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

Lashed by frigid rain, two hikers, wrapped in thick parkas and carrying heavy packs, stopped abruptly on their trek across the glacial ice of Mount Sanford, Alaska. “Oh my God,” the first man said, looking down at the rock-strewn ice before him. His friend caught up, and then he stared in horror too. A perfectly preserved human arm poked out of the ice, the alabaster hand pointing north by northwest.

It was July 1999, and the hikers were pilots who had made several trips to the icy Alaskan mountainside in an attempt to solve the puzzle of Northwest Airlines Flight 4422, one of the most mysterious crashes in­ commercial-aviation history. After taking off from Anchorage on a clear night in March 1948, the chartered DC-4 had slammed into the western face of a 16,000-foot peak, burst into flames and plummeted down the mountain’s icy flank, breaking into pieces on the glacier. The 24 passengers—all merchant mariners who had sailed an oil tanker from the U.S. to Shanghai and were on their way to New York—were presumed dead, along with six crew members. Legend had it that the plane was carrying gold bullion. But within days of the crash, snow and ice had completely covered the wreckage. For more than 50 years, the mountain kept the plane’s secret.

Until now.

The frozen arm had no tattoos, no rings, no identifying marks of any kind. Some family members of the missing had been waiting for closure on this accident for decades, and everyone wanted to know: Whose arm was it?

In 2007, when the mystery still hadn’t been solved, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory contacted Colleen Fitzpatrick, a nuclear physicist who was building a new career as a forensic genealogist, tracking missing people through vital records, family history and DNA. If anyone could help break the mysterious Arm in the Snow case, it was Fitzpatrick.

At five feet two inches tall, with tousled curls and rimless eyeglasses, Fitzpatrick emanates laser-sharp intelligence and unselfconscious warmth. She favors hugs, not handshakes, and her preferred work clothes are jeans rolled up at the ankle, scuffed black slip-ons and little makeup. In the Huntington Beach, California, house she shares with her partner, Andy Yeiser, Fitzpatrick keeps a decades-old pet African tortoise named Thing Three (after a character in the Dr. Seuss book The Cat in the Hat), who will daintily take a pink hibiscus blossom from your hand and eat it, and a California desert tortoise dubbed Thing Four. She swings her pet parrot, Sikiru, to sleep every night after feeding it a snack of M&M’s.

Her personal habits may be eccentric, but Fitzpatrick’s methodical, unyielding style of work has allowed her to build a reputation as one of the best DNA detectives in the country. She combines high-tech DNA analysis with the skills of an old-fashioned gumshoe, combing birth and death certificates, newspaper articles and church and cemetery records—and making calls to distant continents far into the night. Since switching professions in 2005, she has solved a variety of cases, from helping identify the remains of a baby who died in 1912 to locating owners of unclaimed property. “I can usually find anyone around the world in two steps,” she boasts today. But when the Arm in the Snow mystery landed on her desk, it was by far her most complex case.

Fitzpatrick never set out to be a DNA detective, but she’s always had a passion for science. As a kid in New Orleans, she was the classic high school geek, more interested in preparing an optical-illusion project for the science fair than in finding a date for the senior prom. “I wasn’t Miss Popular,” she says. “I pretty much was the science club.”

She got her PhD in nuclear physics from Duke University in 1983, then taught at Sam Houston State University in Texas before moving to California to work for a defense firm. In 1989 she started her own optics company in her garage. The company flourished, and she hired seven scientists to help her develop and test a range of products, from medical devices to laser measurement equipment for NASA.

Fitzpatrick loved her lab, with its shiny steel optical table and various lasers, mirrors and lenses. She enjoyed sending beams of light dancing across the table to test the hermetic seals on pacemakers. But most of all, she loved the people. “They were like me: academics, scientists, always looking for new ideas, interested in art, literature, the humanities and travel,” she says.

With these friends, Fitzpatrick pursued numerous eclectic interests. They packed up telescopes and traveled around the globe to six solar eclipses. She was a contestant on Jeopardy!, where she nailed the science questions but finished second to a shirt salesman who beat her on French literature. She took knife-throwing lessons from the Great Throwdini and studied Japanese to add to the foreign languages she already spoke fluently: French, German and Spanish. (She’s also conversant in Italian, Russian and Chinese and says she can “limp along” in Swedish, Portuguese and Dutch.)

In 2005 her company seemed to be on the brink of a big break. “We were named to a team designing the next spacecraft to Jupiter,” she says. “I was in a position to be the technical manager for all the environmental sensors on the flight.” Then NASA shifted priorities and canceled the Jupiter project. The loss of the contract, along with other setbacks, forced Fitzpatrick to close the company and sell some of her equipment.

“It was pretty rough,” she recalls. “That company was my baby.”

Discouraged, she kept asking herself, What could I have done differently?  She spent her days moping. “I didn’t go to the lab,” she says. “I just stayed home. I felt in despair.”

“She’d yell at me,” says Yeiser, a retired physicist and computer engineer who has always been her emotional bulwark.

The bad times got worse. Fitzpatrick’s best friend died of breast cancer. Her scientist colleagues moved on to other jobs. “There were many days when I felt like the center of my life was gone,” she says. “I cried a lot. I felt embarrassed among my peers. When you fail, everyone looks at your flaws.”

Fitzpatrick had one island of sanity, though: During her years in the lab, she had dabbled in genealogy, which has interested her ever since she was a child. At 13, she’d found a yellowing marriage certificate in her grandmother’s house and eventually traced her family’s roots to a 17th-century French village. In 2002, in her spare time, she began work on a book, Forensic Genealogy, and was thrilled when a publisher offered her a contract. The book “was my sedative,” she says. A 220-page guide for professionals and amateurs, it explained how to examine old photographs and documents and use public records and DNA data­bases to trace family history.

When Fitzpatrick’s manuscript was ready for publication, “the publisher decided that forensic genealogy was passé,” she says. The company canceled the contract, and Fitzpatrick fell back into a depression.

Yeiser didn’t let her dwell on it. “Let’s just publish it ourselves,” he said.

They researched different papers, inks and distributors and hired a printer. Then they dug into their savings, investing $3,500 to print 500 copies of Forensic Genealogy. Fitzpatrick promoted the book at a genealogy conference in Maine. Sitting at a booth in a convention hall crammed with displays for family tree software, cemetery-database CDs, maps and photo-repair services, she thought, I’m wasting my time; nobody’s going to buy my book. Suddenly a man stopped, thumbed through a copy and got out his wallet. Fitzpatrick tried to stay calm, but she was ecstatic. She wrote inside the front cover, “This is the first book I ever sold! Colleen Fitzpatrick.”

By the end of the conference, she’d found 35 buyers and pocketed $1,000.

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.

“A lot of people would have given up,” says Mike Coble, research director of the Armed Forces lab. But Fitzpatrick, he says, was “relentless.”

Independent fingerprint experts had concurrently identified the frozen arm, but for Fitzpatrick, this wasn’t just about solving a case; she wanted to establish a human connection. In 2008 she visited Ireland and stood at the memorial to Frank Van Zandt’s grandmother. “All the spirits, the ghosts were standing there with me. They said, ‘It’s over. You can go home.’ And they all breathed one big sigh,” she says.

Since then, Fitzpatrick has become a star in the small field of forensic genealogy, often taking on higher-profile cases pro bono. “It’s not lucrative,” she says, “but satisfying.” She traced a man who had fled to Australia after his involvement with the 1920s Teapot Dome bribery scandal that swirled around President Warren G. Harding, and she assisted in uncovering two literary hoaxes connected with the Holocaust. She is currently investigating the identity of a man with amnesia who was found beaten and naked next to a Dumpster behind a Georgia Burger King in 2004. She is also one of a team of scientists investigating clandestine graves at crime sites, including the ranch of the notorious killer Charles Manson.

What Fitzpatrick values even more than the science, though, is another aspect of her work: It allows her to glimpse both the physical and the spiritual link between all humans. “To see the hand in the snow and know he’s connected to someone is the reward,” she says. “You’re solving a human mystery, and humans are the ultimate mystery.”

Lynn Rosselini is a writer based in Washington, D.C.
Originally published as The DNA Detective in the June 2010 issue of More.
Click here to read more about Colleen Fitzpatrick’s casework.
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First Published Fri, 2010-04-23 14:07

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