Local ‘DNA Hunter’ helps people follow the branches of their family trees
Mary Eberle is the founder of DNA Hunters, an independent genealogy business she formed seven years ago to help people use their DNA test results to unearth their family roots and find their unknown parents and relatives.
When parts of a family tree are missing, finding them often requires patience, vulnerability and a readiness for revelations. The advent of the internet and its growing genealogy and record databases has paved a modern path to the age-old answers many seek, but they often leave people with only pieces of the full story. For many seekers in Madison and beyond, that’s where the local “DNA Hunter” comes in.
Madison-based retired real estate developer Kate Stalker always knew she was adopted.
Most nights as a child in Chicago, when her parents tucked her into bed, they would tell her about how “they went to the orphanage and were looking at all the babies and saying, ‘No, no, not that one, not that one,’ ” she recalls. “But then they saw me and said, ‘This is the one we want.’ So I knew early on that I was chosen and special, which is important for adopted people.”
Still, she had an itch to know about her biological family. So, at the age of 35, she wrote to the adoption department of Catholic Charities in Chicago. “They told me things about my mother, like she was 6 feet tall, she had black hair, she had one sister, she had a brother who died of a brain tumor in April of the year [I was] born,” she recalls. “So I started going from cemetery to cemetery finding all the people who died in April of that year who were the right age. And then when I found [her brother], I found out who paid for the grave … and then I called the church where the funeral was.”
Through this detective work, she found a first cousin in the early 1990s. When she called him, “Of course, he didn’t believe me — he thought I was lying,” she says. “He accused me of trying to scam his aunt for money.”
Eventually, the cousin came around and Stalker met him and his siblings for lunch.
Later, she got her mother’s address from the cousins. “I wrote to her and she told me not to contact her again,” she remembers.
Then, about five years later, her cousins told Stalker that her mother had died, so she reached out to her biological brothers for the first time. “But they thought I was lying, too, until the cousins told them it was the truth,” she says.
Through all of this, her mother’s family gave her the scant information they had about her biological father — “that he was tall, Irish and a swimmer who worked in medical instrument sales” — but she figured with so little known about him, it was pointless to try to find him.
That’s when Stalker was contacted by someone named Mary Eberle, a Monona resident she knew through friends.
“I think I can help you find your father, if you want,” Eberle told Stalker. That was 2015 and, little did Stalker know, she was about to become the first client of Eberle’s new business, DNA Hunters.
Hunting for Answers
Mary Eberle is the founder of DNA Hunters, an independent genealogy business she formed seven years ago to help people like Stalker use their DNA test results to unearth their family roots and find their unknown parents and relatives. For $175/hour and a minimum of 12 hours, Eberle works one on one with clients to research, decipher and interpret the puzzling genealogy clues of their past. She also hosts webinars and workshops where she teaches others how to interpret their results from companies such as Ancestry, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA and MyHeritage, and dig into old records.
Eberle worked with DNA long before she founded DNA Hunters. During the ’80s and ’90s, around the time Stalker was discovering a first cousin, Eberle was working as a scientist in a few different labs. After law school, she was a patent attorney specializing in biotechnology and worked with inventors of DNA, proteins and modified DNA sequences.
She was also a family genealogy hobbyist who had spent years learning about her own ancestors and traveling to where they had lived. One night, she happened to catch the TV show “Finding Your Roots” on PBS Wisconsin, and something clicked.
“That’s when I realized that people were combining DNA with genealogy — two of these things I loved,” she says. “From there, I thought, ‘I could actually do this as a business.’ ”
Today when a new client calls, the first thing Eberle asks is that they have their DNA tested through Ancestry to begin reviewing their matches and building a family tree. That was also the first step she took with Stalker during that founding case.
“I took a DNA test and [Eberle] taught me the basics of what I needed to do,” Stalker says. “And I got as far as I could, and then I would call her and she figured out something else. And we just kept working at it for quite a long time. I think it took a year and a half to figure out who [my biological father] was.”
The reason it took so long was that Eberle found just one DNA match anywhere close to Stalker — that of a fourth cousin. “I had to build that cousin’s tree back to her third great-grandparents, and then build it forward to the present, ruling out people one by one,” Eberle says.
Eventually, she landed on two half-brothers, one of whom could’ve been Stalker’s father. She also found one of the granddaughters of that potential father in Massachusetts. “She agreed to take the DNA test on the condition of anonymity because her mother, who is my only sister, did not want to know anything about it,” Stalker explains. “So she took a DNA test and we proved to be niece and aunt. And that’s how it was solved.”
In this first case, the challenges Stalker faced in her hunt for family helped Eberle decide on this work as a career. “For me, it’s the problem-solving, putting the pieces together and getting to the bottom of a mystery,” she says. “It’s very satisfying to provide answers to people’s lifelong questions.”
For Stalker, the doors that DNA has unlocked have led to fascinating new questions to pursue. “It’s not about being adopted anymore because that part’s done,” she explains. “But once you get into DNA, you never come to the end of the line; there’s always more to learn. You start to see patterns, like when the Austrian Empire came in, and families left and went to another country, or when the Nazis came in and your family migrated somewhere else, or when you have Swedish DNA, and you don’t know where it came from. There’s always more to discover, so you’re never really finished.”
Seekers From All Over the Country
Stalker was local, but Eberle soon found herself fielding requests from people all over the country. Like the one she got a few years ago from Lucinda Davis, who lives in Arizona.
Davis told Eberle she had never had any reason to question her family tree. Her mom was her mom and her dad was her dad — that was it.
Except it wasn’t.
“I had been doing my own family research since I was in my early 20s because my father — as I knew him — died when I was 8, and I had always wanted to know more about him,” Davis explains.
Over the years, she kept digging but didn’t learn much about her father’s side of her family beyond finding out that a few of them were among the early settlers of California. Still, her curiosity pushed her forward and, in 2012 and 2013 respectively, she took DNA tests through Ancestry and FamilyTreeDNA.
“I thought it would be fun to see who I matched with because I knew very little about that side of my family,” says Davis.
But when she got her results, the findings left her puzzled. “I looked at those results for a couple of years,” she says. “I had gotten some different matches here and there, but I could not figure out why I wasn’t seeing what I expected to see.”
Because her mother had died a few years before, Davis had no one to answer her questions. So, in 2015, she decided to turn to a professional for help — specifically Eberle.
“We exchanged a number of emails,” says Davis. “[Eberle] looked at my family tree on Ancestry, she looked at my matches very closely, she did more research and had me post my results to other DNA-sequencing sites.”
A couple weeks later, Eberle called with a shocking update.
“She told me, very kindly, ‘I’m going to theorize that your biological father wasn’t who you think it was,’ ” Davis says.
At Eberle’s suggestion, Davis asked one of her known cousin matches to see if other relatives would get their DNA tested to narrow down her paternal family tree. “Thankfully, they agreed because they wanted to give me that peace of mind,” she says.
By the time those tests were done, Davis had found two new half-siblings and the life-changing result she’d begun to suspect: “As it turns out, I’m not a Davis at all — I’m an Owens!” she says with a laugh.
Davis learned that her biological father was a man named Earl Owens. She suspects Owens connected with her mother while she and the man Davis thought was her father were married and traveling around the country as magicians and dancers.
Davis says it took a while to process what she’d learned.
“Intellectually, I knew it was all true, but emotionally, I had no way to deal with it,” she explains. “So I wrote a book about it.” Davis says writing “The Magician’s Daughter” about her parents’ career as performers and her journey to discover unknown relatives was an act of cathartic journaling.
She’s grateful for the kinship she now has with some of her new relatives. But she also finds relief in knowing she’s not alone in having a few previously unknown branches of her family tree sprout up.
“Mine is like a lot of families that have these little secrets,” she says. “People take these DNA tests to find out how Polish or German they are — well, they’re going to find out a few other things as well. And there’s no hiding it — the DNA doesn’t lie.”
Delicate Next Steps
As Eberle works to examine potential family branches, part of the discovery process involves finding people who could lead to other people — if they’re willing to talk. First, she needs to find them.
“In the case where someone knows who their mom is — like Lucinda [Davis] — we’ll likely have a tree for the maternal side with those matches on Ancestry, so we can tag them as maternal,” she explains. “From there, we’ll have other matches as well that are likely paternal because you’ve pulled out the ones that are maternal.”
As she goes, Eberle is “building the tree back in time for those matches to find those common ancestors,” she says. “And then you’re building the tree forward in time to see which of their descendants is the birth parent.”
Then she’s looking for the gender of the person she’s hunting and the correct time frame. Sometimes, location helps and sometimes it’s “not the right place,” she continues. “People move around and pass through different areas — the father might have been passing through a place or was visiting family or was in the military.”
When Eberle locates who she thinks might be the potential birth parent, she talks with her client about how to delicately take the next steps in making contact. “That’s when we reach out to the potential birth family and ask them to take a DNA test,” she says.
“If it’s a close relative, like the potential birth father, then I will have my clients reach out,” she says. “That’s because if it’s the only time they’re gonna hear their birth parent’s voice, because the birth parent is rejecting them, then I want [the client] to be able to hear their voice.”
Eberle says when the hunt leads to a possible sister, brother or cousin, they usually agree to a DNA test. “[People we ask to test as matches] can be really excited about it and want to help us solve the mystery,” she says, adding that you can use pseudonyms and, although you can’t delete your DNA test results from companies like 23andMe and Ancestry, there is an option to make yourself anonymous.
And when someone says no to testing, Eberle goes down the list of potentials and asks someone else. “It’s much easier for people to be open [to a DNA test] when it’s their grandfather or great-grandfather,” she explains, saying it’s often emotionally harder when it’s a close relation, like a mother or father. “Even though, biologically, he might also be this other person’s father, people sometimes don’t want to hear that their dad had an extra kid that they never knew.”
About 90% of DNA Hunter clients are trying to find their fathers. But there are other, more unusual cases as well. “I had one client where an aunt and an uncle raised the child because the birth parents were young,” explains Eberle. “After the [aunt and uncle] passed away, the child did DNA testing. And all of a sudden, they realized, ‘Oh, my gosh, my mother was my aunt.’ ”
‘There’s Just This Deep Curiosity’
No matter what the situation is for them growing up, adoptees who know they were adopted, and others seeking to find unknown relatives through DNA testing, are usually doing so for the same reasons.
“I grew up in a really good family with really good parents and I felt normal, but you always wonder who you are. There’s just this deep curiosity,” says Beth Steury, treasurer of the National Association of Adoptees and Parents, who learned that her birth mother had already died by the time she found her through DNA matching in 2016, and her birth father died in 2017. “And I’ve come to realize that you can miss people that you never even knew.”
Many adoptees also seek out parents and relatives to learn about health history, “so they have something to tell their own kids,” she adds.
Given that so many emotions, roadblocks and dead ends can come up for adoptees and the children of adoptees who are seeking their unknown parents or relatives, NAAP provides information, conferences and workshops to help along the way. “We’ve done workshops on specific methods for sorting your DNA matches to how to go about a reunion, and we’ve also had birth moms talk about what it’s like from their side,” explains Steury.
“We seek to be a safe place for everyone within the adoption constellation, whether it be an adoptee, whether it be birth parents and even adoptive parents,” she adds. “This is hard, so we just try to be a place where everybody can come for support, encouragement, education and awareness.”
Steury and others touched by adoption who have genealogy skills often work as “search angels,” helping other adoptees connect the dots using DNA sites and public records. “If you don’t understand what you’re looking at with the test results, it might as well be written in Greek,” she says. “But once you understand it, the answers are right there most of the time.”
In many cases, Steury says that people seeking to find unknown parents or relatives tend to do so around or after middle age.
“It’s fairly common for people to wait until their adoptive parents have passed because they’re concerned that it would hurt them. Or maybe adoptive parents have said, ‘Don’t ever do that,’ ” she says.
Steury believes the use of DNA matching is more popular than it has ever been, and will continue to grow — and she hopes that individual states will begin opening up adoption records for adoptees once they become adults. Rules vary by state, and some have recently passed new laws. Here in Wisconsin, the state Department of Children and Families will assist some adoptees in retrieving birth parents’ names and addresses, medical information and even birth certificates, if those records exist — and it can vary by situation.
“If you can, get the original birth certificate and have your DNA tested,” she says. “Because either one on its own can give you the correct birth father and birth mother, but if you have the two working together, that’s your best shot.”
Filling in the Blanks
Patrick Repovsch wasn’t adopted, but his mom was. That left him wanting to know more, for both of their sakes — but it wasn’t a simple task. Based on a public notice in the newspaper, he learned she was adopted in Milwaukee in 1928 and that his mother’s mother was a woman named Thelma Freeman. Or so he thought.
“So, I decided to go the DNA route and got tested,” says Repovsch, an Allenton, Wisconsin, resident. “But once I got the results, I found it really quite hard to navigate.”
Then he heard Eberle interviewed on the radio and gave her a call. “In two days, she’d found out there was never a Thelma Freeman but instead she was Thelma Breiman,” he says, adding that his mother died in 1990.
From there, he reached out to some of the new relatives identified through DNA matches. Though he successfully made contact, communication with them has been sporadic at best during the pandemic. “But I got what I wanted,” he says. “My mom always talked about how she wondered who her birth parents were, and we figured that out for her.”
He adds: “But as it turns out, I don’t think [her father’s side of the family] had any clue she was ever born.”
Like Davis and Repovsch, Jennifer Utley, Ancestry’s director of family history research, believes we seek out the history of our ancestors because — whether we learn surprising things or not — their lives made us who we are.
“The people who came before you made decisions that very specifically led to what happens in your life today, from where you live, where your family goes to church, what’s important to you or even what you eat for dinner on Sunday,” she says.
Utley adds that DNA matching may hold more significance for adoptees and their children than for those raised by their biological parents. With 20 million people in the Ancestry database, she couldn’t cite the number of adoptees, but she notes, “there’s an uptick from the people of the adoption community” who have used the DNA matching service over the 26 years the company has existed, including “my own first cousin, who was adopted and found me,” she says.
For their own reasons, some people touched by adoption may not need or want to reach out to their birth families, but having your DNA tested is sometimes enough to satisfy the curiosity. “Learning the stories or identities of people or finding out the mystery in your family tree can be really fulfilling, and when you have that information, you can decide where you want to go from there,” Utley says. “You never know what you’re going to find until you go looking.”
Related: Uncovering a Secret
A Madison man discovers a part of his lineage that he and his twin sister had never known.
Not all surprising or unknown family connections uncovered through DNA testing involve adoption. Sometimes there’s a sperm donor involved.
That’s the case for Madison software product manager Bradley Grochocinski.
Back in 2017, during a vacation with his dad’s side of the family, he was sitting up late one night with his aunt, who turned to him and quietly asked, “ ‘Do you know who your parents are?’ It was like 3 a.m. and she asked me this out of nowhere,” says Grochocinski, 28.
“She then let it slip and said, ‘Your dad couldn’t really have kids, so his three brothers all offered to step in and be a donor so you could all still be related.’ When I got home, I told my fiance, Lance, ‘Well, I guess my dad is my uncle and one of my uncles is my dad.’ ”
Grochocinski didn’t tell his twin sister or confront his dad for years (and he still hasn’t told his uncles). But then finally last March, he decided to get his DNA tested through 23andMe in an attempt to solve his parental mystery.
“When I got the results, the first thing I saw was three women’s names and each has a different last name — I’ve never seen these names before, and it just said half-sister, half-sister, half-sister,” he says. “There was no sign of anybody on my dad’s side of the family at all.”
“I immediately sent a message to each of these three women and said, ‘I just got my test results, I don’t really know anything of what’s going on, but it says we have this relationship. Let’s connect,’ ” Grochocinski continues.
Almost immediately, one of the matched half-sisters replied, telling him, “ ‘We all found out that our parents used anonymous sperm donors and we all share the same anonymous sperm donor — you must be our half-brother and your family must have used the same donor, too.’ That’s when the shock set in,” he says. “Even with the possibility of an anonymous donor, I had never considered the idea of other pregnancies or that anybody else would be in that same boat.”
Soon enough, Grochocinski found himself on a Zoom call with his new donor-sharing half-siblings. “We all look very similar — we all have the same nose,” he says. “Once we all got on the call, it was very clear visually that we were related.”
Because his mother had died years before the discovery, the dad who raised him was the only parent he could talk to about his newfound biological family members. So Grochocinski drove down to Chicago.
“When I get to my dad’s, the first thing I say is, ‘I took a DNA test.’ He gave this weird look and just walked away. Two minutes later, he came back with a big stack of papers and it was every piece of paper from the donor process,” he remembers. “Then my dad said, ‘I didn’t really ever have a plan for telling you. I wasn’t going to tell you, but I have all this stuff. And I was going to leave it for you to find out when you’re going through my things one day down the road.’”
After that talk, Grochocinski convinced his father to come back to Madison to break the news to his twin sister. “She got all the information at once and all the work was done, it was all accurate,” he says. “She took it pretty well.”
In the months since, he’s gone to visit three of his six new half-siblings. He has spoken to his biological dad and Grochocinski hopes to visit him on the West Coast soon.
Grochocinski says that while it’s been a roller coaster ride learning about his true genetic origins, he’s glad he did it.
“Nothing about my identity at its core is different now that I know this,” he says. “I still have a great relationship with my family. And I’m grateful to learn that I have six half-siblings, and getting to know the donor has been really great.”
“And also, there are parts of myself that I couldn’t relate to my dad or my dad’s side of the family, I now find with them,” he continues. “So I guess it comes down to this existential question of, ‘What does this actually change, if anything?’ ”
Steven Potter is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine and a senior producer with Wisconsin Public Radio.
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