I have never seen a more fitting example of the saying “truth is stranger than fiction” than in the case that I am about to share with you. The family involved has asked that I publish their experience in the hope that others can be helped by it. Further, they wish to emphasize upfront that this is not intended as a negative DNA testing story and that they are thankful for the knowledge gained through their tests.
In October of 2012, I was contacted by a genealogist named Paula*. She told me that she and her daughter Ashley* had taken autosomal DNA tests at 23andMe and enjoyed it so much that they had encouraged Paula’s husband and Ashley’s father, Jeff* to test as well. Shockingly, when the results came back, he showed no genetic match to his daughter. (*Names have been withheld at this time for privacy. Update - the family has now publicly revealed their identities. They are Pam, John and Annie Branum.)
Paula explained to me that just over twenty years ago; she and her husband were having difficulty conceiving. Their OB/GYN referred them to a fertility clinic associated with the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (They have since learned that the legal name of the clinic was Reproductive Medical Technologies, but at that time only knew it as the University's clinic.) Paula underwent artificial insemination with her husband’s sperm several times unsuccessfully and they were thrilled when she conceived on what they had decided would be their last try in mid-August of 1991. They have been blessed with their wonderful daughter, Ashley, for the ensuing 21 years. Paula proudly told me that Ashley excels at everything that she tries – music, dance and even physics - and that she had always expressed an inexplicable desire to learn Russian. Paula had sometimes pondered from whom Ashley had inherited her elegant, long fingers and musical talent, but assumed those traits had somehow skipped a generation or two in Jeff’s or her own family.
After this discovery the family decided to undergo traditional paternity testing and they were not surprised when the results confirmed 23andMe’s findings. Since they were desirous of knowledge about Ashley’s paternal biological heritage, I advised them to have her tested at the other two major genetic genealogy testing companies, Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA, in order to search for close paternal relatives. What we all expected to eventually find was another family who had been clients at the same fertility clinic and had their sample accidentally switched with Jeff’s. Paula and Jeff wondered if Jeff might have a child out there somewhere being raised by Ashley’s biological father.
When Ashley’s results came back at AncestryDNA, Paula immediately noticed that Ashley had a predicted 2nd cousin who was not from Paula’s side of the family. Paula’s family has deep Southwestern United States roots and 23andMe’s Ancestry Composition clearly distinguished between her genetic contribution to Ashley’s genome and this unknown significantly Eastern European biological father.
|Ashley's ancestral makeup with Eastern European represented by green|
Paula bravely told her story to Ashley’s new cousin via AncestryDNA’s messaging system and waited for a reply. It took about a month, but when the reply came, it was not what had been expected. Cheryl* told Paula that her first cousin, Thomas Ray Lippert (his real name), had lived in Salt Lake City and had mentioned to the family that he was a sperm donor. A sperm donor? That was a strange twist since Paula and Jeff had never requested donor sperm. Further discussion revealed that not only had Tom claimed that he was a sperm donor, but he had actually worked at the fertility clinic Paula and Jeff had used.
When Cheryl shared her cousin’s name and photo with Paula, the memories came flooding back. Paula and Jeff had actually known Tom Lippert. He had worked at the front desk of the clinic and also as a tech in the back. Paula remembered him proudly displaying dozens of photos of babies behind his desk, boasting that he had helped all of their parents conceive. Looking at all of those beautiful babies and Tom’s confidence gave Paula hope that she and Jeff could have the baby that they so desperately wanted as well. She never could have imagined how far Tom apparently would go to “help” couples conceive. When Paula broke the news to Jeff and showed him Tom’s photo, he told her that he too remembered him and recalled thinking that Tom was a bit odd when he handed him the sample receptacle and the magazine.
|Thomas Lippert as a young man|
Cheryl told Paula that Tom was deceased and had been an only child, but that his mother was still living and offered to arrange for a DNA test to be done to confirm their suspicions. This test eventually confirmed that Tom was indeed Ashley’s biological father.
|Tom's mother's DNA compared to Ashley's DNA, confirming the relationship|
Heartbreakingly, Tom’s now 99-year-old mother was excited at the prospect of having a grandchild since Tom had never fathered any children other than the ones that he told his family had been conceived through his “donations”. He had even sent his mother a photo of a darling little boy that he claimed was his biological child, but he did not share the boy’s name or his whereabouts.
|An unidentified child Tom Lippert claimed to have fathered through sperm donation|
When Tom’s mother saw the photos of Ashley, her only known grandchild, Cheryl related “she hugged them to her chest with such joy.” Although Tom’s mother was innocent in all of this, understandably, Paula and her family were initially conflicted as to whether they wanted to get further involved with Tom’s family, but over the past year since this discovery they have proven to be extremely helpful and supportive. Cheryl has been a very good friend to the family and this has helped to ease the difficulty of the situation in which they have all found themselves.
Paula’s family still held out hope that it was all just a big mistake and that Tom had not intentionally substituted his sperm for Jeff’s, but what they discovered next made that possibility seem increasingly less likely.
In the second phone call with Paula, Cheryl revealed Tom’s troubled past. Expressing that she wanted to be completely upfront, she told Paula that Tom had served time in prison for kidnapping a female college student. Sickened by this knowledge, Paula searched the Internet for any additional information on him. She was shocked to find an article from People Magazine dated October 20, 1975. What she read was horrifying. The article stated that Tom had been a brilliant law student at Notre Dame Law School and had gone on to a promising early career as a law professor at Southwestern State College. However all that changed, when at 25, he was accused of hatching a bizarre plan to kidnap a young Purdue student and hold her as a prisoner in a “love experiment”. The student was reportedly kept in a black box and subjected to electro- shock therapy in an attempt to brainwash her into falling in love with Tom. After his arrest by the FBI, Tom hired the famed attorney F. Lee Bailey to defend him. Bailey negotiated a plea bargain for him and Tom pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to kidnap and received a sentence of six years in prison, serving two. (See here and here for more information on the case.)
|F. Lee Bailey with Thomas Lippert (purchased on eBay)|
While Tom’s family disputes some of the charges due to the fact that the victim visited several of their homes and appeared not to be under duress, they concede that whatever the true circumstances, his actions were highly questionable.
The fact that Tom, a felon convicted of victimizing a young woman, was later hired by a clinic whose patients were vulnerable women desperate to conceive, is simply incomprehensible. Obviously, this was one of the last positions that Tom should have been permitted to hold. Paula discovered that after marrying his third wife and being released from prison, Tom had lived in Minnesota for a few years. He eventually moved to Salt Lake City, taking classes at BYU, and his first job was working in the Reproductive Technologies fertility clinic where he was employed for nine years from 1986-1995* (recently updated to 1986-1997 or 1998). This begs the question: Could he have fathered hundreds of children? Paula realized that those dozens of photos that Tom so proudly displayed behind his desk may have been his biological children. She wondered if she should tell Ashley this distressing news about her biological father. Following her deeply held convictions, she decided that Ashley must know the truth and that they must do everything in their power to alert the other families potentially affected by Tom’s actions.
|Tom Lippert as he looked when he worked at the clinic|
Paula and I have discussed the potential implications of this around the Salt Lake City area, where half-siblings may be unknowingly coming into contact with each other and developing romantic relationships. Since Tom claimed to his family that his sperm was also frozen and shipped to other states, families outside of Utah could be affected as well. This concern is the main reason that Paula and her family have made the unselfish decision to share their story publicly. She explained it to me with these words, “We've talked about losing our privacy when this first comes to light…If we keep this private we won't be able to say, ‘It's okay, we're going through this and we're stronger for it. You too, need to find out if you went to this clinic for this type of procedure (or any other where your husband's sperm was used) during these nine years. These possible half siblings may be attending the same colleges and developing relationships.’" She continued, “I also feel strongly that this can be stopped in the future from ever happening again. Independent DNA testing [should be mandatory] after the baby is born when using any kind of sperm procedure. No one would do this knowing they would immediately be found out.”
I don’t think any of us can imagine the emotional upheaval this revelation must have caused the family or how violated they must have felt, but through it all they have remained upbeat and thankful for the gift that these unfortunate circumstances brought them - their beautiful daughter, Ashley. She is an outstanding, well-adjusted young woman who has handled this shocking revelation about her origins with bravery and a positive attitude. This is a strong testament to the wonderful parents that raised her. Their family really is an incredible example of love triumphing over adversity.
It might surprise some to hear Paula’s thoughts on DNA testing and how it has affected her family’s lives. “We still believe wholeheartedly in DNA testing for genealogy,” she told me. “The three of us have said we are glad we now know and if we had it to do over, we would do 23andMe again.” She also expressed to me how thankful she was with 23andMe’s quick response to her concerns. “They got back to me within 15-20 minutes of me first writing to them. I was in a panic and it was at the end of the day. It meant everything to hear back from them so quickly.” She is steadfast in her conviction that this is something that her family needed to know. She added, “My husband also said that he was glad to find out while he is alive. He wouldn’t want Ashley to ever think that if he had known the truth, maybe he wouldn’t have loved her. He had that opportunity and he made sure she knew he loves her just as much and to him it is insignificant. He is her father and always will be.”
So, you are probably wondering by now - what is the family’s recourse? Tom is in an early grave due to alcoholism (perhaps brought on by a guilty conscience?) and the clinic in question is no longer in business. When contacted and informed of Tom’s alleged treachery, the University of Utah claimed that he was, in fact, a “popular donor”. With his criminal background, this seems highly doubtful. When pressed for his donor number, they have been unable or unwilling to supply it to Paula, Ashley or even Tom’s widow, although all should be legally entitled to it if it indeed ever existed. Paula was reportedly told that they were unable to release it due to privacy concerns. However, when Tom’s widow requested it, which is her right as his next of kin, she was reportedly told that they did not have that information. (Sperm donor registries were searched under the name of the clinic and the university for any donors fitting Tom's description - none were found.) Further, the university has so far declined to contact the families who conceived at this clinic during the years that Tom worked there and advise them of the situation.
Both families, including Tom’s cousin and widow, support Paula in her efforts to get to the truth. We believe that any other families affected would want to know as well. There is much more to this story – too much to share here today. The bottom line is that we are hoping that couples who used the Reproductive Medical Technologies Clinic in Salt Lake City (which they, like Paula, may have simply known as the University of Utah’s fertility clinic) to conceive between 1986 and 1995 will hear about this story and reach out to Paula. We have set up a site for inquiries (here). If couples suspect that they may have been one of Tom’s victims, they are encouraged to have their children tested at 23andMe where the DNA of both Ashley and Tom’s mother is in the database for comparison purposes. Testing at either of the other two companies – AncestryDNA or Family Tree DNA - will also match any half-siblings to Ashley’s DNA.
“I think about the families in SLC who will have this to deal with this, this year. I want the truth for these families and then to move on with our lives. “ – Paula
We will keep everyone informed of any significant developments in this very important story.