Dawn Houle always wanted to know more about her family tree.
So, in 2013, she joined millions of Americans by taking a DNA test and requesting to be alerted to matches with other users of Ancestry.com.
“I grew up not knowing about any of the family that much,” she said. “I didn’t really know anything about my father’s side.”
She ordered the test, submitted her sample and waited for genetic matches to flow into her inbox.
“I thought it would be cool to know,” she said. “I know I’m a mutt, but what kind of mutt?”
Dawn, 52, has lived in Maricopa since 2016, moving here with husband Rob Vaught to escape the cold, traffic and allergies in Kansas City. They had visited and enjoyed Phoenix and decided to move to the region. A Realtor directed them to Maricopa.
What Dawn knew — or thought she knew — was that she was born in 1969 to her mother, Carol Whitt, at Rochelle Community Hospital in Rochelle, Illinois. She grew up in the nearby rural farming village of Ashton, about 75 miles west of Chicago. Her father was “out of the picture” by the time she was 7, she said.
She yearned to know more.
In fact, she would learn how little she really knew about her relatives. And about the family secret kept from her for decades.
“I thought I was reaching out to find possible relatives,” she said, “not realizing I would have this bomb dropped in my lap.”
“What they did was illegal.”
A difficult childhood
Childhood was rough, Dawn remembered. Money was tight. Her mother lacked ambition and relied on welfare to get by. She cleaned offices for cash under the table, but it was little more than enough to support her smoking habit. They didn’t have a car until Dawn was 14.
“She was uneducated,” Dawn said. “She had dropped out of school in the eighth grade to take care of the farm” after her grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. (Dawn did another DNA test several years ago to determine whether she had mutations in her BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. The results were negative.)
“She could charm people,” Dawn said of Carol. “She didn’t know a stranger. She was friendly in outside appearances but at home she was mean.”
Dawn’s memories include her mother spanking her with a hairbrush.
“When the hairbrush would break, she would then get mad because I broke her hairbrush,” she said, acknowledging that corporal punishment was more socially acceptable in the 1970s. “She was physically and mentally abusive.”
In 1978, when Dawn was 8, mother and daughter moved to Leavenworth, Kansas. Carol had become pen pals with an inmate at the federal penitentiary there and after visiting the man — his name was Ambrose Little Bear — they moved the 350 miles southwest to be closer to the maximum-security prison outside of Kansas City.
Dawn was sad to leave the farm where she had grown up but remembers being excited that she was finally going to have a dad, a fact she remembers Carol hyping ahead of the move. It turned out to be true.
As a child, Dawn had a favorite baby doll named Christy.
“I took her everywhere. I slept with her. She was my best friend,” Dawn said, recalling her mother left the doll in Illinois during the move. “I bawled and bawled for weeks until she had the doll mailed to us.” Dawn still has the doll today.
Ambrose, a Native American, was serving a 50-year sentence on a second-degree murder conviction for killing his half-brother after they had a heated, alcohol-fueled argument at the home of their mother.
“My dad said, I’m gonna go get my gun and I’m gonna kill you,” Dawn said. And he did.
He then called police to turn himself in.
Carol and Ambrose married in 1979, but he would remain behind bars for about two more decades.
Years went by without any close matches to Dawn’s DNA.
“I referred to my (family) tree as a stump,” she said, laughing.
In 2019, however, Dawn was sitting at her desk at home on a Friday morning, working her remote job as support program manager for government accounts for ScriptPro, a pharmacy technology company near Kansas City.
There it was — an email alert about a hit on her DNA.
After conducting a bit of research and making a few phone calls, Dawn determined the match was a niece, an odd discovery since she was raised an only child.
She asked Carol’s sister to take a genetic test. The results came back with another surprise: they shared no DNA.
“At that point I knew that either my mom and aunt weren’t sisters, or I was not a part of that family,” Dawn said.
That prompted a difficult discussion with the woman she thought was her aunt. The revelations burst forth.
Carol was not her birth mother, Dawn was told. Her biological mother’s name was Barbara Hughart, and she was a close friend of Carol’s. They had both lived in Ashton.
After Barb had become pregnant in 1969, she and Carol cooked up a plan, one kept secret by both families for more than 40 years. When Barb checked into the hospital to give birth, she used Carol’s name, Dawn learned. When her baby was born, Barb handed her over to Carol and her husband.
Dawn was shocked and angered at the betrayal.
“I was super upset over it — she’s been dead since ’09 — and no one in the fake family could say, ‘Hey, she wasn’t your mother,’” she said. “I had to beat it out of them, basically.”
With information from the woman she now calls her “fake aunt” and her new half-brother, Dawn pieced together a picture of her mother at the time.
Barb had been married multiple times and had several children, and apparently a drinking problem. She would work hard all week at her job and then decompress by spending weekends at the bar.
Barb died when Dawn was 12.
The identity of Dawn’s biological father is unknown.
Dawn also was told Carol had two miscarriages before Dawn was born. “Who knows if this is true because how do you trust anything at this point?” she said.
But she suspects Carol wanted a baby badly.
“She was from an abusive family, and I think she wanted something that she could love and that would love her back,” Dawn said. “I think the idea of a baby appealed to her but then you know as I got older and was no longer a baby, it was kind of like (Carol decided) I don’t really want her anymore.
“I have no feelings for her whatsoever, I never really did,” Dawn added of her fake mom. “I never felt like I bonded with her. I always felt like an outsider.”
No regrets, but questions
Though she has no regrets about the genetic truth coming out, Dawn does wish someone would have told her earlier, before any chance to meet and know her birth mother was sabotaged.
“It was a bombshell, but I now know why Carol treated me the way she did,” said Dawn, who thinks her resemblance to her real mother probably bothered Carol as well. “It’s kind of tough to feel like my bio mom had raised my other siblings but she didn’t want to raise me. She just handed me over.”
“Most days I think I’m at peace with it and then sometimes I think I’m just crazy,” she continued. “I’ll go a long time and have just all good days but then … I would like to know who my father is.”
She hopes for another DNA match to shine light on his identity.
Another question remains: was the deception her mother’s idea, or was it masterminded by Carol?
“I can see Carol being manipulative enough to coerce Barb, maybe planting little thoughts in her head,” she said. “I can’t say for certain, but it seems like something Carol was capable of.”
Dawn no longer speaks to her fake aunt, nor the woman’s daughter, who also apparently protected the secret for many years.
But she has gained a bunch of blood relatives — nieces and nephews and lots of cousins. She has three half-brothers, though only one is living, and perhaps a deceased brother, in addition to a half-sister who doesn’t want anything to do with the family.
Dawn has really hit it off with her “favorite new relative,” a niece named Ashton Brown from South Carolina.
Ashton, 33, the daughter of Dawn’s half-brother Scott, who died in the mid-’90s, took a DNA test at Dawn’s request to confirm their family ties. It established with 99% accuracy they were related.
They have yet to meet — and hope to do so someday — but have connected long distance, each gaining an appreciation for their newfound relative.
“I love her, we have so much in common,” said Ashton, noting their resemblance. “She’s my favorite aunt that I’ve never met. I love her to death and would do anything for her.”
An unlikely father
In a story with many surprises, one of the biggest is Ambrose — the convicted murderer and Leavenworth inmate turned pen pal turned stepfather turned Dad.
He became a model inmate, staying away from drugs and other contraband, and showing respect to the prison guards, Dawn said.
“He was a decent guy who made a drunken mistake,” she said. “Should you kill somebody? Absolutely not. Were there extenuating circumstances? Yes. I don’t think it helped that he had a jury trial, and the jury was entirely white.”
He served about 33 years of his sentence before making parole.
He died in 2013, but before his death he became an important part of Dawn’s life.
“He was a good role model because he was around people in Leavenworth who were mafia people, bank robbers and that sort of thing,” she said. “He was always saying don’t do this, don’t do that. He knew where I would end up if I didn’t listen to him.”
“I love my stepdad and still refer to him as my dad to this day.”
In fact, she celebrates his memory with a small tattoo off her right shoulder with his name. More recently, she had that tattoo incorporated into a full back inking inspired by her DNA discovery (see story at right).
Asked if she thought Ambrose knew about the deception at her birth, Dawn said she didn’t know for sure, but didn’t think so.
“I think he would have told me after Carol died,” she said.
Dawn said it’s funny when she looks back on the whole affair.
“All throughout my life, when anyone would meet fake mom Carol, they would comment that I was switched at birth or adopted,” Dawn said, laughing. “I don’t think I had a single boyfriend that didn’t tell me that.”
“If only I knew then what I know now.”
• • •
A life reborn
In her 20s, Dawn had a small tattoo on her hip. In 2013, she added a tattoo as a “fitting tribute” to Ambrose, the man she called Dad. It’s a Medicine Wheel, used by generations of Native American tribes for health and healing. It embodies the Four Directions, as well as Father Sky, Mother Earth and Spirit Tree — all symbolizing dimensions of health and the cycles of life.
In January 2021, Dawn decided to add a third, in part to acknowledge the discovery about her birth mother. She took her idea to the Redemption Tattoo shop in Maricopa. A heavy metal fan, she wanted a tattoo that would incorporate a phoenix — a symbol of rebirth from Greek mythology — and the opening lyrics to “Snuff,” a song by one of her favorite bands, Slipknot: “Bury all your secrets in my skin. Come away with innocence and leave me with my sins.” And she wanted the tattoo for her stepfather incorporated.
Dawn thought the theme of a falcon rising from its ashes captured a life that started in poverty and through diligent ambition and hard work became very successful.
Owner Nick Sanchez worked up a drawing he kept enlarging until it was a huge tattoo that would require the canvas of her full back. Finished in June 2021, it was a big, neck-to-tailbone inking that required 20 hours and a lot of pain for Dawn.
“I feel that’s what Carol did to me.”
DAWN HOULE AT A GLANCE
Family: Husband Rob Vaught. She has one grown son and he has three — both from previous marriages.
Maricopan since: 2016
Residence: Desert Passage
Pets: Three cats
Hobby: Designing furniture pieces (for her husband to make)
Books: Avid reader of suspense and historical fiction genres
Last book read: Harlan Coben’s “Win”
Favorite band: Stone Sour from her favorite musical genre, heavy metal
This story was first published in the March edition of InMaricopa magazine.