In October 2006, two male friends from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, packed their car and headed out on a road trip that would eventually take them through the Rocky Mountains on their way to Crater Lake, Oregon. One evening of their journey was spent at a campground in a small town in Idaho, where they met two local 20-something-year-old women, one of whom was Ashlii Laine. The four of them spent the evening together, with one thing leading to another. Early the next morning, the two friends from Wisconsin packed up their car and continued on their journey west while the two women returned to their nearby hometown.
They did not exchange contact information before parting ways.
A few weeks later, Ashlii realized that she was pregnant and immediately knew who the father had to be. Embarrassingly, she could only remember a few scant details about him — and his name was not one of them. Her friend couldn’t remember his name either. She decided to return to the campground where they had met to see what information they had on file.
Reluctantly, the owner of the campground provided the recorded name and address for one of the two young men who had been at the campground that day: Colin Johnson, who said he lived at 3913 Washington Avenue in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Sadly, whether the result of a deliberate ploy or a typo, this address immediately proved to be a dead end. What’s more, Colin was not her baby’s father; Colin’s traveling companion, whose name she could not recall, was who she really needed to find.
Months later, Ashlii gave birth to a healthy son whom she named Tucker. And for nearly 10 years, Ashlii held onto Colin’s contact information, every once in a while doing some research on her own, hoping that she could find Colin and, ultimately, Tucker’s father.
In October of last year, Ashlii emailed us. “I need to find my son’s dad,” her note started out. Its overall tone was desperate because, as in the dozens of other similar requests we receive weekly, by the time their pleas reach our inbox, the senders are usually pretty desparate. In some cases they have been searching for years, while in others they have hired other investigators who have failed them.
After speaking with Ashlii, I quickly determined that we had a few challenges that were going to make this particular search more difficult than usual. First, we didn’t have the name of the father, so securing Colin Johnson’s help was going to be crucial. Second, based on the results of a few Google searches that I did while Ashlii and I were on the phone, 3913 Washington Avenue in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, did not appear to be a real address. Lastly, there are about 30,000 people named Colin Johnson in the United States, so if the address didn’t pan out, we were stuck.
It seemed as though we were at the end of our journey to find Tucker’s father before it had even started.
I explained to Ashlii the risks she ran in paying me a retainer to proceed, but promised to give it the best shot I could if she asked me to move forward. I have a pretty good success rate with these kinds of jobs, but the honest truth is that you never know how difficult it’s going to be until you get your “car in gear and hit the open road.”
Ashlii said that she wouldn’t forgive herself if she didn’t even give it a shot, so she gave me the OK to start looking.
I was quickly able to find a few interesting tidbits. For one, there is indeed a Washington Avenue in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but there is no 3913 Washington Avenue. Based on my initial research, this was not totally surprising; it was completely plausible that either someone took down the wrong address or the friends were intentionally concealing their residence(s).
What was troubling, though, was that none of the four investigative databases that I regularly consult had any record of a person by the name Colin Johnson ever living on Washington Avenue. And expanding the search to include any Colin Johnson in all of Oshkosh gave me so many possibilities that my head was spinning.
But I wasn’t ready to give up. From experience, I know most people are not good liars —including me. If they do lie, they usually sprinkle in a few truths. So I took a shot that maybe his first name was actually Colin and that he actually lived on Washington Street, but that he had not been so truthful regarding some other details.
Bingo! This was the lucky break I needed.
I found a Colin Peters who lived at a different address on Washington Street in Oshkosh and who was exactly the age that we thought he would be (36) now. More important, he lived at the address on Washington Street in 2006, which was exactly when he reported it to the campground.
Without even thinking about it, I picked up the phone and called Colin. He answered the phone.
“Is this Colin?” I inquired.
“Yeah,” Colin replied.
“This is completely out of the blue, but were you in Idaho about 10 years ago, traveling with a friend across country?” I asked.
After a seemingly eternal pause, he admitted that he was.
“Holy crap!” I thought to myself, with my heart racing and adrenaline pumping.
I caught my breath and explained why I was calling. I outlined that I was working for a woman in Idaho who had met two people from Wisconsin 10 years ago and believed that he was one of the two. Colin seemed a bit guarded as he listened.
“I don’t think that was me,” he backtracked. “I’ve only been there with my parents — and that was about 10 years ago.”
What were the possibilities that two different young men named Colin from the same street in the same town with the same approximate year of birth happened to be in Idaho at around the same time?
I quickly decided that the odds had to be astronomical.
Normally, I would play it cool and try to develop a rapport before proceeding further with someone like Colin, but for whatever reason, I went straight for the jugular.
“Listen,” I said, cutting to the chase, “I am working for a woman in Idaho who met two people from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, back in 2006. All she is trying to do is find the father of her child, who hasn’t met his father and…”
Colin hung up the phone.
I don’t blame him. In my haste to get some answers, I didn’t really explain myself very well. And I didn’t even tell him that his traveling companion was the father, not him. I tried calling him right back, but he didn’t answer.
Over the next few days, I left a few messages.
I didn’t hear a thing.
Given Colin’s response (or lack thereof), I knew I had the right guy. But I couldn’t harass him. He wasn’t the father, and the only way I could get to the father was through Colin.
Together with Ashlii, we considered what our next step should be. If I showed up at his door, he would completely freak out. If I started calling other family members, I could put him in an awkward spot. So, we decided I should send him a letter. But not just any letter. I crafted the kind of letter that any person with a soul would have a tough time not responding to.
The letter took me hours to pen. I had one shot, and I was throwing all the chips on the table, so I had to perfect its contents.
Colin received the letter a few days later via one of the post office’s restricted delivery methods that requires the missive to be delivered only to the intended recipient.
Still no response.
Weeks went by.
I was disappointed, and so was Ashlii. We had gotten so close!
I thought regularly about what I could possibly have done differently or about other things I could do to help her out. And I talked to dozens of colleagues who helped come up with some ideas regarding how to find Tucker’s father.
From an investigative perspective, I knew I could have done a number of different things; but like most clients, Ashlii did not have an unlimited budget. The most direct and reasonable next step for her, I decided, was for her to explore talking to a Wisconsin attorney who might be able to help her vet her legal options.
I spoke to a few attorneys and passed along the information to Ashlii. Although I wasn’t all that optimistic they could help, I knew we were so close to the answer we were seeking that we had to try something.
Then, out of the blue in the middle of January, someone named Joe left a message. “I just received a letter, and I believe you are trying to contact me,” the message stated.
I called Joe right back. He was Colin’s travel companion! Colin had given him the letter just the day before. Joe lived quite a distance away from Colin, and they hadn’t seen each other in months. Besides, Joe said, “I had a lot going on in my life over the past few months, so I am kind of glad he didn’t give it to me earlier.”
Joe expressed that he was shocked by the news. He remembered the road trip and the night he spent in Idaho with Ashlii. He, of course, never thought that he would have had a child as a result of the experience, but if Tucker were indeed his child, he wanted to have a relationship with his son.
Joe was hesitant to call Ashlii and was hoping that I would reach out to her first. So I did. I told her that Tucker’s father had called me and wanted to speak to her. Ashlii was overcome with emotion.
Ashlii and Joe later spoke, and after 10 years of not knowing his father, Tucker finally got a chance to speak to his dad. And next week, Joe is flying to Idaho to meet Tucker for the first time.
Ashlii wrote me an unforgettable note: “I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all of your help. You have lifted a weight that has been on my shoulders for 10 years. Your job has got to be so rewarding.”
I love what I do and think I’ve got the best job in the world, but it’s cases like this make it so incredibly gratifying.