We’ve witnessed this scene in feature films and on streaming shows time and again.
Someone is rummaging through the attic or a closet or a chest of drawers — and comes across a box containing newspaper clippings revealing a shocking secret, a secret that changes everything.
The moment often seems a little too convenient, a little made-for-the-movies, but it can actually happen in real life.
Just ask Paul Fronczak. In the winter of 1974, when Paul was 10 years old and living a normal, happy, regular life with his parents and little brother, he was snooping around for Christmas presents in the crawlspace of the family home in Oak Lawn when he came across a pile of newspaper clippings detailing his kidnapping as a newborn and his return to his parents 15 months later.
Flash forward decades later, and Fronczak is still searching for the answer to the eternal question, “Who am I?”
His quest is chronicled in the CNN documentary “The Lost Sons,” which, despite some cheesy re-creations and a few overwrought attempts at symbolism, offers an insightful and fascinating look at an incredible true story.
Director Ursula Macfarlane does an admirable job of weaving together a complex, sometimes convoluted and ultimately heart-tugging story, starting at the shocking beginning.
On April 26, 1964, Dora Fronczak gave birth to a son named Paul at the now-shuttered Michael Reese Hospital in Bronzeville on the South Side. The infant was a day and a half old when a woman dressed as a nurse came in to the room, said the doctor wanted to see the baby — and promptly disappeared with the child.
We see archival clips of news conferences from the time, with Dora and husband Chester in a state of shock and investigators from the Chicago Police Department and the FBI telling the press they were working on a number of leads. (The black-and-white footage lends to the feeling we’re watching a B-movie from the 1960s.)
We also get present-day interviews from the former student nurse who was working the maternity ward on that day and brushed paths with the kidnapper and a former detective, among others.
The leads dry up, the publicity dies down, and it appears the Fronczaks will never see their child again — and then, 15 months later, on July 2, 1965, a baby in a stroller is found abandoned in Newark, New Jersey. The child’s age and overall appearance seem consistent with the missing child, and an FBI eager to solve the case brings the boy to Chicago, whereupon Dora Fronczak declares, “Oh, my God, that’s my baby!”
But not for Paul Fronczak. Now a handsome, charismatic, middle-aged man, Fronczak is front and center for the bulk of the documentary, sharing his life story and recounting how he always felt a sense of uneasiness as he bounced from Chicago to Arizona to Las Vegas, playing in rock bands and trying his hand at acting, working as a stand-in for George Clooney on “Ocean’s 11” and appearing for a split second in the Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker comedy “Rush Hour.”.
When Paul’s wife gives birth to a daughter, he again begins to question what really happened to him. With the blessing of his parents (who later changed their minds and urged him to leave it alone), Paul undertakes a DNA analysis and learns he is most definitely not the biological son of Dora and Chester. (If many of these details sound familiar to loyal Sun-Times readers, it’s because our stellar news staff, led by Stefano Esposito, has been covering this story since 2013.)
Once again, the case makes headlines, as the telegenic Paul goes on TV to tell his story, trying to ascertain his real identity and also find the real Paul Fronczak.
“The Lost Sons” provides helpful graphics guiding us along the way, but still there are times when it’s difficult to keep track of all the adopted relatives and second cousins and false leads.
Eventually, though, most of the mysteries are solved, though we still don’t know for sure who kidnapped Paul Fronczak.
We do learn the real Paul was raised as Kevin Baty and lived in Manton, Michigan, where he had a quiet life as a machinist and had three daughters and wasn’t interested in speaking to reporters once a DNA test confirmed him to be the son of Dora and Chester.
On April 25, 2020, just 18 months after learning his real identity, Kevin Baty passed away. All his life, Baty had celebrated his birthday on March 14 — but he actually had been born on April 26, 1964, at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago. He died just a day shy of his real birthday.