Two Sisters Took a DNA Test. It Revealed Their Dad Had Been a Missing Person for Decades.

Rachael Rifkin
·12-min read
Photo credit: Courtesy of Family
Photo credit: Courtesy of Family

From Good Housekeeping

It all started out innocently enough. In 2017, Audrey Bell, a 51-year-old mother of triplets from Long Island, hopped on the internet to purchase a 23andMe testing kit to help her figure out which of her triplets were the identical siblings and which was the fraternal sibling. But when she received the results weeks later, they revealed something curious.

The testing was able to correctly identify which of her triplets was the fraternal sibling, but while their heritage was categorized as Southern European, the ancestry composition didn’t mention anything specifically about Italy. That struck Bell as odd, since her father, Richard Palmadesso, had always been so proud of his Italian ancestry. She mentioned the results to her twin, Cynthia McFadden, her younger sister, Stephanie Palmadesso, and her parents, who were also confused about the lack of Italian ancestry. (Cynthia and Audrey are twin sisters who go by their married last names.) Still, no one thought much of it at the time.

Then, at the end of 2019, Cynthia also decided to take a 23andMe test. Similarly, she was surprised to see that she had no Italian heritage. The sisters didn’t know what to make of their results, and grew more suspect this time around. Their father had passed away in 2017, so by this point, they couldn’t ask him any questions or have him take his own DNA test.

So they turned to their father’s closest known living relative, a first cousin who also happened to be named Richard Palmadesso, and asked him to take a DNA test, too. His results confirmed that the sisters were, in fact, not related to the Palmadesso family.

Unlike Audrey, Cynthia had decided to select the option for 23andMe to reveal any DNA relative connections in their database. She had matched with a person named Tom Martin — so Audrey decided to go back to her profile and turn on her DNA connections, too. Tom Martin also popped up as a match for her, saying the twins both shared 22 percent of their DNA with the man, which would make Tom either their grandfather or uncle.

The twins decided to use 23andMe to reach out to Tom, and they soon learned that he was a 79-year-old retiree living in Florida who had decided to test his DNA for a very specific and unusual reason: He had been trying to find his missing younger brother, Gerald “Jerry” Martin, for decades. Tom told the sisters that on July 9, 1945, Jerry, just two days shy of his 4th birthday, was kidnapped while he and Tom, then 6, were out riding bikes together near their home in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of New York City. As Tom recalls, the brothers were approached by a woman offering them candy. Jerry went off with the woman to get the candy, and Tom waited with the bikes. Jerry never came back.

Cynthia and Audrey wondered: Could their father, who they knew all their lives as Richard Palmadesso, actually be Jerry Martin?

Today, child kidnappings involving strangers is a rare occurrence in the United States, making up just about 1% of the cases the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children worked on in 2019. But we can’t be certain about the frequency or details of any kidnappings that took place before the 1980s, when the 1983 Missing Children Assistance Act was created and a national registry was established for missing children.

What we do know is that in the first half of the 20th century there were plenty of infant and child abductions, mostly for the purposes of black market adoption but also directly by women who wanted to be mothers but couldn't become pregnant for one reason or another. Whether there had been a national database at the time or not, it still would have been hard to put these incidents into numbers, because oftentimes people didn’t discover that a kidnapping had occurred until decades later, if at all. With no DNA testing available at the time, families might not know that the children they raised were not biologically theirs for several reasons: a mistake could have been made at a hospital, or a kidnapping could have been covered up. But during the first half of the 20th century, the typical profile of a kidnapper was a woman unable to have children who felt pressure from her partner or society to have one, often to maintain her relationship.

“There’s been a profile about women who steal children to raise as their own among police departments since the 1920s,” said Paula Fess, author of Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America, referring to a description of common psychological traits that law enforcement uses to categorize certain types of criminals. “You can imagine that if they had a profile, these were not isolated cases.”

With few job opportunities and other means of achieving financial independence, not to mention societal expectations and fear of domestic violence, these women didn’t always feel like divorce was a good option, Fess says. Sometimes going as far as gaining weight to appear pregnant and buying new baby gear, they would typically steal infants from hospitals or homes.

This was easier to accomplish back then than you might think. From the early 1900s to the 1940s, when hospital births were not as common, lax standards made it easier to snatch babies. Hospitals had also not yet developed standard procedures like ID bracelets for identifying mother and baby. (Today the disappearance of baby-viewing rooms, policies that keep babies with mothers and strict security guidelines have made infant abductions and infant switches at hospitals rare.) Birth certificates were also easy to fake before 1946, when the National Office of Vital Statistics began issuing and keeping track of them. Earlier birth certificates didn’t have as much information as they do today, nor were they given to people born at home — and back then home births still represented a large percent of all births. In fact, before World War II, up to 200,000 people were born in the U.S. every year that never got birth certificates.

Around the same time, adoption became harder. After the 1940s, during the Baby Boom years, stigma around being an unwed mother lessened and access to contraception and abortions increased. If you were a childless couple who wanted a child, you could adopt from a reputable adoption agency — but if you were unwilling to wait or were rejected by an agency and had the money, you could turn to black market adoption agencies.

Black market adoption agencies relied on pregnant unwed mothers, who were often pressured or outright coerced into giving up their babies — or the agencies might turn to kidnapping. “During the late 1940s and early 1950s, a lot of children were stolen by these adoption rings,” Fass says. “There was such a premium placed on having children that it was worthwhile for doctors to sacrifice their careers. They’d have the mothers, who were often young women and teenagers, sign their children over before they really knew what they were doing.”

According to Fass, if a person or couple wanted a child and could not afford a reputable adoption agency or even a third-party to obtain a child for them, it’s entirely possible that they might kidnap and raise a child as their own. In the past, the discovery of these kind of kidnappings was rare, but with the proliferation of DNA tests, cases have become more common.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Cynthia McFadden
Photo credit: Courtesy of Cynthia McFadden

Back in 1945, after Jerry’s kidnapping, his father Harold filed a report with the local police station. The New York Daily News also wrote an article about the incident, which mentions that the police suspected that Tom and Jerry’s biological mother, Nancy, had taken her younger son because she and Harold had recently gone through a contentious split. (At that point, Harold was already with another woman, with whom he had a young daughter named Mary, 1 at the time. He would go on to have two more children with his second partner.)

Over the years, Harold — and eventually Tom — would check in with the local police station for breaks in the case, to no avail. The kidnapping hung over the whole family for decades. According to Mary, until the day Harold died, he was convinced that Jerry was out there somewhere, still alive.

Suspecting that Richard Palmadesso was, in fact, the missing Jerry Martin, Cynthia asked her brother-in-law, who is in law enforcement, to look into the cold case. When he couldn’t find the file, the family was told it was possible it had been destroyed in a fire at the precinct. The New York Daily News article was one of only a few pieces of evidence the twins could find that revealed any details of the kidnapping. But as the women got to know Tom better, more similarities and clues popped up, backing up the DNA results.

After exchanging photos, they discovered that Tom and Richard looked strikingly similar. When they met Tom in person for the first time, around Thanksgiving of 2019, they discovered the similarities didn't end there. "The funny thing is when we met our Uncle Tom, we found out he loves a lot of the same things our dad did," McFadden says. "They both loved coconut cake, and movies and acting. Uncle Tom even had some headshots from when he was younger and wanted to be an actor."

Photo credit: Courtesy of Cynthia McFadden
Photo credit: Courtesy of Cynthia McFadden

So many things lined up, but the question remained: If Richard was Jerry, did the Palmadesso family know he was kidnapped? What did they know — and who knew?

According to his birth certificate, Richard Palmadesso was born in Staten Island on May 31, 1943 to Isabel and Angelo Palmadesso. Until then, Isabel and Angelo did not have children of their own together, but Isabel, who was in her 40s, already had two daughters in their 20s from a previous relationship. When Richard was 12, Isabel passed away and Richard was sent to live with his uncle, Giacomo “Jack” Palmadesso, Angelo’s brother. Richard stayed with his uncle’s family until he graduated from high school, but barely kept in contact with any family members after he moved out. Angelo died when Richard was 27.

Richard’s daughters knew that Angelo had served in World War II for approximately two years, arriving home to Staten Island in September 1945. They began to speculate that it was possible Isabel became pregnant right before or soon after Angelo left for the war, and maybe miscarried. Or possibly, for whatever reason, she had lied and told Angelo that she was pregnant. With the Nazi surrender to the Allies on May 7, 1945 and Angelo’s impending return in sight, did Isabel realize she needed to produce a 2-year-old son for Angelo when he arrived home, and decide to kidnap Jerry?

It was certainly possible. Unfortunately, there was no way for the sisters to prove their theory. While Isabel did appear to fit some elements of the profile of someone who would kidnap a child to raise as her own at the time, other pieces of the situation were out of step. “What’s unusual about this case, is that the child was stolen at the age of 4,” Fass says. “Normally in these types of cases, the children are infants because the women want to make their husbands think the child is theirs.”

But what was even harder to understand was how the situation might have been explained to little Jerry, if he had indeed been taken directly to the Palmadessos’ home in Staten Island after being abducted from Manhattan. That he had a new name and new parents. That instead of turning 4, he was now 2.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Cynthia McFadden
Photo credit: Courtesy of Cynthia McFadden

Today, Tom, Mary, Audrey and Cynthia are in constant contact by phone, text and Facebook. They celebrate each other’s special occasions (remotely for now), and the sisters share special memories of their dad with Tom and Mary. Earlier this year, Mary gifted Tom framed pictures of the time the sisters visited them in Florida. She gave them to him for Father's Day since he never had any children of his own.

“Mary and Tommy are very warm and loving and have accepted us with open arms," Cynthia says.

Still, for Audrey and Cynthia, it’s been sad to find out that their father was kidnapped, because he missed out on having brothers and sisters that he could have been very close with. Even though there’s still so many unanswered questions, learning about his kidnapping have given the women further insights into their dad. While he could be kind, funny and silly, he also suffered from bipolar disorder and constant anxiety, and there was always a disconnect between him and his family that the twins could never understand. Now, it all made more sense as to why most of the Palmadesso family didn’t keep in touch with Richard, and made little or no effort to get to know his wife and children.

Tom seems to have gained some closure as well. “He gets upset that they didn't find each other in time to meet again, but is happy knowing that my father had a family that loved and cared for him," Audrey says. "He is certain that my dad is now finally back together with his real mother and father.”

If you know anything about Gerald Martin’s kidnapping, or have discovered a non-family kidnapping like Gerald Martin’s in your family, you can email Rachael Rifkin with more information. She’s collecting stories like these.

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