Angela Raven read the story last year about Ronald Perreault, who was left as a baby in a parked car in Portland 83 years ago, and considered reaching out to him.

“I had been doing some (genealogy) research in my own family and I just thought I might be able to help,” said Raven, who lives in North Yarmouth.

Clara Sargent and James Maddix, Ronald Perrault’s birth parents, and his younger sister. Photo courtesy of Donna Woodward

She didn’t call, but Perreault’s story continued to rattle around in her head. It was fascinating. Who had left the swaddled infant? And why?

Almost a year later, shortly after the state had shut down because of the pandemic, Raven had some extra time on her hands. She was browsing on Ancestry.com and saw a post from Perreault. He had recently gotten his DNA results back and was looking for someone to assist with the next step – identifying his parents, and any other blood relatives, and perhaps finding some clues about why he was abandoned all those decades ago.

“I figured it was fate,” Raven recalled.

This time, she did reach out to Perreault, who lives in Virginia.

“She said she’d be honored if I’d give her my information,” Perreault said of that first email. “And I told her I was honored to have her help. I hadn’t gotten very far on my own.”

The popularity of websites like Ancestry, as well as television shows like “Finding Your Roots,” has spurred tremendous interest in genealogy. With more and more people taking DNA tests and uploading their results, finding connections has never been easier.

Could the same happen for Perreault?

And what else would Raven uncover?

***

It was only last year that Perreault first learned anything about his origins.

As an infant, he was left in the back seat of a car at a home on Deering Street that belonged to a local doctor. He was clothed and nursing a bottle of still-warm milk, according to a newspaper clipping, but there was no note or anything to identify him. He was taken to a local hospital, where nurses nicknamed him “Billy Sunshine.”

When no one came forward to say he was their child, the baby was adopted by Arthur and Hazel Perreault of Sanford, who named him Ronald.

Perreault knew at an early age that he was adopted, but Arthur and Hazel couldn’t offer any more details. They did provide him a good home, though, and he graduated from Sanford High School in 1955 and enlisted in the Air Force. During an assignment in Biloxi, Mississippi, he met Willie Mae Hilburn. They married in 1958 and had two sons.

Angela Raven, the genealogist who found Ron Perreault’s birth parents. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)

After spending 20 years in the Air Force, Perreault was discharged and he moved his family to Woodbridge, Virginia. He had a second career as a civilian contractor for the Army before retiring.

He said he always wondered about the mystery of how his life began but never spent much time looking for answers.

In 2018, Willie Mae died just a few months before the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary.

A few months later, Perreault was looking for something to occupy his time and decided to see if he could learn more about his roots. That’s how he ended up in Maine with a Press Herald newspaper clipping showing pictures of him under a headline, “Baby Abandoned in Auto.” One of the photos matched an undated picture his adoptive parents had given him years ago.

It was a remarkable find, but it wasn’t enough.

So he took a DNA test and created a profile on Ancestry.com but didn’t have the technological acumen to go much further. He posted on a message board in January, hoping someone out there might help take it forward.

***

Raven first saw the post in March but didn’t connect with Perreault until April and didn’t get access to his DNA matches on Ancestry.com until May 1. That’s when her research began.

The way the process works is that each match is assigned a number of centimorgans, the unit for measuring genetic linkage. The higher the number, the closer the relationship. For a parent and child, the number is in the range of 3,400. For siblings, it’s closer to 2,600. The next level down, around 1,900 centimorgans, things get trickier. That number can mean a grandparent or a grandchild. It can mean an aunt or uncle, or a niece or nephew. Sometimes, it can mean a half sibling.

Raven started by looking for the closest matches, including a woman named Lisa Spears in Georgia. The woman had no idea how she might have been connected to Perreault or to some other common matches. But her mother was adopted, too, so that might have been part of the reason.

Raven kept going.

Perreault’s case was challenging, she said, because neither birth parent had ever been identified. But Raven had learned some tricks. One was a clustering method that helps sort out DNA matches along a person’s four grandparent lines. Another involved DNA triangulation, or looking at the public family trees of the closest matches to find common ancestors.

Criminal investigators increasingly have been using DNA to help identify murder victims who had previously been unidentified. This year, a California murder victim from 1968 was identified as Anita Piteau, an Augusta woman who had disappeared around that time. The discovery led to her remains being brought back home to be buried.

Ron Perreault looks at newspaper articles while visiting the spot on Deering Street where he was found abandoned in a car. Staff photo by Derek Davis

One of the keys to unraveling Perreault’s mystery was his closest DNA match. He shared about 1,900 centimorgans with her, which meant the relationship could only be a half sibling, grandparent/grandchild, or uncle/niece.

Based on the woman’s age, 22 years younger than Perreault, Raven ruled out grandchild. She then ruled out half sibling because the woman’s parents were close in age to Perreault, meaning neither could be his parent.

That left only niece, and based on the level of centimorgans, it meant she was his full niece. Perreault was a full sibling to one of the woman’s parents. The Telegram is not naming her because she did not return a message for this story.

Raven then worked to find documents that would link Perreault to the woman’s mother. She also used an online tool, DNA Painter, that let her build a family tree and plug in hypothetical parentage lines. In the end, there were only two possible parents left for Perreault.

“I had to go up and down a bunch of different family trees before I was sure,” she said.

***

Raven was confident that she had identified Perreault’s birth parents by June, but she wanted further documentation. The final piece of confirmation came on July 17 – an original birth record from the Maine Historical Society. She called it her Holy Grail. There it was, Perreault’s given name: Louis Joseph, born to James Maddon and Clara Sargent. The father’s last name was misspelled – it’s actually Maddix – but that was common in those days. All the other details matched what Raven had uncovered. Perreault had been celebrating his birthday in January his whole life, but he was actually born Feb. 28.

“It was like a puzzle she put together,” Perreault said. “It was beyond my imagination.”

Perreault’s birth parents died long ago, but Raven found obituaries for both in the Bridgton News that helped fill in some details.

Sargent was in born 1898 in the rural York County town of Cornish. Her obituary says she married Maddix in 1936 – she was 38 at the time – and they lived in West Fryeburg. She sometimes worked as a chambermaid and housekeeper. She died in 1963 at a Portland hospital after a short illness. She was survived by three daughters, Sadie, Doris and Mary, according to the obituary.

Maddix was born in 1900 and raised in Prince Edward Island, Canada. He came to Maine as a young man and was naturalized in 1936, his obituary said. He was employed in lumber operations at Western Maine Forest Nursery. He died in 1973, 10 years after Sargent, at a nursing home in Dixfield. His obituary said he was survived by three daughters as well, but two – Sadie and Doris – were listed as stepdaughters.

Neither obituary mentioned the baby they gave up.

Raven found more.

Sargent, it turns out, was married once before to George Devine, a farmer turned lumberman. He was the father of Sadie and Doris, who are separated by 10 years. The couple also had a boy, Donald, who was two years older than Sadie, records show. Donald was not mentioned in Sargent’s obituary. Sargent and Devine moved around between Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, according to census records, but divorced in 1938 after 20 years. Records show the cause was “utter desertion” by Devine. Donald would later live with his father.

The divorce occurred two years after Sargent supposedly married Maddix. Raven found no marriage record for them.

Maddix was previously married as well. After nine years, he initiated a divorce due to “cruel and abusive treatment,” according to documents Raven found. That was in 1936, the same year he supposedly married Sargent.

But that wasn’t all.

***

Raven had a hunch about one of Perreault’s close DNA matches, Lisa Spears, the Georgia woman. The level of centimorgans suggested she might be a half niece, or that one of Perreault’s parents was a grandparent to her.

Spears knew only that her mother, Isabelle, was adopted by a couple in Vermont.

“We knew she was left on a doorstep, but that was it,” Spears said.

Raven found newspaper clippings from the Rutland Herald in 1931, the same year Isabelle was born, that revealed a baby girl was left on the doorstep of a home in Pittsford, Vermont. The circumstances were eerily similar to how Perreault would be left six years later.

Could it be?

Eighty-two years ago, Ron Perreault, a 3-months-old, was left in a parked car on Deering Street in Portland. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Raven’s research revealed that Isabelle was born Mary Ann to an Italian immigrant who went by John in the United States, and Clara Sargent. The birth was a little more than two weeks before the child was abandoned. There is no record that Mary Ann grew up because she was renamed by her adoptive parents. Another newspaper clipping referred to the abandoned baby being adopted by a couple with a 10-year-old daughter. Isabelle’s adoptive parents had a 10-year-old daughter at that time.

When Raven sent Spears the newspaper clippings, she was floored. The surname of the family where the baby was left, Godette, is the same name her mother used to say was her real last name. Spears later found a birth record for her mother that confirmed what Raven already uncovered.

“I’m so glad Angela reached out,” Spears said. “It was sad, of course, but I wanted to know the truth.”

Isabelle died in 1981 of breast cancer. She was 49.

In 1931, Sargent was still married to Devine, which could explain her decision to abandon Isabelle, although records suggest he already had deserted her.

Furthermore, Doris Devine, the third child of Clara and George, later learned that her biological father was the same Italian immigrant. She was born one year before Isabelle.

Doris died in 1999. Her obituary lists Devine and Sargent as her parents but it also says that “because of family hardship,” an aunt and uncle raised her. Sadie, Doris’ sister, was largely raised by extended family as well, Raven found.

Doris’ daughter, Donna Woodward, who lives in Fryeburg, said she knew about her mother’s real father but didn’t find out about Isabelle and Perreault until recently, when Raven helped connect the dots.

Woodward was 11 or 12 when her grandmother died but remembers her well.

“She always seemed a little aloof,” Woodward said of Sargent, whom she called Nana. “She was good to us, she just wasn’t nurturing. She didn’t show a lot of emotion.”

“I think maybe she was just dealing with all her demons and sadness.”

***

Clara Sargent gave birth to a total of seven children with three different men. One son, her last pregnancy, was stillborn.

She had two children with Devine, then two with the Italian immigrant, the second of which she gave up. Six years later, she had another child, this time with Maddix, and gave him up too. That was Perreault. Less than a year after he was left in a car in Portland, Sargent was pregnant with his sister, Mary, whom she and Maddix raised.

Perreault said he doesn’t know why his parents would have abandoned him but kept Mary. But he isn’t bitter about it.

“Clara, it seems, had a rough life,” he said. “Those were bad times and who knows the circumstances?”

At the time of his birth, his parents were living in Rumford, an hour and 45 minute drive to Portland, where Perreault would be left. The fact that Perreault was swaddled tight and left with a bottle of milk was a signal to him that whoever left him was trying to do the right thing.

“Maybe that was the best choice for them, I don’t know,” he said.

He’s spoken a handful of times to Mary since he learned she was his sister. She has some memory loss, Perreault said, so he’s not certain how much she understands.

Woodward, who has also spoken to Perreault, said she’s conflicted about sharing the details about her grandmother and “the men in her life.”

“They made choices that they chose not to share, even with family. Now, it’s all being dug up like bones,” she said. “Part of me says it’s dishonoring Nana by telling her story. But is it fair to Ron to keep it secret? I don’t think so.

“It’s a double-edged sword. In a lot of ways, it brings joy, but in other ways it brings pain and sorrow and confusion.”

For Perreault, his one regret is that he didn’t start searching sooner. Yes, he knows his birth name and who his parents are, but he may never know why they made the choice to leave him.

“It seems all the people who know the most details have passed away,” he said. “But I’m grateful for what I did find.”

Raven said she took great pride in researching Perreault’s past.

“It’s very intimate, in a strange way,” she said.

Perreault said Raven’s first name, Angela, is fitting. He calls her his angel.

They hope to meet in person when the world is no longer upside down.

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