The extraordinary, intertwined cases of two missing baby boys have been solved after nearly 60 years thanks to DNA-testing websites, an explosive new documentary has revealed.
The Lost Sons tells the tale of Paul Fronczak, now 57, who was taken from a Chicago hospital as a newborn in 1964.
Fifteen months later he was allegedly found as a toddler in a mall in New Jersey and joyfully reunited with his frantic parents who claimed to recognise him, sparking headlines around the world.
Newspapers at the time quoted Dora Fronczak as saying, “that’s my baby”.
The movie by CNN Films and RAW who previously collaborated on Three Identical Strangers, a 2018 documentary about triplets separated at birth and raised apart, goes on to reveal that the man raised as Fronczak was in fact another missing boy called Jack Rosenthal, who had gone missing along with his twin sister Jill when they were two-years-old.
The real Paul Fronczak was living in Manton, Michigan, and rechristened Kevin Baty.
Both had grown up under names that were not their own.
The incredibly complicated tale examines questions about identity, family, nurture over nature and the controversial, and increasingly common topic, of private DNA testing and the impact it is having on society.
Fronczak, previously Rosenthal, who wrote a 2017 memoir, The Foundling, that the film is based on, told Deadline that he wanted to get to the bottom of the story “no matter what the cost is” because he “can’t live a lie”.
“It’s always better to know the truth than to think you know what it is, and live with the possibilities in your head”, he said.
“It’s a work in progress because I’ve learned so much about what makes me, me, and really, it’s going to help me, I think, moving forward. Because when you have that part missing, it’s really hard to grow as a person, at least to be the fullest person that you can be.”
Director Ursula Macfarlane told Variety: “You could not make it up. If you wrote this as a scripted piece, people would say that’s not believable.”
She added: “I was very interested in ideas of family and is it nature or nurture that shapes us? Is it genes or blood?”
At home DNA testing kits have exploded in the US, and to a lesser extent in the UK, in the last few years.
One study by The University of Oxford in 2016 found that there were around 246 genetics-testing companies selling kits around the world, from giants like AncestryDNA and 23andme to “Who’zTheDaddy?”, and are generally fairly unregulated.
By 2027 the genomics industry will be worth an estimated $31billion.
In 2019, The MIT Technology Review estimated that 26 million Americans had taken a consumer DNA test, allowing researchers to technically track the genes of every single citizen, through their relations.
Many genealogists have raised concerns over the potential side-effects of the technology, from reported racial profiling, ‘faux science’ likened to sometimes be as accurate as a horoscope, to private companies sharing DNA profiles with law enforcement to solve cold cases, to simply the end of family secrets.
In 2018, The American Psychology Association published an article examining the psychological impact of discovering you are not biologically related to a parent, sibling or child – a fairly common phenomenon that allegedly affects between 1-30 per cent of families around the world.
Stephanie Pappas wrote: “…for many people not expecting to find any surprises in their DNA, the experience of mailing off a spit sample and discovering that their family is not as they thought it was can be profoundly disorienting – even life-changing.”
It can also have legal consequences, not just for you, but for descendants you may never meet, in decades to come.
In 2018, DNA testing was famously used to identify a suspect in the notorious case of the ‘Golden State Killer’, leading to the arrest of Joseph James Deangelo, now 75, on suspicion of at least 13 murders, 50 rapes and 120 burglaries across California between 1973 and 1986.
He pleaded guilty to multiple counts of murder and kidnapping in June last year and was sentenced to life without parole.
Deangelo was identified not because he himself had been looking to identify his own genetic background, but because a distant relative had, allowing police to build a family tree and use public records to identify potential suspects.
Malia Fullerton, an expert in DNA forensics and ethics at the University of Washington, told The New York Times at the time of his arrest: “This is really tough. He was a horrible man and it is good that he was identified, but does the end justify the means?”
Peter Neufeld, a co-founder of The Innocence Project, which uses DNA to exonerate people who were wrongly convicted, told The Times: “There is a whole generation that says, ‘I don’t really care about privacy’. No one has thought about what are the possible consequences.”
Whilst the majority of testing companies claim that they won’t release details to law enforcement, some officers have been found to have used the sites by setting up a private account and uploading crime scene DNA, and other companies have quietly changed their fine print in the last few years.
In 2019, The Pentagon allegedly instructed members of the US military to avoid using at-home DNA testing kits, citing concerns of mass surveillance and the potential for private companies to “exploit genetic materials for questionable purposes”.
Even in the search for a cold case killer, there are not always happy endings, with the potential for multiple innocent bystanders to be affected.
In 2015, The Guardian reported on a murder in Italy that rocked the small town of Brembate di Sopra when Yara Gambirasio, 13, was brutally murdered back in 2010.
Police had identified a possible male profile from DNA left on her clothing and spent four years testing thousands of local residents trying to identify him through distant relatives, including exhuming a body, and causing a toxic atmosphere of suspicion amongst the local community, as well as exposing multiple affairs and illegitimate children that had devastating impacts on several families, not all directly connected to the investigation.
Marriages broke down, children cut off parents, one woman was beaten up multiple times.
Piero Bonicelli, the editor of newspaper Araberara, said the experience was like taking the lid off “an open sewer.”
For Fronczak and The Lost Sons, it isn’t a Hollywood ending.
They reached Baty in time for him to meet his biological mother Dora in 2018, but he sadly died of cancer last year.
A devastating loss director Ursula Macfarlane compares to them losing him “twice”.
His April 2020 obituary is very carefully worded.
It reads: “Kevin was born on March 14, 1964 and was raised in the Lake City/Manton area by his parents Robert and Lorraine Fountain.”
His actual birth date was April 25, the date he died aged 56. His mother died in 2004.
Fronczak’s biological parents have already died and his siblings aren’t willing to say why he was abandoned though other relatives say that the couple’s children were neglected and abused.
But his quest goes on, to find his twin, Jill.
Fronczak said in an earlier interview: “Everything I’ve heard from other members of my family, pretty much made it clear to me that me and my twin sister Jill were abused, neglected and ultimately I was abandoned. And if she wasn’t murdered by them, then she’s still out there.”