Family Secrets

Reunited on 'Dr. Phil'

My friend Dot's ex-husband kidnapped their children; the next time she saw them was on a TV show, 40 years later

"It's Timmy's birthday," Dot said as I drove her to church one Sunday morning. Tears welled in her eyes and her voice wavered. "I hope he's OK."

"Me too." There was nothing more I could say.

During his first visit with the children after the divorce, her ex-husband kidnapped them. They were 8, 6 and 3 at the time. Even though she had 26 foster children and adopted neighbors and church members as her daughter, son or grandchild, no one ever filled the hole. Forty-one years later, she still missed and loved them.

In the Sixties, if a father stole his children from their mother, the police declared it a domestic dispute. They refused to get involved, especially if the father worked in law enforcement, and Dot's ex husband, Billy Clarence, was a reserve officer on the local police force. Dot went to school districts in California and Nevada, but no one would release any records to her. She had no money to hire a private detective. She exhausted every resource she could think of. Though there was no trace of her children, she never lost hope.

When I met Dot in 2013, she was a widow, living on a tiny fixed income, social security from her days as an LVN. She could barely pay her rent. She had no cable TV, much less any Internet service. She did not even have an email address.

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One Sunday afternoon, we sat down at my computer and I showed her what a search on Google for Tim or Theresa or Tom Jones brought up. We were just about to quit when I remembered Troy Dunn, aka Troy the Locator. I knew about him from "Dr. Phil." He'd reunited plenty of lost family members.

I took her to Troy's site, and we went to the free option: "Be Reunited on TV." We used her phone number and my email address. When I asked what I should type in the message field, she gave me a well-rehearsed, concise version of the kidnapping story. I read it back to her and clicked send.

Within 48 hours Troy's mother, Kate, who is also his secretary, called to tell Dot that Troy would be researching her case personally, rather than relying on one of his detectives. It was "the right thing to do."

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A month went by and Dot asked me if I'd heard anything from the show. I hadn't, and that meant there might not be good news, but there wasn't bad news either. A few weeks later, Dot called to tell me Troy's mother had called again. They were turning this over to Dr. Phil. My heart thumped. I was sure this was how it was supposed to be.

I was imagining a heartfelt reunion when she said, "Troy didn't find my kids, but they both hope someone in the viewing audience will know one of them and write in." Then she said, "She told me I could bring a guest, at the show's expense, and I want it to be you."

In the following weeks, Dot talked with one of the producers, who asked for pictures, and she asked me to take them with my cell and forward them along. I snapped Theresa's little-girl rocking chair, which still sat in Dot's living room. Then I took a picture of two dolls and a crib, which were also Theresa's and sat between the rocking chair and the TV. Next, Dot pulled some cars out of the toy box that had belonged to Tommy. One was yellow and had "Rescue" painted on the side. How ironic, I thought. I didn't know who needed to be rescued more, Dot or her kids.

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When it came time to do the show, my husband, who was her pastor, drove us to the Oakland airport and a limousine driver with a European accent took us to the Universal Studios Sheraton after we landed in Burbank. A different driver picked her up the next morning and took us to Paramount Studios. After one woman cut and styled her hair and another one did her makeup, Dot looked beautiful.

She met with producers, and each meeting was filmed. I sat in whenever they allowed me to. I knew from watching previous episodes that the producers would splice segments of the filmed interviews into promos and segues. First though, Dr. Phil would look at it and see what he could learn about Dot's relationship with her children.

The morning of the show, the crew left coffee and muffins in the dressing room, where Dot had her hair and makeup done again. They also left us souvenirs: a stress ball, a Dr. Phil pen and a Dr. Phil mug.

One of the production assistants said she would escort me to my seat, which turned out to be in the second row just to the left of the center of the audience.

Someone came out to warm up the audience. We chanted, "Dr. Phil, Dr. Phil," at the same time stage hands threw stress balls shaped like red hearts into the audience. I didn't even try to catch one. I already had mine.

When Dr. Phil came out, we applauded wildly in response to the flashing applause signs that no camera ever shows. He introduced the story, using photos I'd taken with my cell, blown up to mega-size.

Then Dr. Phil told the audience that Troy the Locator had found all three of Dot's children and that two of them were there to meet her. Several of us gasped. He walked across the stage so he could stand opposite the seat where he knew the guest accompanying Dot would sit.

"When she comes out, no one can say anything," Dr. Phil said, looking directly at me. "We have to keep this a secret. She's in the dressing room right now with Troy Dunn. She can't see or hear anything."

I nodded.

"If she knows ahead of time, we lose the element of surprise and the whole show is ruined."

He didn't need to worry. I was the last person who would want to deprive Dot of the joy of seeing her children. Besides, I wanted to see the reunion, not ruin it.

"First, though, we're going to meet her children," said Dr. Phil, "and hear what they have to say about their mother."

The door rolled up and the two now adult children looked nervous but determined as they walked to their seats. Theresa told Dr. Phil her mother fed her bourbon balls when she was a little girl. She insisted Tim had marks on his skin where their mother had pinned his diapers to his skin. They were not describing the loyal, lonely woman I knew.

They went offstage to watch the next portion of the show on a monitor. Then Dr. Phil grilled Dot about whether she had abused her children. She denied it, and he could not shake her truths. She had waited 41 years to tell her story.

"Troy has something to tell you," Dr. Phil said.

"Couldn't you have picked an easier name to research than Jones?" he asked.

The audience laughed.

"I have news for you. Tommy is alive."

Dot squealed.

"Theresa is alive."

Her squeal was louder.

"Timmy is alive."

Dr. Phil continued, "Two of them, Theresa and Timmy, are here today. Are you ready to meet them?"

"Yes. Oh yes!" Dot clapped her hands like a child.

The door behind the audience slid up again, and Tim and Theresa walked out together. Theresa went straight to her mother, put her arms around her, and said, "I forgive you."

"Oh my goodness," Dot said as she held her daughter at arm's length. "You're beautiful. You look just like me."

The audience was laughing and crying.

Tim hung back. He didn't know what to make of this woman who embraced his sister so warmly. She was a stranger, but he went up and introduced himself.

Dr. Phil explained that when Troy the Locator had told Tim someone was looking for him, he said, "He already found me."

"There's someone else. Your mother is looking for you."

"Why would I want to see her?" he asked. "I thought she was either dead or in a mental hospital."

"She's been looking for you for a long time."

Theresa and Tim could see that Dot was authentic and Dr. Phil introduced the possibility that someone had lied to them about their mother when they were growing up.

Although many kids called her Nana, Dot asked if she was a grandmother. When she learned that Theresa had a son and a daughter in their late teens, she was overjoyed. After all the years of caring for other people's children, she was a biological grandmother.

She turned to Tim, and said, "What about you? Are you married?"

"No. I'm gay, so I'm not married."

"Well, that's the way God made you," Dot said without hesitation. Another big fear evaporated.

The "Dr. Phil" show treated us to a meal in the Paramount dining room, and by the time it was over, everyone in the family had exchanged phone numbers.

"I finally have a number to put next to 'Mom' in my cell phone," Tim said.

He called her every day for the next two years, and Theresa called whenever she could. Tommy never called, but he sent her a Christmas card and sent flowers from all three of them to Dot's Memorial Service. Dot passed away on February 7, 2016, three minutes into the Super Bowl. Maybe she believed she'd already had her own Super Bowl victory.

Dot wanted her children to know she was alive, was of sound mind, and had never stopped loving and missing them. She got her wish.

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