – Margaret’s grandfather – was indeed Bobby.
One day, in 1999, Margaret’s father, Bob Dunbar Jr., gave her a photo album containing newspaper clippings of her grandfather’s disappearance. What began as an organization project soon became an obsessive investigation of her family’s history. She began to question the stories that had been handed down over the generations, feeling uneasy about the validity of this narrative.
Digging into the Past
In 2008, a radio show documentary called The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar followed not just the story of Bobby himself, but also the investigation led by his descendants. Tal Mcthenia, who led the show, reported about Margaret Dunbar’s investigation: “Margaret went on an obsessive quest to small-town libraries, archives, and courthouses all over the South.”
For her birthday, Margaret’s husband gave her a card to the Library of Congress, and she spent weeks in the reading rooms there, researching any bit of history she could find about her family. She discovered that despite what her family had been telling her and everyone else for so long, Julia Anderson may have possibly been telling the truth. Margaret decided to reach out to the Anderson family.
Joining Hands for the Greater Good
Linda Traver is Julia Anderson’s granddaughter. All her life, she’d been told that her uncle had been ‘kidnapped’ by the Dunbar family and that they had raised him as a replacement for their son that had gone missing on that one fateful camping trip. However, no matter what she’d been told, given the nature of the entire scenario, Traver had her own questions and doubts.
When Margaret Dunbar came into the picture, they decided to form an alliance to try and figure out what had really happened back in 1913. It wasn’t easy, of course. It had been almost a hundred years since then, so what could they possibly do? But both women were dedicated to their cause, diligently researching to find the truth about their family, even if it contradicted what they thought they knew.
“Actually, Bobby Dunbar is…”
Both Linda Traver and Margaret Dunbar believed that the boy who had been traveling with Walters was a part of their family. After having spent their whole lives being told one side of the story, it was natural to be a bit biased. Although their main cause was to find out the truth, to some extent, both women were also trying to prove that their family’s version of the events was true.
As the investigation progressed, this mindset gave rise to tension between the two women. As time went on, a full-on feud erupted between the two families. “Margaret was totally convinced that it was Bobby Dunbar all along,” Linda Traver said in the documentary. “I was totally convinced that it was Bruce Anderson all along.”
A Change in Outlook
When the truth about Margaret’s beliefs came to the surface, Traver took great offense at the assumption that her family history meant nothing more than some tale of fiction, or that her grandmother had been lying. Traver confronted Margaret about it. “You need to look a lot more closely,” Margaret recounted Traver saying.
“You keep wanting to know all about Julia. You need to look more into Lessie and Percy and judge their characters. And that did not make me happy…in retrospect, she was absolutely right. I did need to put down what I believed and be able to look at it with fresh eyes.” Now, with this brand new perspective, Margaret began to look more closely at things, only to discover information that shook her whole family’s foundation.
The Christian Woman’s Letter
As they progressed with their research, the two women discovered a gold mine of information. They reviewed the legal files between Walters and his lawyer back in 1913 and discovered letters from Julia Anderson and other key witnesses of the mystery.
Margaret Dunbar and Linda Travers also managed to uncover an anonymous letter from someone who called herself “The Christian Woman.” The letter was sent to the Opelousas courthouse in defense of Walters and Julia Anderson. What it contained really struck a chord with Margaret and managed to change her entire outlook on the case of Bobby Dunbar.
Words That Hit a Chord
The letter said: “Dear sir, in view of human justice to Julia Anderson and mothers, I am prompted to write to you. I sincerely believe the Dunbars have Bruce Anderson and not their boy. If this is their child, why are they afraid for anyone to see or interview him privately?”
“I would see nothing to fear, and this seems strange. The Dunbars claim that if this had been their own child and he had been gone eight months, do you think his features would be so changed that they would not know him only by moles and scars? This is a farce. If the Dunbars do not know their child, who has only been gone eight months by his features, why, they don’t know him at all.”
It’s Time to Do Something About It
Margaret had an epiphany. Reading the Christian Woman’s letter had clarified a lot of things in Margaret’s eyes about her grandfather’s case. “It just simply dawned on me, oh my god, she’s right. What a farce. What a farce this is.” She wasn’t going to sit around anymore. It was time to put an end to this mystery.
After realizing that the Christian Woman had a point, Margaret went to her father, Bob Dunbar Jr., and asked him for something. It was going to be the final piece of the puzzle that would answer the century-old question about who Bobby Dunbar really was, and forever change the shape of their history. She asked for a DNA sample.
Taking the Big Steps
Before she had started her investigation on Bobby Dunbar, Margaret had asked her father for a DNA sample countless times. But each time she always got the same answer: a big, fat no. For her father, there was no need for such a thing.
To him, the story of Bobby Dunbar was just that – a story. However, after four years of investigating and digging and researching, Bob Dunbar was finally ready to face the truth about his father too. This time, he obliged to the request, and in 2003, Margaret sent a sample of her father’s DNA to a laboratory.
An Unexpected Conclusion
The DNA sample was compared to that of Bobby Dunbar’s younger brother, Alonzo. Margaret pursued the test with surety that the results would confirm her suspicions. After all, all her life, she had grown believing the stories her grandmother and relatives had believed. Like this, a month passed.
To be honest, she hadn’t expected the results to come so quickly. Over the phone, the lab assistant relayed to her, with indifference, news that would shatter an entire family’s foundation: the results did not match. Her grandfather was not Bobby Dunbar, who had gone missing in the swamp in 1912. He was, in fact, Julia Anderson’s missing son, Bruce.
Ignorance is Bliss
Margaret and the rest of the Dunbars were stunned. Margaret said: “You know, as far as she was concerned, it was a paternity test. She had no idea the impact of what she was saying to me. It was a shock to me…not really the conclusion, but to hear it.” Other members of the family were furious about the results.
Some of the Dunbars had had no clue that Margaret was investigating on the issue so deeply, and that she had ordered the test. To have such a long-held belief about their family be refuted so resolutely didn’t sit well with them. They were surprised, hurt, and confused, all at once. What they didn’t know couldn’t have hurt them.
Severe Identity Issues
When Bob Dunbar Jr. received the news that his father was not the man the family had always claimed he was, he was shocked. “It took my breath away. You know, I hadn’t considered that. My thought was to prove that daddy was Bobby Dunbar…I just pondered, you know?”
“All right, if my past is wrong — Bobby Dunbar, all the legends, all the stories — and then all of a sudden you find out, well, that’s not who your blood says you are. Where does that leave me? If my grandpa isn’t my grandpa, who am I?” He wasn’t the only one who took the results badly.
Accepting the Facts
Margaret’s siblings also felt blindsided by this unwelcome and shocking news. Swin, Margaret’s brother, thought his sister had been selfish for pursuing the test behind the family’s back even after being told not to, over and over again. “You know, she was really going up against the entire family, including myself,” he said later.
“In fact, I’m not sure of any family member that was for it… another thing about all that is some of us in the family, and probably even me at one time, probably felt like she was a little bit selfish, you know? Why do this? Nobody in the family wants to know.”
Shunned for Dogging the Truth
To this day, Margaret has yet to redeem herself in the eyes of her family – at least some of them. After the news of her grandfather blew up, thanks to the media, her relatives felt like she had disrespected the history and heritage of her family. And to make it worse, she had done so in a very public way.
Regardless of the results, however, the Dunbars still viewed themselves purely as Dunbars. No matter what the results said, they believed they were still a part of the Dunbar family. Now, there was one last thing Margaret could do. She and her father reached out to Linda Traver and delivered the news of the DNA results. Traver’s reaction to it was quite unexpected.
So Where is Bobby Dunbar?
“I got up from where we were sitting on the couch, and I went around, and I think I hugged his neck, just knowing that, man, we were family. We were just family,” said Linda, about hearing the news from Margaret and her father.
Even now, the descendants of Julia Anderson regard the Dunbar family as friends and expect nothing more or less. While the identity of ‘Bobby Dunbar’ had finally been confirmed, there were still questions. The most significant one, of course, being: what happened to the real Bobby Dunbar?
What Really Happened to Bobby Dunbar
Despite the revelation that Bobby Dunbar was, in fact, Bruce Anderson, Margaret’s family remained firm and committed to the family as they had known it. It didn’t matter to them what their blood was; what mattered was that they were accepted in life and by the family that they knew.
As time went on, Margaret started to seriously contemplate the fate of the real Bobby Dunbar and the possibility that he had fallen into the swamp on that one life-changing camping trip. She recalled the hat that had been washed up on the banks. It was practically agreed upon – Bobby Dunbar must have died that night in the swamp. A small child against alligator-infested waters really stood no chance.
A Mother’s Guilt
Though Leslie Dunbar had won custody of the boy she’d claimed was her son, she still had her doubts about whether the child she took home was really Bobby. As a mother, she probably felt guilt. “I think she had to have, on some level, known,” said Margaret. “And maybe she didn’t. I don’t know. I think maybe she was in denial her entire life.
“From everything I’ve heard, she truly believed that this was her son, Bobby. But I can’t help but wonder if maybe, underneath, where you go and can’t talk about, she must have known that this was not her son that she birthed.” And as ‘Bobby’ grew older, there was sufficient reason to believe that he too, knew that he was not Bobby.
A Brand New Start
In 1932, when Bobby ‘Bruce’ Dunbar was 18 years old, reporters approached him for comments on his past. At the time, the Lindbergh kidnapping story had captured the nation, making this case relevant once again. Reporters wanted comments from the “stolen child of yesteryear.”
When asked about his memories of the kidnapping, Bobby Dunbar’s comments supported the truth that wouldn’t be revealed for another few decades. He said he remembered being with Walters when he was arrested but had no memory of a family camping trip. He also mentioned that he had not been the only child with Walters at the time. The plot thickens.
A Tale of Two Boys
Young ‘Dunbar’ recalled that the other child traveling with them had died shortly before Walters was arrested. The media began to speculate, starting rumors about Walters being responsible for kidnapping both Bobby Dunbar and Bruce Anderson, and that it was Bobby’s cruel fate to have died.
Bobby Dunbar – or rather, Bruce Anderson – had accepted this as the truth and adopted it as his life story. Whether or not Walters had kidnapped both boys remains a mystery that cannot be confirmed. After all, Anderson had been very young when all these events took place. As for Walters – his lawyer won an appeal, and he was released from prison. He never mentioned a second boy.
Life Goes On
After nearly a century, the identity of the boy who had been raised as Bobby Dunbar was confirmed. But is that enough? Can a mistake like this, that separated two families and caused a mother a lifetime of grief and regret, really be pardoned?
Why had the Dunbars felt like they had to accept a child that they knew, at least on some level, wasn’t their own? Did they want to fill the emptiness their guilt created in them for losing a child, or was it something else? Though many questions were answered over time, others still remain a mystery.
Bobby Dunbar’s story is not the only one that took decades to solve. There’s another child who was in search of the truth: The Hatbox Baby. Read her story below.
The Hatbox Baby Discovers the Truth
Sharon Elliott discovered that she’d been living a lie her whole life. She had been adopted, and it took her all of 55 years to find out. She’d been found in a hatbox in 1931 somewhere in the Arizona desert, earning her the name “Hatbox Baby” in the news.
Ever since, Elliot has been on the hunt for her birth parents, enlisting the help of Arizona Republic journalist John D’Anna. But after 30 years, is the case finally solved?
The Stewarts Find a Treasure
Elliot’s adoptive mother related to her the story of how she was found. On Christmas Eve of 1931, newly-wedded couple, Julia and Ed Stewart, were driving down the desert highway when their car broke down thanks to a flat tire. As Ed got down to fixing it, Julia waited.
As she was looking around, her ears caught the sound of something seemingly out of place in the desert: a high-pitched wailing. Intrigued, the Stewarts decided to follow the sound and investigate.
Maybe a Baby?
After some searching, the Stewarts found a hatbox, and inside the hatbox was a baby, a wailing, red-headed baby in a blue blanket. Shocked with their discovery, they didn’t quite know what to do.
After some deliberation, they decided to take the newborn to the nearest hospital. She was put up for adoption and two months later, was taken in by Faith Morrow and Henry Stieg. She was named Sharon, and Sharon’s story had only just begun.
Uprooted and Untethered
Faith Morrow and Henry Stieg’s marriage didn’t last long, and Faith remarried Arthur Morrow in 1939. Arthur became the father Sharon Elliot never had, and the small family were happy as they built their lives together. But when Elliot was 55 years old, her adoptive mother sprung some shocking news on her: Elliot was not Faith’s real child.
Like any sane person, Elliot was shaken. She felt uprooted from what she had always considered family and suddenly felt estranged from the people she had known all her life. Their family traditions, history, and anecdotes were not hers to own anymore. She was left wondering about the circumstances of her birth, and it was then that she decided to dig deeper.
D’Anna Enters the Hunt
Stunned as she was, Elliot was determined to find out who her biological parents were. Before she died, Faith left Elliot an envelope containing old newspapers and certificates validating her adoption – primary clues for investigating who she was and where she came from. Armed with her adoptive mother’s envelope, Elliot started her hunt by calling the local newspaper.
At that time, John D’Anna worked as an assistant city editor for a small suburban newspaper called Mesa Tribune. The year was 1988, and it was during his tenure as the editor that he received a call from Elliot about being the famous “Hatbox Baby.”
The Hole in Her Heart
After D’Anna started his investigation into Elliot’s story, he became very invested himself. When asked why, his response was: “To be honest, I wanted to be the guy who solved it.” But after getting to know Elliot on a more personal level, it became less about him and more about her – a mission to help a woman find her roots.
D’Anna said, “It got to the point where I cared less about wanting to be the guy who solved it and cared more about wanting to be the guy who solved it for her because she had this void in her life.” But when D’Anna set out to find Elliot’s biological parents, many roadblocks stood in his way.
Courting the Law
D’Anna soon realized that Elliot’s case involved some legalities as well, more specifically, gaining access to her adoption papers, for which he had to appear before the court. “I actually had to wind up going to court myself, and I actually represented myself in front of a judge,” he said, relating the lengths to which he was willing to go to help out Elliot.
Another major hurdle was the lack of technology available at that time for DNA testing. While today’s paternity tests are as simple as spitting in a tube, back then, it was a lot more complicated because the technology was underdeveloped and still required research.
Bonnie Belza Makes Her Appearance
As the years passed by, each lead that they tracked down wound up in a dead-end. D’Anna was starting to lose hope that they would ever find Elliot’s biological parents, and Elliot wasn’t getting any younger either. It wasn’t until 2017 that they got their big break; D’Anna attended a story-telling platform where he met DNA genealogist, Bonnie Belza.
Bonnie was in the audience when D’Anna was telling Elliot’s story. He relayed her fame as the Hatbox Baby, and their quest to find her biological parents. Touched by the story, Bonnie offered D’Anna her services in solving the case. Unsurprisingly, D’Anna was over the moon and couldn’t wait to tell Elliot the good news.
Good News and Bad News
Neither Elliot nor D’Anna were new to the concept of DNA testing, but as times changed, so did technology. D’Anna convinced Elliot to go for the test, and he gave Belza access to Elliot’s DNA account. As he waited for the results, he couldn’t help but be excited – were they finally going to learn the truth about Elliot’s parentage?
At-home DNA kits were now very accessible, and people had the possibility of matching DNA with close or distant relatives from home. When the results came in, there was good and bad news. The good news? Elliot had blood-related relatives, mostly around Davenport, Iowa. The bad news? There were too many entangled family trees.
Swimming in the Gene Pool
Elliot discovered that she had third and fourth cousins in Iowa. But since her cousins were all focused on such a small area, there was the inevitable issue of intermarriage – or what Belza called endogamy in genealogical terms.
The problem that Belza highlighted was that when too many family trees intertwine, it becomes next to impossible to track down the primary source. Spending some time may help detangle the roots, but time was a luxury that Elliot didn’t have much of. Belza, taking into account this factor, was able to quickly work through Elliot’s heritage and found that she had German ancestors. Digging deeper into the gene pool, narrowed down the search to two names: Freda and Walter Roth. Could these be Elliot’s biological parents?
A Silver Lining
With these two names at hand, you might think it would be easier to track down her possible family. But the next big obstacle in their quest was that Freda and Walter Roth had both passed away. It seemed that the investigation had come to a dead end.
But D’Anna was undeterred. He continued poring over old records and data and found that the Roths were married on August 1, 1931 – five months before Elliot was born. Their family history showed another child born to the couple in 1933, two years after Elliot. If Belza’s hunch was correct, it would mean that not only would the Roths be Elliot’s biological parents, she would also have a long-lost brother. Things were finally looking up!
Wanted: Long-Lost Brother
The new information about a possible brother changed the game. Belza was convinced that the Roths were the couple they were looking for, and when matched with her brother’s, Elliot’s DNA would confirm her parentage. Fuelled by Belza’s certainty, D’Anna made a few phone calls but kept Elliot out of the loop. He didn’t want to excite her until he was sure that what they had was legit.
Not wanting to disappoint her, D’Anna continued working to Elliot’s oblivion. By rummaging around, he managed to locate the sibling in question, James Roth. But just their luck! Turned out that James had passed away some time back.
Failure O’ Clock
Even though Elliot’s potential brother was deceased, he had children and grandchildren who were still living. D’Anna thought they could still reach the bottom of this affair if Elliot’s potential family helped out. But the family in question wanted nothing to do with the Hatbox Baby.
Although he felt let down, D’Anna could empathize. A subject such as the one he was investigating, was sensitive and could ruin a whole family’s heritage. Out of respect for Roth’s family, D’Anna decided to step back. He believed it was now time to share his findings with Elliot.
A Missing Puzzle Piece: Emily Dodds
At this point, with so many dead ends, it seemed impossible to know for certain whether Freda and Walter Roth were really Elliot’s biological parents. But to D’Anna’s luck, new evidence turned up, which cemented the Roths as Elliot’s parents: Emily Dodds Farro. Dodds turned out to be Elliot’s biological great-grandniece.
Dodds lived in Iowa, where most of Elliot’s biological family lived. D’Anna had come across Dodd’s ancestry while following up on a lead. He knocked on the door of a woman who was reported to have known the Roths personally, and it turned out to be Elliot’s great-grandniece. With her appearance, D’Anna was able to answer some more questions.
Saying It with Certainty
When he came knocking on Dodds’ door, D’Anna had no idea that she would be the missing link he needed to reach a conclusion on his investigation. He identified her as Elliot’s great-grandniece, and it turned out that she was also adopted and looking for her own birth parents. When Dodds found out that Elliot was her great-aunt, needless to say, she was ecstatic.
With Dodds’ genetic collaboration, D’Anna could say with certainty that he had found what Elliot was dying to know. “When Emily’s profile came into the database, she was connected to Walter and Freda in such a way that it could only have been Walter and Freda,” said D’Anna.
The DNA Speaks for Itself
With Dodds’ involvement, D’Anna was absolute, one hundred percent certain that Freda and Walter Roth were Elliot’s birth parents. How could he be so sure? D’Anna gave the answer himself: “The way we know this is because Freda and Walter were related to somebody who is not related to anybody else by blood,” he said.
“They were related by marriage; somebody in Walter and Freda’s family was only related to them by marriage and not to anybody else. And Emily has some of that DNA.” D’Anna was hesitant in revealing the identity of that relative, but it was enough to identify Elliot’s parentage. “We were one hundred percent certain, and that’s when we let Sharon know,” he recollected.
Poker-Faced About the Findings
Elliot’s reaction to the news was unexpected. You’d think that someone whose life just fell into place after decades of searching – who just found out who she was and where she came from – would be happy about the revelation, or at least cry tears of relief. But Elliot was surprisingly unemotional about the whole ordeal.
As Elliot was presented with facts and newspaper clippings, she remained silent. D’Anna, sensing some inner turmoil, asked her why she wasn’t more excited. Could it be because she had finally found the people who had abandoned her when they were supposed to love and care for her? “Yeah, that could be,” was Elliot’s reply.
Putting Things to Rest
When interviewing Elliot, D’Anna recalled how intense the investigation was – not in terms of effort, but emotions. After all, it couldn’t be easy knowing you had family out there who couldn’t be bothered about you. Elliot knew it could get tough when she asked D’Anna to investigate and, consequently, she had to be prepared for rejection and failure.
Luckily for her, Elliot didn’t just find her birth parents, she found a great-grandniece as well. But throughout, she faced a lot of dismissals and closed doors from her biological parents’ family. Just because they were family by blood, didn’t mean they were family by heart, too. And a truth such as this was one with secrets – which asked to be left alone. But Elliot was content with just knowing.
The Great Depression
One might wonder why Elliot’s parents abandoned her in 1931, that too, in the middle of the Arizona desert. There can only be speculations, but there was historic reasoning which may have encouraged it. The1930s were some of the most difficult years the US had seen. It was a decade of struggle, poverty, and gloom.
During that time, it wasn’t unheard of for struggling, newly-wed couples to abandon their babies. Child abandonment reached epidemic proportions, with abandoned babies being labeled as “doorstep babies.” This term arose when children were increasingly being left in front of churches, hospitals, a neighbor’s house, and fields.
The Plot Thickens
While no child is unloved by its parents, the Great Depression wasn’t kind to many couples and forced them to take drastic measures. We can’t speculate exactly why Freda and Walter Roth left their baby at the mercy of the desert, but D’Anna had a hunch: Elliot was born out of wedlock.
Freda and Walter were married only four months before Elliot was born; perhaps they did so to legitimize their union. But circumstances still pushed them to leave their baby to fend for herself. But if D’Anna’s speculations were true, how did Elliot end up in Arizona when the Roths were from Iowa?
Theories and Speculations
D’Anna’s investigation revealed a column that announced the Roths’ marriage in 1931 and that they were traveling west for an extended time before moving back to Davenport. Using that information, the Roths might have been frequent visitors to the state of Arizona. But if that was so, then how did the young couple, whose car broke down, find Elliot in the desert?
One theory is that Ed and Julia Stewart, the couple who found Elliot on Christmas Eve, fabricated the story. D’Anna mused that perhaps the Stewarts knew that Faith, Elliot’s adoptive mother, wanted a child and also knew that the Roths were in a fix with a child about to be born only four months after their marriage. But this story seems a bit too far-fetched to be true.
The Truth Will Set You Free
Sharon Elliott passed away in 2018 at the age of 86, knowing only half the truth; she had found out who her birth parents were, but she had no conclusive information about the circumstances surrounding her discovery in the desert.
But Elliot was content with whatever she had found. She had lived a life full of love, no matter what her past was like. She had a family, and she passed on to them the principles and values that she had learned from her adoptive mother – the mother who did everything except giving birth to her.
The Investigation Continues
Although Elliot has passed away, D’Anna is still sticking with the case, trying to find out more about Elliot’s ancestry. This dedication stems from more than just wanting to be the first person to solve the case – it’s about keeping the promise he made to Elliot and to himself.
“A story like this may seem like just a feature story about an old mystery case,” he says. “But the impact it made on the lives of two people particularly, Sharon and Emily, it sort of shows the power of what we do and the power of storytelling.”
D’Anna’s Takeaways from His Assignment
Apart from the realization that his assignment had an immense impact on people’s lives, D’Anna took away another key lesson: stories such as Elliot’s remind us who we are and where we come from. A true journalist and storyteller always take his responsibilities seriously and honorably.
“Something else that I think is important as journalists: we’re always told ‘you should never become a part of this story’… I did become a part of this story,” he relates. “I’m not saying we should be involved in every story, but I think that, if we ever stop responding to our sources and our readers and the subjects we write about if we ever stopped responding to them as human beings, then we might as well hang it up.”
Dodds is Still Untethered
While Elliot died in peace knowing who her birth parents were, Elliot’s great-grandniece, Emily Dodds Farro, wasn’t as lucky. She tried contacting her biological family but to no avail. The letters that she wrote to them, hoping for an answer and a welcome, were also returned unopened.
Dodds finally made peace with the fact that her birth parents wanted to keep their lives separate from hers, and she decided to respect that. She sent them a certificate thanking them for giving her a second chance at life.
The Hero of the Day: DNA Analysis
Dunbar and Elliot’s stories are not the only ones solved by DNA analysis. There are many more stories that were buried away because they seemed impossible to solve – only to have DNA analysis come along to save the day.
With technology and constant research, many old cases have resurfaced as investigation teams realize that even with the subjects having passed away years ago, it is still possible to reach answers. We will see many old skeletons being dug back up as, one by one, even seemingly unsolvable mysteries are solved.