DNA test 'accidentally unlocks family mystery' for ABC News correspondent

"I took a DNA test and unlocked a family bombshell, completely by accident."

July 13, 2018, 5:01 PM

I took a DNA test and unlocked a family bombshell, completely by accident.

I wasn't looking for anything in particular, and didn't really know what I was doing. But I was able to make a family connection that I never knew existed, and it changed my life -- and especially my father's life -- forever.

My mother convinced me to take this test on 23andMe because she wanted to know what more about my ethnic, regional and national background. My dad was adopted in 1950 in Salt Lake City. We knew that, but we knew nothing about his biological family.

Over the years, we always had some curiosity, but my dad never wanted to know. His adoptive parents were so important to him, he didn't want to offend them in any way, and he thought that digging up some details about his biological family would create some rift within the family.

He wasn't interested, and so we never pursued it, but always wondered what was out there, who might be out there.

My mother and father divorced years ago, and my mother had this growing curiosity about my ethnicity. I was over at her house with my wife, and we were just sitting around a breakfast table, when my mother was explaining to me that she bought me a DNA test because she wanted to know.

At first, I was reluctant, thinking, "What difference does it make?"

My mother is Caucasian/European, to the point where I thought, "Okay, what variation of British/Irish/Scottish could I possibly be?"

But both my wife and my mom convinced me. My mom literally walked out with the test tube and said, "All you have to do is spit in this. We'll fill out the online profile together, and then you wait for the results."

At that time, I didn't know that 23andMe was also connecting relatives in this way through DNA. I had read about it, but wasn't familiar with the process.

I took the spit test and, right there at the dinner table, we quickly filled out the profile and all the details. After that, I went home, never thinking anything of it.

About a month later, I get an email from the company that read, "We have your results.” I clicked the email and took a look at my profile and found some interesting things, especially about my ethnicity and my background.

Of course, it was from my mother's side because she had already submitted her test to the site. We could see all the Western European, the British/Irish/Scottish, that sort of thing, but then there was this other part that showed that I'm Basque Spanish, and I had a small percentage of Native American, as well. I knew instantly that must have been from my dad, but, again, didn't think a whole lot of it.

I started navigating the website a little bit more and found this tab that pops up that reads, "Your DNA Relatives." Not knowing what I was doing, I clicked on the tab, and then this line of relatives pops up, but they're all distant relatives, like third, fourth, fifth cousins.

But all these interesting Spanish names pop up. I found that fascinating. The name that I grew up with is Johnson, which came from my dad's adoptive parents.

Then, there's this other section that you click on that reads, "Your Immediate Family." I clicked on that, assuming I would only find my mother because she put her profile in, and a warning pops up on the website that said, "Warning: You may not know everything that is in here," something to that effect.

It actually warns people, like, "Hey, get ready for some potential surprises," kind of thing. I clicked on it, and, there, I see my mother. I was expecting that, but one other relative popped up, and it said, "Possible first cousin." I looked at that, and I started thinking, "My mother has siblings, but they didn't have any kids." As far as I know, I don't have any first cousins, but I was thinking, "First cousin, that's a close relative. That's the immediate under the umbrella of your grandparents."

I looked at this profile, and I clicked this potential first cousin, and a name and a picture popped up. I didn't even look at the name. The picture blew my mind. My jaw dropped. I fell back into my chair, and I had to turn away from the computer for a moment and just think about this for a second because I saw a picture of a man who looks exactly like my dad.

At that moment, I knew this had to be my dad's brother. It had to be.

Remember, we had no idea what the story was with my dad's biological parents. We didn't know if he had siblings or anything, but in that picture and the way this man was sitting in this chair, his eyes, his mouth, my dimples -- I just knew it.

At that moment, I'm like, "This is a bombshell. This is a family revelation here. This is going to change everything for us," and I'm immediately thinking, "Well, how do I even contact this person or how do I talk to my dad? How do I figure out the story?"

I had no idea what I was getting into. It was more just like, "Hey, you know, where are you from?" That's the question people want to know, “Where are you from? What part of the world? What ethnic background? What countries do you have some affiliation to? Maybe you have distant relatives living in other parts of the world.”

I was curious, but I got into this having no idea that this kind of connection was possible.

As far as my dad's concerned, it was really a personal thing for my father. He loved his father and mother, again, his adoptive parents, so much and felt like it would be an insult to them and the love and the life they gave him if he explored this. They had passed away, his parents, my grandparents.

Little did I know, just as I made this discovery, my father had decided he wanted to learn about his biological mother after all these years and had started to do a little research online about taking DNA tests and family trees, but didn't find anything.

I was in a room by myself when all of this happened. I'm pacing around the room, going, "What do I do? How do I tell my dad?"

I called my mom and told her what happened. I told my wife, and then I wrote an email to my stepmother, who was with my dad that day. I said something to the effect of, "We need to talk to Dad. I made some kind of family discovery by accident on 23andMe," and she writes back to me and says this exactly. "How interesting. What service did you use?" I wrote back and said, "Honestly, I'm kind of freaking out because I may have just found someone related to Dad," and then I wrote in all caps, "VERY RELATED TO DAD."

We go back and forth and back and forth and I tell her about this man who was also born in Utah in 1956, six years later than my dad.

Then she writes back, "Oh, my God. Yes, Dad wants to know. We'll call you later."

I had reached out to the man who popped up on the website, and as I'm waiting to hear back from my dad and my stepmom, the man messaged me back, and he says, "Huh, I've been exploring all these DNA websites for years and never saw a relative this close. Tell me your story,"

I write back and I'm like, "Well, my dad was adopted in 1950 in Utah ... I'm looking at our genetic markers." He responds and says, "I think I'm your dad's brother."

This was the validation of what I instantly believed when I saw his picture. We go back and forth a little bit and then my dad calls me, and he's emotional. I could tell that he's flustered, and he says something like, "Whit, what's going on?"

I'm like, "Dad, I think I found something incredible that's gonna change all of our lives here," and I'm like, "You wanna know? What do you wanna know?" He said, "You know what? Just tell me."

I tell him, and he's in tears.

The thing is, I could sense in him that this was a release. He had been trying to find a way to break through to start looking. He had been suppressing these feelings. And it was like, at that moment -- this was two days before his birthday -- that it was as if we, by accident, did him this amazing favor.

We opened this new door to him. We walked him through it. He didn't have to take that first step anymore. We began this journey together.

All of this happened within just a couple of hours. This immediate discovery, and my dad's in tears, and I'm in tears, my stepmom's crying. Everybody can't believe what's happening here. By the end of the day, my dad and his brother are exchanging emails.

We decide that we're going to meet. My dad’s brother lives in Utah, where I actually worked as a reporter several years back, and learned that, for years, my uncle watched me on TV as an anchor and reporter in Salt Lake City, having no idea that I was his nephew. So, for him, when he put all of this together, it was a complete shocker.

ABC's Whit Johnson (left) is seen here with his father (right) and his uncle (center) in Utah.
ABC's Whit Johnson (left) is seen here with his father (right) and his uncle (center) in Utah.
Whit Johnson/ABC

When the three of us met in Utah, you could call it a reunion but it's not a reunion. It's the first union -- first time we'd met. And it's amazing, all the things they have in common -- some of their little geeky traits, how they're into fixing things, and their habits, and how they walk and how their hands look the same and their dimples look the same.We remained in contact. This uncle has a daughter, and so that would be my first cousin, and we had them both come to California to meet my family there, which was incredible.

ABC's Whit Johnson (center) is seen here with his father (left) and his uncle (right) in Utah.
ABC's Whit Johnson (center) is seen here with his father (left) and his uncle (right) in Utah.
Whit Johnson/ABC

Then my dad and his brother started looking at other legal records and documents and found that they had another brother. So, now we have three brothers, and they could tell by the genetic profiles there are three different fathers but the same mother.

So, my dad breaks the ice with this other brother who lives in Wyoming, and sends him a letter. He tells him about this process, and how this all happened. And this brother wrote back and explained his story. He said he was given up for adoption as well. So, all these kids, given up for adoption by the same mother, but the difference is it was his biological grandparents -– her parents -- who actually raised him, and his mother was sort of in and out of his life over the years.

So, he knew of her. He had pictures of her.

And so my dad, within a short period of time, learned his mother's name and saw a picture of her. They did a side-by-side comparison of childhood photos with my dad's high school picture next to her picture about the same age, and you see the striking similarities.

So we set up another meeting with all of the brothers. The third uncle from Wyoming brought a bunch of family photographs to talk about the background of the family.

From left to right: ABC's Whit Johnson is seen here with his uncle who lives in Wyoming, his father and his other uncle who lives in Utah.
From left to right: ABC's Whit Johnson is seen here with his uncle who lives in Wyoming, his father and his other uncle who lives in Utah.
Whit Johnson/ABC

With every step of the process, it was like a new wave of emotions. And it meant so much to my father, especially, since for years he was so reluctant to go on this journey, and here it is happening for him.

But the search continues. My dad and his brother in Utah have continued the process, looking into other public records and documents. But there are many twists and turns left in this family story.

We know that there's another sister out there, but we have no idea where she is. We would like to contact her at some point and share what we've found with her, but we haven't been able to do that yet.

The other thing is, we wonder about all the fathers. We know of at least three fathers in this whole mix, but we haven't been able to connect them through public records. We haven't been able to find any amount of information.

So, there could be another living father out there. There could be other siblings because these fathers could have gone on to have bigger families down the road.

So, who knows where the story goes from here?