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Shawn Vestal: For Spokane man, years of family mystery ended abruptly with DNA testing

Don Sullivan, who was adopted, holds pictures of his birth parents. Sullivan, a retired post office worker has found his birth family. There are nine siblings including a sister in Nine Mile Falls. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

In the small black-and-white portrait, a lovely young woman gazes directly into the camera, dark hair swept neatly to one side of her head.

Don Sullivan has seen this photo most of his life, though the woman was always a mystery to him. When he was a child growing up in the Los Angeles area, his parents told him it was a photo of his Aunt Betty. Aunt Betty would come to pay Don very occasional visits – on his earliest birthdays, he thinks – for a few years, until the visits came to an end.

“Then when I was 12, they said, ‘No, that’s your mother,’ ” Sullivan said.

They told him her name was Betty Gutierrez. For the longest time – decades and decades, until a fuller picture of Sullivan’s complicated biological family tree came into view thanks to DNA testing last summer – that was the sum of what Don Sullivan knew about the woman who had given birth to him in 1952.

As for his father, he knew less.

A family mystery

Sullivan grew up in the Los Angeles area and then Fresno, the son of Harold and Ruth Sullivan. He played the piano, was an Eagle Scout and had what he recalls as a fortunate, happy life.

“I always knew I was adopted,” he said. “I don’t remember ever not knowing.”

His parents told him almost nothing about his birth parents. He always had a curiosity about them, but he also always considered his adoptive parents his parents – the ones who raised him. After graduating high school, he attended college for two years and then enlisted in the Navy, serving for six years in places such as Hawaii and London.

In 1979, he and his wife, Gayle, whom he’d met in fifth grade in Fresno, moved to Spokane. Sullivan went to work for the postal service downtown, and they raised a son and daughter. He’s now 67 and retired, and they live on Spokane’s South Hill.

In the 1980s, they took the kids to Disneyland, and while they were down there, Sullivan went to the Los Angeles County courthouse and got his adoption records. All the names and personal information were blacked out, “except, for some reason, they left the addresses.”

His dad’s address at the time of his birth was the county jail. His mom’s was a home in L.A.; he drove there, but the current residents didn’t know anything about her.

It was decades before he learned any more.

Her favorite uncle

Jeaninne Escallier Kato always had a special relationship with her Uncle Gary. Growing up in California, she knew that Gary, her father’s brother, and a young woman had given up a child for adoption when they were very young and struggling with drug addiction and crime.

“My uncle always said that one of these days a young man’s going to show up at my door and punch my lights out,” Kato said.

Kato knew Gary at a time when he had put many of his youthful struggles behind him. He had gone into the business of drug rehabilitation and turned his life around. He received a pardon for some portion of his criminal record from Gov. Jerry Brown, she said. He was an interesting, charismatic man who married several times – charming and self-centered, she said.

He became involved in a drug-rehab organization, Synanon, which evolved into a controversial cult-like “church” in the 1970s that had celebrity adherents.

The group was led by Charles Dederich, whose methods included attempts at brainwashing and who evolved along the lines of many cult leaders – toward paranoid and violent methods of exerting control over members.

Synanon was disbanded formally in 1991 after a long string of controversies and criminal investigations, including murder conspiracies. Gary’s involvement with the group is not known in detail by family members; some accounts of the group include brief mentions of him in the early days of the organization as someone who helped raise money and who served at one point as the “associate director” of the Reno arm of the organization, according to the book “Nevada State Prison.”

He died in 2005.

Kato had remained close with him all her life. She’s sure that he would have loved to have met the son he never knew.

“He would have been thrilled to meet him,” she said. “Thrilled.”

The discovery

Two Christmases ago, Sullivan’s son gave him a DNA test kit for a gift. Sullivan took the test, which produced one possible connection to a relative – a second cousin.

He contacted the woman, but she didn’t know anything about any Betty Guiterrez in the family. The trail went cold again. Then, last year on Father’s Day he noticed that another DNA testing firm,, was offering a sale. He thought perhaps they’d have a bigger database with possible matches. Why not give it a shot?

Sullivan’s venture into DNA testing is part of a current phenomenon in individualized science. The MIT Technology Review found that more than 26 million people took a genetic ancestry test in 2018, adding their DNA information to databases and seeking to answer family mysteries. It was the single biggest year for such tests, equaling all other previous years combined, the MIT review said in an article Feb. 11.

DNA services like build databases of people’s genetic information – with the permission of those who are tested – and can find matches with others who submit their information. Any given service is only as good as its database, in other words.

The test produced more matches than the earlier one had. Sullivan received the results in late June. At the top of the list of possible relatives was Theresa Muff, who was listed as a “close relative or first cousin.”

Sullivan sent her a message immediately, saying he thought they were cousins.

She replied, “You’re not my cousin, you’re my brother.”

Later that day – June 27 – Sullivan sent a message to Kato, who also appeared on the list of contacts.

“As soon as I saw it, I screamed,” she said. “I stopped reading. I called my Mom and said, ‘He’s finally found us!’ ”

A family, suddenly

For Sullivan, having made contact with Muff and Kato within hours of each other after so many years of knowing virtually nothing was head-spinning.

“Now I’ve found my father’s side and my mother’s side on the same day,” Sullivan said. “And then it was just a floodgate opened.”

Sullivan found out that he had eight half-brothers and half-sisters. Both of his parents had had several spouses and partners during their lives. Both had struggled with heroin addiction and were involved in crime as young people, but managed to clean up their lives later on, according to his relatives.

His mother’s name was not Betty Guitierrez, but Bessie Clawson. She was a piano player as a child and had earned a scholarship to Juilliard that she never used. His father’s name was Donald “Gary” Guitierre – the family name, Guitierrez, had been changed by Sullivan’s grandfather.

In a matter of hours, Sullivan had gone from knowing nothing about his biological family, to knowing so much he couldn’t keep it all straight – all while still having questions. He went from having no known medical history to knowing his parents’ causes of death.

Like many families, Sullivan’s is complicated – lots of his relatives had several different relationships and children from different pairings. His own siblings reflect that as well; his dad had four kids with four women, and his mother had six children with four men.

On his father’s side, the generation that preceded them was similarly multifaceted, Kato said. It could be daunting trying to account for all the aunts and uncles and cousins.

“Our family tree,” Kato said, “is very convoluted.”

For a while, Sullivan heard almost constantly from aunts and cousins and other relatives. Kato and other relatives sent him photographs, told him stories and rumors. He was happy to have made the discovery, but it was also emotionally draining.

“I was exhausted from all the information coming in,” he said. “It got to the point where I wanted it to stop.”

Home movies

Gayle Sullivan made her husband a scrapbook for Christmas last year. It includes his convoluted family tree, photos of his siblings, parents and grandparents, and other family memorabilia.

He’s made a number of fascinating discoveries. He learned a little about his dad’s connection to Synanon. He learned his mother had taken a boat trip to Europe with her mother as a teenager. He learned his maternal grandfather, Ira Clawson, invented something called the Clawson hand drill and patented it in 1943; its significant feature was an adjustable head that could be positioned at an angle to the handle. He learned he had siblings all over the place – in France, in California, in Tacoma. One grew up in Mexico. He even has a sister in the Spokane area; she didn’t want to be interviewed for this story.

He’s the oldest; the youngest is 32.

Sullivan looks remarkably similar to his father. You’d swear the photograph he keeps of his dad is a photo of Sullivan himself as a younger man. He discovered a connection that he shares with his brother, Godot, who lives in Tacoma – Godot develops board games, and Sullivan is a board game fanatic.

In fact, Sullivan owns and has played a game, Lords of Waterdeep, for which Godot was the production manager.

“With him I kind of hit the brother jackpot,” Sullivan said.

Kato and Godot paid a visit to Sullivan in October. After spending the weekend visiting, seeing a play and checking out Spokane, Kato wrote a letter about the experience, “I feel as if Don and I have known each other all our lives.”

After years of mystery, Sullivan has learned a lot in a short time, and he’s glad to have learned it. It answered many of the questions he’s had, though it has left others. Photographs of his parents now sit framed on the kitchen counter. The scrapbook Gayle made for him is full of photos and family details. And he still has the original photo of his mother – the photo that he once thought was Aunt Betty.

“I think I’ve come to the end of what I need to know,” he said.

Though maybe not entirely.

In a couple of months, he’ll travel to Los Angeles to visit his aunt, Kato’s mother. One of the activities they’ve planned is watching some old home movies of his father together.

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