Not stolen as a baby, but 50 years later Paul Fronczak remains somewhat lost
BY STEFANO ESPOSITO Staff Reporter April 26, 2014 9:38AM
Paul Fronczak of Henderson, Nev., looks over documents of his case from his home on Friday, Apr. 25, 2014. (Martin S. Fuentes/For Sun-Times Media)
Can you help?
If you have information about the Paul Fronczak case, call the FBI’s Chicago office at 312-421-6700 or 800-CALL-FBI.
Updated: May 28, 2014 6:22AM
This weekend, Paul Fronczak will blow out candles for a 50th birthday celebration — with a name on the cake that doesn’t belong to him, accepting congratulations for a milestone that perhaps isn’t his either.
And then, almost certainly, he’ll retreat to his suburban Las Vegas home office to sift through his latest batch of emails — consumed with a 50-year-old double mystery: What’s his true identity and who is the real Paul Fronczak?
“I only have one life,” he said. “If it’s my mission to solve these two mysteries, then I’ll do it until I’m dead. I’m hopeful it won’t take that long.”
Fifty years ago Sunday, a woman disguised as a nurse walked into Michael Reese Hospital on Chicago’s Near South Side and took baby Paul from the arms of his unsuspecting mother. That, in a case that made international headlines, was the last time Dora Fronczak saw her newborn or the kidnapper again.
About a year later, anguish turned to elation when an abandoned toddler turned up outside a New Jersey variety store. Even though there weren’t fingerprints to prove it, Dora and Chester Fronczak of Oak Lawn believed the child was theirs, eventually adopting him.
The boy who grew up with Paul Fronczak’s name convinced his parents in late 2012 to submit to DNA testing, proving something he’d long suspected — he wasn’t their biological son.
For the happily married father of a preschooler, life since has been “hectic, confusing” and, at times, very painful, he said this week. The media glare that his parents loathed has returned. The FBI reopened the case. Sketches of what an adult Paul Fronczak might look like have drawn four hopefuls out of the woodwork. DNA testing eliminated two, with Fronczak doubtful about the other two.
And Fronczak’s adoptive parents, who still remember news-hungry reporters shimmying up telephone poles outside their home 50 years ago, provided their DNA but want nothing more to do with the search.
“It’s been really tough,” Fronczak says. “I’ve called them a few times. The phone calls are really brief. They never talk about what’s happened. It’s like an elephant in the room.”
Despite the rift — and the fact that his wife doesn’t like how much time the search consumes — Fronczak plows ahead.
“When everyone goes to bed, I’ll hit the tip lines and [a dedicated] Facebook page,” he said. “There are always new tips coming in.”
Perhaps the most promising lead came in June 2013. A relative of a Midwest man who saw the stolen baby’s age-progression sketch on national TV contacted Fronczak. The sketch looked a lot like her adopted father and, mysteriously, she’d discovered her grandmother had a collection of newspaper clippings about the Fronczak case.
Two months ago, DNA ruled the man out.
“Every time you get a lead, you get hopeful,” said Fronczak. “DNA said: Nope, sorry — next.”
Testing also ruled out a man from Dallas, Texas, who was “the spitting image” of the baby kidnapped from Michael Reese, Fronczak said.
If the kidnapped baby ever surfaces — or the woman who snatched him — Fronczak doubts it will be thanks to the FBI. He says he’s unimpressed with the two Chicago agents working the case — one very young, the other “one foot out the door in retirement.”
Joan Hyde, a spokeswoman for the Chicago FBI office, said, “Working a 50-year-old case presents special challenges. Memories often fade over time, witnesses may have left the area or may have passed away, and potential additional physical evidence of the crime may no longer exist. Even with those challenges, this case is being worked diligently by dedicated members of the Chicago FBI’s Violent Crimes Task Force, which combines the vast experience and resources of the FBI, Chicago Police Department and Cook County sheriff’s police.”
Hyde said she couldn’t share specifics about how the case is progressing.
“Obviously, we’ve not brought any charges yet,” she said. “We continue to receive leads, we continue to pursue leads and we remain hopeful the right information will get to us. Our job is to identify and hopefully bring to justice the person who committed the underlying crime, the kidnapping.”
The search for Fronczak’s own roots has led to some peculiar dead ends.
One woman told Fronczak she’s certain he’s the illegitimate son of President Richard Nixon’s eldest daughter.
Another claimed Fronczak is the child of a “mafia kingpin who had an affair with some Jewish woman,” Fronczak said.
The tipster wasn’t entirely off base.
Fronczak has discovered, through DNA testing, that he’s 40 percent Jewish. He grew up Catholic and attended Marist High School on the Southwest Side.
Two months ago, through that testing, Fronczak found a second cousin living in New York State. He also was adopted and never knew his birth parents.
The two men were due to meet in February. The man took sick suddenly, succumbing to a blood clot.
“The sad news is, unfortunately, he passed away before we met,” Fronczak said. “The good news is we have his DNA and we’re working with that. I’m thankful his widow and children are forging ahead with solving the case.”
Megan Lindsey, director of public policy and education with the National Council For Adoption in Alexandria, Virginia, said finding a second cousin is a “fairly optimistic” sign, but perhaps not the last obstacle to Fronczak discovering his identity.
“If it was a case of abandonment, it may not be something that (other) family members were aware of,” Lindsey said. “So tracking that information to the exact parent may be more difficult, depending on whether they are alive, if there were siblings . . . and if and who was told, and when.”
And so the search goes on.
On Saturday, Fronczak planned to pause for a quiet birthday dinner with his family and some close friends at home. Icing will spell out his name on the cake.
“Even growing up, Paul just never felt like it was my name,” he says.
And when the celebrating is over, when his 5-year-old daughter Emma is tucked up in bed, he’ll log onto his computer and resume the search.
“Every night, rain or shine,” he said.