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Digging up family secrets with DNA can be a ‘danger.’ But this story has a happy ending.

Man meets his first biological family member after years of searching

Randall Lorenz discovered he was adopted at the age of 16. He has been searching for his biological parents using DNA tests and genealogy websites for decades. After years of research, Lorenz has found his possible niece and meets her for the firs
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Randall Lorenz discovered he was adopted at the age of 16. He has been searching for his biological parents using DNA tests and genealogy websites for decades. After years of research, Lorenz has found his possible niece and meets her for the firs

Randall Lorenz never felt a warm, intimate love from his parents.

In 1968, when he was just 16, his father died. That’s when the rumors started. Seventeen years later, he buried his longtime ailing mother, who had lived for years with multiple sclerosis.

Neither parent ever explained what DNA testing has brought to light since they’ve died — that Lorenz was adopted.

“All the time as I was growing up, there was an emptiness that I can’t explain,” he said. “My parents were never my parents.”

Lorenz, a 65-year-old who lives in Reno, has started to get serious about finding his birth parents. And while he still isn’t certain who those people are or where they could be, DNA testing is getting him closer than ever to those answers — answers that led him to Idaho.

And he’s not alone.

Over the course of the past year, the popularity of DNA kits you can take at home with a simple saliva test has drastically increased.

A release from AncestryDNA, the DNA arm of genealogy giant Ancestry.com, said that in four days in 2017 — Black Friday to Cyber Monday — the company more than tripled the number of kits sold during the same period in 2016, its prior record sales period. AncestryDNA did not provide the number of kits sold or its revenue from that period.

DNA kit provider MyHeritage reportedly sold more than 1 million DNA kits — including 400,000 in November and December 2017 — and revenue from its DNA sales was $58 million during that time, according to TechCrunch.

Many of the kits range from about $70 on sale to $170, and they take from four to six weeks to garner results.

“DNA testing is no longer a niche interest. It’s a mass consumer market, with millions of people wanting to experience the emotionally powerful, life-affirming discoveries that can come from simply spitting in a tube,” said Howard Hochhauser, interim CEO of Ancestry, in a news release.

‘I hope we’re family’

Well, hello. Do I call you cousin?

Those are the first words Lorenz was able to say face-to-face with Jerica Starkweather, a 28-year-old Emmett resident who showed up as a close match to Lorenz on Ancestry.com.

“I don’t know yet; we’ll figure it out,” Starkweather said, as she gave Lorenz a huge hug.

Starkweather is listed as a cousin or second cousin, on Starkweather’s mother’s side, to Lorenz after they both submitted DNA testing kits.

Lorenz submitted his DNA to the website almost two years ago. Starkweather said she recently received a brief calling as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to teach genealogy classes through familysearch.org, the church’s genealogy website.

That led her to submit her DNA in late 2017, and she planned to give DNA test kits to other family members for Christmas, even before matching with Lorenz.

“I’ve gone through phases where it’s like I’m hooked in, and others where I’m like ...” she said as she trailed off, and sighed. “And then something sucks me back in. Here’s something that sucked me back in.”

Lorenz, who was born and raised in the Chicago area, believes his biological mother might have given him to the parents who raised him because she was a Roman Catholic nun. She could therefore not get an abortion or have a child out of wedlock.

Starkweather’s mother’s aunt was a nun in the Chicago area at that time. She has since died.

The couple who raised Lorenz are listed on his birth certificate. However, their marriage certificate was issued three months after Lorenz was born.

“I met one person who is still alive that had any idea what happened back then,” he said. “I reached out to this lady a couple of times. On the third time she goes, ‘You need to be told something that you should have been told a long time ago. You were abandoned as a child.’ 

The Catholic Church and Holy Cross Hospital, where he was born, have stopped returning his calls about the matter. He’s gone back to Cook County in Illinois to find his official adoption records.

“Simply, there are none,” he said.

‘There’s always danger’

Lorenz’s quest for answers has gone on for decades, a situation that has led to failed marriages and other complications, including post-traumatic stress.

Suzanne Malek, a reference librarian at Truckee Meadows Community College who has been a longtime genealogy enthusiast, has been his source of genealogy training and encouragement over the past few months, Lorenz said.

Lorenz said he encourages anyone seeking family members through DNA testing to take multiple tests from multiple websites, because often the information gathered from one website isn’t included on another. If Lorenz had submitted DNA only to kit provider 23andMe.com, for instance, Starkweather would have never shown up because she submitted hers through AncestryDNA.

Malek, who has taught genealogy workshops at the college in Reno for nearly a year, agrees. But she always makes one thing clear to anyone who intends to dig up the past.

“What your family never told you, DNA will,” Malek said. “There’s always danger. I say it at every point I can. … That’s one of first things you should do: Be prepared to take the good with the bad, because it’s not always going to be a happy ending.”

Starkweather’s hope is to be exactly that for Lorenz — a happy new start.

She encourages her family members from her mother’s side to take more DNA tests to narrow down who might be Lorenz’s birth mother. She said she went into her genealogy search with an open mind, which has helped throughout the process.

“I expected mysteries and questionable things to come up,” Starkweather said, “because every family has secrets that either they’re ashamed of or didn’t come to light when they were alive.”

Lorenz hopes to travel back to Idaho over the summertime to continue to connect with Starkweather and other members of her family. He’ll meet her mother at a genealogy conference, RootsTech, in Salt Lake City later this month.

“For his sake, I hope we are his family, because I think he needs it,” Starkweather said. “I’d like to give him family he deserves if I can.”

Christina Lords: 208-377-6435, @ChristinaLords

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