ON THE WEB
NORTH FORT MYERS — So much power in a single scrap of paper. In a line of numerals more important than a bank balance or a social security number.
Troy Dunn of North Fort Myers had just written down the phone number his mother Katie had been trying to uncover for nearly 20 years. It was the link to her birth mother, who had given her up for adoption and methodically nailed shut every door behind her, like the mother of Hansel and Gretel might have done, following silently behind her trusting children in the dark woods to collect the bread crumbs they were leaving in their own footprints to create a safe passage back into her arms.
Over two decades, Katie had filled a shoebox with her own crumbs, not of bread, but of paper: lists and notes and scraps with handwritten clues, a tiny coffin stuffed with question marks. But once her son Troy carried the shoebox to an acquaintance who had just traced his own birth family, it took the two of them less than six hours to wade their way through the layers of time and shame.
Dunn remembers asking his mother if she was sitting down, and then telling her that he was holding a piece of paper with the phone number of her birth mother, Barbara, of Arkansas.
“It was really quiet for about ten seconds,” he recalls, “and then she began to weep in a way I had never heard before. That’s what started it all for me.”
That string of numbers pulled Dunn, already working as a private investigator specializing in insurance fraud, into a decision to make it his mission to reunite families instead of — as he describes it now — “sitting in a van with a zoom lens in 95-degree heat, waiting for a guy in a neck brace to start jumping on a trampoline.”
Dunn’s real-life reunions are the centerpiece of “The Locator” television series, which entered its fifth season at 10 p.m. Saturday on the WEtv cable network.
Potential for devastation
Dunn never would have approved the televising of his own mother’s attempt to connect with her birth mother. Both the person searching and the person who has been located using a variety of investigative tools must agree to an on-camera meeting, he has stipulated.
He learned to be careful from his own family case. When a trembling Katie Dunn asked her son to make that first call to her birth mother, Dunn naively expected “a magical moment,” he remembers. But these were Barbara’s burning words: “If I had known it was going to call me, I would have aborted it.”
Dunn learned from his mother’s devastating rejection to be protective when trying to knit two hearts together. To be successful, both parties have to be willing to reunite. Only those reunions are taped for “The Locator,” which WEtv network publicist Kelly Caton says is the network’s most-watched program.
An episode airing Nov. 27 features 39-year-old Kelly Piechota of Houston, Texas, who was adopted four days after she was born the week of Mother’s Day, 1971 by a couple in their 30s who had never been able to have children. It was a closed adoption, unlike so many adoptions today.
When Piechota was 15, her adoptive mom died of cancer, so, she recalled, “I felt like I had lost two moms. I knew I was wanted and loved, but I always felt like I was looking in from the outside. I wondered what it was like to be connected with someone by blood ... what I had inherited, both physical and emotional tendencies.”
Several years ago, after seeing an episode of “The Locator,” Piechota put her name on Troy Dunn’s website www.troyslist.org, a free registry for people hoping to locate someone. What Piechota didn’t know was that her birth mother had signed up on the same registry, hoping to find her lost daughter.
“It was the first match on the registry,” says Piechota. “Troy’s people verified the match, then his mom, Katie, got hold of me on Facebook and asked if I’d be willing to meet with Troy, to make sure.”
A breathtaking meeting
During Mother’s Day week this year, Dunn flew from Fort Myers to Houston to meet with Piechota at her home.
“It was like talking with an old friend,” she recalls. “He was so genuine, so caring and humble. Troy meets everyone before telling you that someone is out there. What really struck me is that he wasn’t trying to grab anything heart-wrenching from me for ratings. This is his calling.”
At the end of their talk, Dunn told Piechota he would take her case and asked her to meet him the next day for an exit interview at a hotel in Houston. Once there, she recalls, “When he told me that my birth mom, Christine, had been looking for me my whole life, I was immediately in tears.
“Then he said, ‘She’s right behind you.’ We couldn’t have run to each other fast enough! We have the same build, the same hands ... it was a wonderful, wonderful moment.”
Piechota found out she has an older sister and a younger brother ... and Christine learned she has four more grandchildren. After returning home to Davenport, Iowa, Christine visited the grave of her daughter’s adoptive mom, says Piechota, “to thank her for taking care of me.”
Back in Fort Myers, the 43-year-old Dunn says he gets between 3,000 and 5,000 reunion requests weekly through www.troyslist.org. Working mostly from home so he can spend quality time with his wife Jennifer, 41, and their seven children, he relies on a team of researchers and investigators to assist with those requests.
Dunn doesn’t know if there will be another season of “The Locator.” Lately, he says, he is being “aggressively pursued” by several TV syndicators to develop and host a daytime talk show.
“It has been a tremendous blessing to be able to reconnect fractured families,” reflects Dunn, a Mormon. “But there are many fractured families who don’t need reuniting, they need rebuilding. I feel a responsibility to do that.”
“It’s a myth,” he adds, “that time heals all wounds. That’s just not true with wounds of the heart.”