(George Knapp’s story on Paul Fronczak has received nationwide attention since it first aired on 8 News NOW in April.)
LAS VEGAS — A tragic mystery that began in Chicago 49 years ago has latched onto a local family and won’t let go.
Imagine waking up one day to find out that the identity you’ve had your entire life isn’t true, that the family who raised you isn’t really your family at all, and that you don’t even know your real name. It’s a case that began with a sensational kidnapping in the Midwest but has now traveled to southern Nevada.
April 26 is supposed Paul Joseph Fronczak’s birthday, but he’s just learned that he has no idea when he was actually born, that his parents aren’t really his parents, and that he hasn’t a clue where he’s from or who he is.
It started with the kidnapping of a 1-day-old boy that exploded into an international sensation. It is an amazing and puzzling tale.
“I don’t know how old I am, or who I am, or what nationality, all those things you just take for granted,” Paul Fronczak said.
He has had two identities in his 49 years, but neither is his own. His first namesake was born April 26, 1964 at Chicago’s Michael Reese Hospital, the son of Chester and Dora Fronczak. One day later, a woman dressed as a nurse walked into the mother’s hospital room and said the baby needed to be examined by a doctor. Dora handed him over.
“Hours later, a doctor comes in to check on her baby and she says, ‘You had my baby,’ and they are like, ‘No we don’t,'” Dora Fronczak said.
A frantic, desperate manhunt was launched by police. Witnesses said the middle-aged woman had walked out the back of the hospital, hopped into a cab and drove away with the baby.
Police went door-to-door in the neighborhood, circulated artists’ sketches, interrogated and released six different suspects. The story exploded onto the national stage. Around 175,000 letter carriers joined the search, as did the FBI. Agents examined 10,000 babies, interviewed three times as many witnesses. The kidnapping became an international sensation. The heartbroken Fronczaks were hounded by the media.
“It was huge,” Paul Fronczak said. “My parents had letters from the Pope, letters from people all over the country. It was a huge case. My parents got really frustrated because they had reporters hanging outside their windows, climbing telephone poles, taking pictures of them at church, following them all over the place.”
Phony kidnappers tried to extort money from the Fronczaks and were arrested, but the baby was never found.
Two-and-a-half years later, a boy in a stroller was abandoned outside a store in Newark, N.J. Child welfare authorities named him Scott McKinley. FBI agents examined him at the orphanage, looked at his skin, bones, blood and his ears.
“The FBI decided that because my ears matched the Fronczak baby that I was probably the Fronczak baby,” Paul Fronczak said.
Dora Fronczak took one look at the child and said, “That’s my baby.”
“It’s Paul,” newspapers declared, though police admitted they still had doubts. The Fronczaks adopted Scott McKinley, renamed him, and returned him to their family home in Chicago.
The boy in the home movies appeared happy and healthy. Paul Fronczak said he had no idea about the kidnapping until he found a box of newspaper clippings years later. Even then his parents didn’t tell him much. As he grew older, though, he began to suspect he didn’t quite belong. He was different, didn’t look like his Polish and Croatian parents, but was never able to get any solid answers until just last year.
For most of his life, he’s been Paul Joseph Fronczak, but now, living in Henderson, Nev., with wife Michelle and daughter Emma, the need to know has grown more imperative.
“We know my side of the family, but we don’t know everything about his parents, and health issues, or anything like that,” Michelle Fronczak said.
I-Team: “Did he tell you this story when you were first dating?”
Michelle Fronczak: “Yeah, we had been on five or 10 dates.”
Paul Fronczak: “It’s a great line, George. It always works.”
Michelle Fronczak: “I thought he was crazy. I really thought he was crazy. I told my co-workers, this is a Lifetime story. This can’t be true.”
Paul Fronczak showed her the old news clippings. Last year, while his parents were visiting from Chicago, he decided to do something. He bought a DNA kit at a drugstore.
“And I said, ‘Hey, have you guys ever wondered if I was yours?’ You know, making a joke out of it. I said, ‘Hold on,’ I went and got the DNA kit, broke it out, and five minutes later, we were swabbing away.”
A week later, a DNA technician told him the stunning news.
“‘There is no remote way that you are the Fronczak’s baby.’ I thought, wow.”
Paul Fronczak told the I-Team his story, but wasn’t able to bring himself to tell his parents.
“He is so lucky that he was adopted by the Fronczaks because who knows what life he could have had,” Michelle Fronczak said.
“I haven’t told them,” Paul Fronczak said. “I want to do it right. There are no do-over’s on this one.”
“As a mother, I think it is going to be very difficult,” his wife said. “My heart goes out to them, but it’s important to our family.”
“It’s not just about them anymore,” Paul Fronczak said. “Not just about me. It’s about, is their son still alive? Is he out there? Hopefully this story can help us find out.”
It isn’t one mystery, it’s several. What became of the real Paul Fronczak, not to mention his kidnapper? Why was that baby abandoned outside a store in Newark? What’s the real name, age and nationality of the man who lives in his Henderson home? And where is his other family?
When the I-Team started working on the story weeks ago, Paul Fronczak had not yet informed his parents about the results of the DNA test. His parents have since been told the hard truth.