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Richard Brzozowski grew up in an adoptive home and wouldn’t learn his biological father’s name until the 1980s. Finding him would take decades of persistence, luck and unusual physical evidence – but now, at last, he’s solved it

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Former detective Richard Brzozowski, 76, holds a photo of William Daugherty, the biological father he would spend decades tracking down.Photography by Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

It is a promising spring morning in Orleans, a suburban community east of Ottawa. Richard Brzozowski – tall, ramrod straight and fit at age 76 – is ambling along in a park that’s exploding with leaves and blossoms.

A career policeman and detective in Ottawa and, previously, in Nottingham, England, this expert in forensic investigations has just solved the mystery of a lifetime.

His life.

It took decades of diligence, a smattering of luck and, at the very end, it all came down to … toothpicks.

But finally, he knows who his father was and what became of him.

He stops beneath a greening maple and spreads his long arms wide.

“I would have been happy just to know who he was.”

But, as it turned out, it was what he was that has made for such a happy ending.

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These items, including the three toothpicks at bottom right, would be important clues in Mr. Brzozowski's search for information about his father.

Mr. Brzozowski was born in Nottingham in midsummer 1945. The Second World War was winding down, as was his mother’s unhappy marriage. Shortly after his birth, Elsie Rowland, the now-divorced mother, placed her baby in a foster home, where he stayed for seven long years. Elsie eventually remarried and her new husband, Tadeus Brzozowski, a Polish airman who had stayed on in England after the war, adopted Richard and gave the child his surname.

When Mr. Brzozowski reached his teens he learned there was a brother, Graham, who was nine years older. They had never met.

His was an unhappy childhood but he grew tall and strong and joined the Nottingham police force, spending two of his five years there as a detective considered particularly adept at solving complicated cases.

In 1970, Brzozowski and his then wife and two children came to Montreal on the Empress of Canada. They arrived with $240. Brzozowski lined up police work in Ottawa, where recruiting Staff Sergeant Kingsley (King) Ackland lent money to carry the family through until he could begin work.

Mr. Brzozowski moved quickly through the ranks. From beat cop he soon joined the forensic unit for more than a decade, later returning as staff sergeant in charge of the unit. He completed a master’s degree in criminology at the University of Ottawa.

He and his first wife divorced. When he became interested in writing mysteries, he attended a workshop given by Ottawa writer Anne Stephenson. They married in 2000, the same year Mr. Brzozowski retired with the rank of detective inspector.

“You couldn’t tell he was a cop out of uniform,” says Ian MacLeod, who covered the police beat for the Ottawa Citizen for many years.

And yet, out of uniform Mr. Brzozowski was still very much the detective, trying to solve a mystery that at times seemed unsolvable. His mother had died in 1967, taking whatever secrets she held to the grave.

After living in Canada for more than a decade, Mr. Brzozowski returned to England and met older brother Graham in Nottingham. It was not a pleasant visit. There was anger in the air. The older man handed the visitor from Canada a photograph of their mother with a man wearing the uniform of an American soldier.

“This is your father,” a terse Graham told his younger sibling. “‘Uncle’ Richard visited mother before you were born. You’re the bastard son of a chicken farmer from Florida!”

“I will never forget those words,” says Mr. Brzozowski. “I was gobsmacked. I had always thought that Graham and I shared the same father.”

There were other photographs and some further information. Their mother’s divorce, Graham said, was the result of her affair with this man in the photograph. Mr. Brzozowski was left wondering if his father really was a chicken farmer who had fought in the Second World War.

The following day, he went to the Nottingham registry office and was given a copy of his original birth certificate. His mother had registered his given names as “Richard William.” But much to his surprise, the surname listed was one he’d never heard before: “Daugherty.”

He had a name for his father. He had a face. But he still had no story.

Our fathers’ battles

Greg Strathern writes about how, when his father died, a Second World War diary helped him understand the trauma he endured in the liberation of the Netherlands, and the PTSD he lived with after.

“I had spent my whole life in policing,” Richard Brzozowski says toward the end of his morning walk in the park. “I had to know the rest of it.”

It was the early 1980s. No DNA records. No internet. He began, methodically, to collect addresses of Richard and William Daughertys in Florida, where the “chicken farmer” had supposedly lived. He found 76 variations, wrote snail-mail letters to every one of them, and waited. Many letters were returned unopened. A few replied, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy,’ but not a single hopeful response.

Mr. Brzozowski kept this research up for two decades until DNA testing became widely available to the public. He moved quickly on the new development, sending a sample of his own DNA to and, later, to He received reports of possible second, third and fourth cousins, then of a possible first cousin, once removed. The younger man was not a Daugherty – the DNA link was through his mother – and did not live in Florida. Mr. Brzozowski tried multiple times to contact him in Texas, even writing to the man’s parents, but to no avail. He received no answers.

The two DNA websites provided family trees and Brzozowski eventually tracked his heritage back to John Jack Daugherty, born in 1847 and father of 12 children, seven of them boys. He found one of the sons of John Jack, James Oscar Daugherty, born in 1884 in Alabama. Could this be his grandfather?

Researching meticulously – family members might say obsessively – Mr. Brzozowski found Second World War enlistment records for the sons of James Oscar, but no details on where the soldiers had been stationed. He needed one who had been in Nottingham over the fall and winter of 1944-45.

Then he got lucky. A letter in the flurry of correspondence he had sent out to possible Daugherty connections brought a response. Sara Kirchner, a young woman and distant cousin in Texas, informed him that her own family history showed that James Oscar had four children, a girl and three boys, and she thought that one of the boys, William Ray Daugherty, was “the most likely candidate to be my father.”

Unfortunately, William Ray Daugherty’s name had never turned up in the thousands of searches of family trees that Mr. Brzozowski conducted. One of the three sons had been too young for the war, the other much shorter than the soldier in the photograph with Mr. Brzozowski’s mother. William Ray Daugherty was a possibility.

Kirchner knew that William Ray had become an optometrist in Muskogee, Okla., and that he flew a plane. He had been known by various names – “William,” “Willie,” “Bill,” “Willie Ray” – and a 1942 enlistment was found for a young optometrist who had been born in Gause, Tex., in 1909. The age would be about right.

“Not a chicken farmer from Florida,” Mr. Brzozowski says, “although he may well have told my mother that he was. …”

Now convinced his father might indeed be William Ray Daugherty, Mr. Brzozowski turned to Google last summer and found an optometry practice in the Oklahoma city that had a website with an “About Us” section. The practice had been purchased in 1979 from “long-time Muskogee optometrist Dr. Bill Daugherty.”

Eureka! ... Almost.

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Piecing together William Daugherty's war record would become an important part of Mr. Brzozowski's research.

In early September, Mr. Brzozowski put together a detailed package containing what he knew so far, as well as the photograph of his mother and the soldier, and mailed it off to the current operators of the optometry office. Ten days later, he received a response from Dr. Jerry Coburn, the owner.

Greetings Richard, I must say your correspondence, which I received today, took me by surprise! Let me not beat around the bush. Bill Daugherty is definitely your father! You look a great deal like him from the picture you sent. I know he was in the Air Force during WW2 and was actually a glider pilot!

Further correspondence convinced Mr. Brzozowski that finally, at the age of 76, he could say, “I know who my father was.” But he still had no absolute proof.

He then turned his forensic talents to reviewing available military documents. In November of 1943, several of the American glider units were transported from the European theatre to “the Nottingham forest area of England.”

He connected with an office of the National WWII Glider Pilots Association, which was located in the Silent Wings Museum in Lubbock, Tex. The office confirmed flight officer William R. Daugherty’s membership in the 53rd Troop Carrier Squadron. They had a photograph of the pilot, as well as dates of his missions and decorations.

Mr. Brzozowski now knew for certain his father had been stationed at Barkston Heath Field in Grantham, close by Nottingham. He found a memoir by Major Steven C. Franklin, which said the men stationed there were well treated. “When not flying,” Franklin wrote, “the men kept their spirits up with movies at the base theatre, weekly Red Cross dances with the local girls.”

Brzozowski presumed his mother had been a regular at the Palais de Danse in Nottingham. His birthdate suggested she would have become pregnant around November, 1944. His father got his transfer orders in March, 1945, and left Nottingham in May.

“They knew each other for months,” he says. “It was not a one-night stand.

“He must have known.”

An archival photo shows William Daugherty (in detail, and eighth from left in the back row) with his squadron at Barkston Heath.

What flight officer William Ray Daugherty did, exactly, in the war remains somewhat of a mystery. He flew his glider – no engine, no protection, no way back – behind enemy lines, delivering troops and equipment for missions in Holland and Germany. Gliders were used, as well, during the Normandy invasion.

Official records say that for “…meritorious achievement…exceptional airmanship and resolution in the execution of missions” he was awarded the Air Medal. His unit also received three Presidential Citations for “extraordinary heroism against the enemy.”

He returned to Muskogee, opened his optometry practice and ran it until selling in 1979. He died in 1997 and is buried in the Memorial Park Cemetery in Tulsa, Okla. Mr. Brzozowski plans to visit his grave.

The “chicken farmer from Florida” might very well have been a ruse, as Mr. Brzozowski suspected. There had been a wife, Lena Mae Daugherty, back in America.

Further research produced real first cousins, Helen Peden and Eula Matthews, both alive and well in their 90s and living in Texas. They sent photographs and Mr. Brzozowski was stunned to find one of his father when they were exactly the same age – the two could pass for twins.

When the Muskogee optometrist passed away, his beloved golf putter was given to a family member, who decided to pass it on to Mr. Brzozowski. The putter is now at Mr. Brzozowski’s home in Orleans, standing in a special place of honour.

A note from 92-year-old cousin Eula arrived, telling Mr. Brzozowski that “the word that was missing in your life is ‘belong’. Now you know exactly where you fit in the family, in life, and in the world. You ‘belong!’ ”

There was still more surprise to come. The Silent Wings research group told him that the members of the 53rd Troop Carrier Squadron who were engaged in Operation Market Garden were awarded Holland’s highest military honour, the Orange Lanyard. Could it be found?

Still on the hunt, Mr. Brzozowski was able to contact the trustee of his father’s second wife, Verlyn, who died in 2009. The trustee said she still had various documents and photographs as well as “some other things that look like medals or things he wore on his uniform.”

Mr. Brzozowski sent photographs of the aged decorations, some unidentifiable, to the Silent Wings research group. The information that returned surprised Mr. Brzozowski:

An expert-level marksmanship badge.

Air medal.

Good conduct medal.

And then this…”The second column contains one Purple Heart ribbon with one bronze oak leaf – meaning two awards of the medal.” To receive such a commendation Daugherty would have had to be wounded twice in action.

The father he had never known may have been a chicken farmer at some point in his mysterious life, but, it turns out, he may also have been a bona fide war hero.

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William Daugherty's Purple Heart and air medal are some of the items Mr. Brzozowski got in a box from the trustee of his father's wife's estate.

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The box also came with a broken tooth and toothpicks.

On Feb. 17, 2022, a package arrived from the estate trustee. It contained a jewelry box, which held the old ribbons and medals. Rings and cuff links and tie clips. A broken tooth. And three toothpicks.

Mr. Brzozowski contacted the Paleo-DNA Laboratory at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. He shipped the broken tooth, the toothpicks, nail clippers and a small brush that had arrived in the package.

On March 29, he received a report back from the laboratory.

“A partial profile was obtained from the toothpicks. From the data generated from this investigation of these samples, the results are CONSISTENT with the individual belonging to the source of DNA on the toothpicks (Sample 1, Alleged Father) being the biological father of Richard Brzozowski (Sample 2, Child).

“The calculated probability of paternity (assuming a prior probability of 0.5) is 99.9999% from the genetic data obtained.”

99.9999 per cent probability…make that a certainty.

“So there you have it,” Richard Brzozowski says at the end of his long walk. “This 40-year investigation comes to a close.

“It has been by far the longest case – certainly the one I never gave up on.”

Nor has he given up yet.

There still remains the mystery of the two Purple Hearts.

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