Some might call the living room of Don Ray's small, one-bedroom home in Burbank, which serves as his office, a hazard area.
He likes to refers to it as "cluttered."
The place is stuffed with dozens of microfiche indexes for everything from voter registration to marriage certificates. His closet is packed with every imaginable phone directory. Ray even manages to work around two giant furry dogs without tripping.
"Don't dare touch anything in here," he warns, only half-joking. "I know exactly where everything is."
Ray, a 38-year-old investigative journalist, has a penchant for knowing where things--and people--are. He has investigated hundreds of stories for network news and local TV stations, among them the Southside Slayer, the Aeromexico plane crash in Cerritos and Ferdinand Marcos' California assets.
Pete Noyes, managing editor of KNBC news, calls him one of the best researchers in the country. He was recently hired to be field producer of a new investigative team at KCBS news.
But, late one sleepless Saturday night a few years ago, Ray began applying his investigative skills to the business of reuniting people.
Scans Classified Ads
"I did what I instruct a lot of my students to do," he said, referring to the UCLA extension journalism course he teaches, " . . . to look in the classified section of the newspaper for story ideas.
"So at 4 in the morning, when my Sunday paper arrived, I looked in the personals and found someone up in Seattle looking for an old friend. At a reasonable hour, I called the people in Seattle and said, 'Your guy is living over in El Monte.' "
The people in Seattle were pleased, but apprehensive. They asked Ray, "What's this going to cost?"
"I said, 'Look, there it is. Don't be so darn suspicious. Just call them and that's that.' "
Ray is a stocky guy who works in blue jeans, tennis shoes and embroidered Mexican wedding shirts. He wears a headset with a long extension cord so that he can work and talk on the phone at the same time.
Love of Things Latin
Although Ray is not Hispanic, he has a penchant for all things Latin, speaks passable Spanish, and "always" listens to contemporary Latin music while working. Photos from trips to Guatemala are displayed on the walls.
He stresses that he is not a private investigator. He does not find people as a business or accept any payment. In fact, he was described by one friend as "not having two nickels to rub together."
"That's not what I care about," he said. "I am an investigative journalist. But, when I don't have work, I use my professional skills as a hobby to do something positive. I'm sure it's all selfish, because I'm the one who gets the thrill out of it."
It's also the lure of the mystery that hooks him. "I have all this energy plus tenacity and impatience. Once I start, I'm obsessed until I find the answer."
But sometimes the answer can be heartbreaking.
A couple of years ago, Ray received a desperate phone call from a woman who had traveled from Houston to find her father. Brenda Moomey's parents had divorced before she was born and she had not seen her father since the age of 3. Moomey's mother and two children came with her.
At some point, the family had reason to go into the Pasadena Public Library. The historical research librarian knew of Ray and gave Moomey his phone number. She called but couldn't reach him. They got back in their car and drove to Santa Barbara to find the chapel where her parents were married. Then she called again.
"She was distraught," said Ray. "They didn't know what they were doing and stumbled around. Nothing was successful. She said they had driven all the way to Santa Barbara and the wedding chapel wasn't there anymore. It was late Friday, but I said, 'run over to the Santa Barbara County Recorder, find their marriage certificate, get a copy and phone me with the information. Then get in your car and drive down here as quickly as you can.'
"They made it down here, but there was nothing in my indexes about her father and it was too late in the day to get to the actual county records downtown."
Over the weekend they talked. Moomey had mixed feelings about finding her father. Why hadn't he ever looked her up or called? Didn't he want to see her?
Ray was young when his father died, so he empathized. He knew what feelings of emptiness were, he said.
On Monday, they went downtown.
"We went through old civil-case files and found reference to her father many years ago," said Ray. "There were some interesting, funny things about him being sued for hiring children to bad-mouth a candidate in front of a voting booth. Brenda then looked through old marriage books for remarriages by this man, and I got a copy of the statewide death records.
"That's where I found her father. He had died on the 4th of July in 1960, when she was 10. My father also died on the 4th of July when I was 10, but in 1959. A lot of emotions came up.
Consoled Each Other
"How do you tell someone that the father they never met has been dead for 24 years? I walked over to her, told her what I'd found and about the coincidence of our fathers' deaths. We just put our arms around each other."
Before Moomey returned to her job as a nurse in Houston, she tried to pay him. He turned her down, flat.
Two weeks later, Ray received this letter from her:
I have no regrets about finding my father and it would be a shame if you did. You must remember that every time something is taken away, you get something in return. You were God's gift to me. You were there when I needed you and I will love you for all time.
"Enclosed you will find some $. It is not much and certainly not meant to be a payment. You do not pay friends for deeds done. The next person, looking for a family member, who comes to you ... tell them it's on me."
"I can't read that letter without crying," said Ray. They have stayed in touch and are close friends.
"It's like falling in love with the doctor who saved you," said Moomey from her home in Houston. "Don probably knows more information about me than most people do. We shared something personal together."
Other efforts have had happier endings. About three years ago Ray, helped KFWB radio reporter Cleve Hermann after the two met at a party. Ray was introduced to him as "the man who could find anybody." He accepted a dare from Hermann to find a friend of his from 20 years ago.
"Within 24 hours I called Cleve on the phone and said, 'Cleve, how badly do you want to talk to this person?' He said, 'It's real important.' I told him I would snap my fingers, and I literally did. Through a conference call, I had his friend on the line and this great broadcaster just went crazy with excitement."
One woman had been looking for her brother and mother. She had no idea that they thought she had died 10 years ago of a drug overdose. It wasn't until Ray set up a conference call between the woman and her brother's wife that, shocked and stunned, they believed she was alive.
Ray's most recent find is probably his most rewarding one, he said. Belinda Magee left her mother's home in Florida three years ago to try to find her father. The 21-year-old computer data clerk had not seen him since she was a baby, and, like Brenda Moomey, had unanswered questions and a need to have her father in her life.
Ray provided the information Magee needed to make the first phone call. They are now beginning a joyful, yet cautious acquaintance.
"His first words to me were, 'I was expecting to get this call one day,' " said Magee.
A couple days later they met at her home. "He was scared and so was I. We didn't know what to say to each other. Finally, I just stood there and cried, and he walked over and hugged me.
"I could never have done it without Don. He found a lot of information for me and helped me emotionally through the whole thing. I think he's a wonderful person."
Magee's successful reunion with her dad last month has touched Ray deeply. Although he is happy for her, he feels great sadness for himself, he said.
'Have No Good Memories'
"My mother divorced when I was 8 and my father died when I was 10. I have no good memories of him, whatsoever. My mother is the most wonderful person in the world, but a man needs to have a father to look up to and ask about the inevitable things in life.
"I just feel so much love between Belinda and her father," said Ray. "But I'm envious, because the love's not mine. Sometimes it's not enough to share peoples' love vicariously.
"Then again, at the very least, I end up with a whole bunch of friends--for life."