From Physicist to Forensic Genealogist

Colleen Fitzpatrick spent years in the lab as a nuclear physicist, until a series of setbacks nudged her in the direction of her passion: genealogy and tracking missing persons.

By Lynn Rosellini
forensic genealogy image
Former nuclear physicist Colleen Fitzpatrick tracks down missing people.
Photograph: Photo: Jessica Haye and Clark Hsiao

After that, her new career took off. She set up forensicgenealogy.info, which now gets hundreds of hits a day, and began tracking down missing heirs and owners for an international investment company that specialized in unclaimed property. She wrote a column for Ancestry magazine, as well as articles for Family Chronicle and Games, and created a weekly forensic photo puzzle for her Web site. She launched a second site, identifinders.com, to promote her business of tracking down missing persons. Her book went into a second and then a third printing, and she wrote and published two more, one of which was funded by a DNA-testing company. She accepted invitations to speak at science, history and genealogy conferences and gradually patched together a living from book sales, speeches and the unclaimed-property work.

The process of tracking down a person’s identity is like being caught in a “tractor beam,” she says. “I’m compelled, almost addicted to it. I pick up the thread, and I’ve got to follow it.” By 2007 she had tracked down more than 80 people around the globe who owned unclaimed property, and had helped identify the remains of the Unknown Child of the Titanic, a 19-month-old boy whose body was recovered from the sunken ship. But nothing proved to be as challenging as the Arm in the Snow case.

The Armed Forces lab had access to the DNA sample from the frozen limb, but DNA means nothing unless you can compare it with a living relative’s. So Fitzpatrick worked with other scientists to track down as many descendants of the victims of the Northwest Airlines flight as possible. Independent fingerprint experts also worked on the case, and six months later, the team had eliminated 28 of the 30 people on board the doomed plane. That meant the arm could have belonged to either of two remaining passengers. One of them was Frank Van Zandt, a merchant mariner from Bennington, Vermont.

“I turned over every piece of paper in the state of Vermont,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “I checked census records, obituaries, newspaper stories. I looked up city directories in Bennington-Arlington. I called all the churches, searching for marriage records, burial records, baptismal registries, First Communions.”

Nothing.

Then she found a marriage certificate for Van Zandt’s brother, which said his mother, Margaret Conway, was born in 1876 in “Timerick,” Ireland. Figuring this referred to Limerick, Fitzpatrick pored over the Irish birth registration and found records for all the Margaret Conways born from 1872 to 1876. Still nothing.

In bed at night, she kept going over it in her mind: Where is this woman?

Like any good detective, Fitzpatrick relies on intuition as well as shoe leather. After weeks of dead ends, she suddenly had a hunch: What if Conway had lied about her age? Checking earlier dates, she finally found a birth record for a Margaret Conway born in 1871 to John Conway and Ellen Drum.

The name Drum was extinct in the areas around Limerick, so Fitzpatrick started calling Conways, asking, “Are you related to a family named Drum?” Scores of calls later, she telephoned an elderly machine oiler named Maurice Conway in the village of Askeaton.

“I’m trying to identify the remains of a serviceman . . . ” This time there was silence on the line. Then Conway’s voice replied in a thick Irish accent, “Could you call me back tomorrow?” The next day, the man told her that the Conway cemetery was across from his house and that he’d found a tombstone there dedicated by John Conway to the memory of his wife, Ellen. “The family information on the stone matched everything we knew about the Conways,” says Fitzpatrick. Ellen was Maurice’s great-great-grandmother’s sister. She was also Frank Van Zandt’s grandmother.

“Maurice,” Fitzpatrick said with a sigh, “I’ve been looking for you all over the world.”

A few weeks later, a DNA test on Maurice Conway confirmed the link. The arm belonged to Van Zandt. Fitzpatrick cries when she tells the story. “Frank Van Zandt was a serviceman, a real hero,” she says.

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