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A Sergeant’s Major News

Times Staff Writer

In a tiny Army supply office in Al Asad, Iraq, last month, Sgt. Felecia Dorsey was too nervous to dial the number. She had another soldier do it.

The phone rang 7,600 miles away at the busy Hair Masters beauty salon on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. It was so noisy in the shop that owner Larry Maston flipped on the speakerphone so he could hear better.

It was then that Dorsey introduced herself as the daughter he’d never known he had.

Women sitting at the stylists’ stations in L.A. gasped as Maston whooped with joy. In Iraq, soldiers who had gathered around Dorsey cheered when she relayed his response.

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Maston was stunned to learn that the child he fathered 34 years ago with a girlfriend had not died at birth as he’d been told. The infant had lived -- and was immediately given up for adoption by her birth mother.

Dorsey had worried about making contact. Others had warned her that the person on the other end of the line might hang up.

“They might not want to see me,” she said later. “They might not want to be bothered.”

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Dorsey, who was raised in Monrovia, was never told about her birth parents. She enlisted in the Army after high school. Shortly after she was deployed to Iraq in 2004, her adoptive parents died five months apart.

Their loss made Dorsey wonder about the biological parents she had never known. Being in a war zone, she had a practical as well as personal curiosity: Did her birth parents have medical histories she should be aware of?

A fellow soldier had heard about other adoptive children turning to private investigators to find their parents.

So Dorsey decided to give it a try.

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Using a computer at her desert outpost, she began looking for a detective to help. She eventually settled on Florida private eye Susan Friel-Williams.

“Dear Miss Williams, I don’t know whether to break down in tears or scream out loud,” Dorsey wrote. “My adopted parents are deceased and I know nothing about myself except that my name was ‘Mimi’ and at age 7 it was changed.”

Williams was surprised by the message from Iraq. Her Fort Myers-based firm, International Locators Inc., routinely does missing-person searches.

But this inquiry was different.

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Williams’ interest was sparked not only by the emotional plea, but by the fact it involved a soldier in Iraq.

Her company agreed to help Dorsey for free.

As she began her investigation, Williams discovered that Dorsey had been returned by two potential adoptive families before finding a home with a third family. In 1972, one foster family named her Barbie. The second one named her Mimi in 1974. The Dorseys named her Felecia -- and they chose to keep her.

“The more information I found, the more I wanted to help her,” Williams said. “But I thought I’d run out of options when I found out that Felecia’s birth mother was dead.”

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Williams pored over social services records dating back three decades, finding fragments that began to tell her what happened. Six months of sleuthing later, Williams found an extended Los Angeles family that Dorsey never knew she had.

She e-mailed their names and phone numbers to Iraq.

“Susan had warned me that it could end up pretty bad,” Dorsey said. “I was so nervous I couldn’t dial the phone. My Army roommate had to do it for me.”

Those in Dorsey’s supply section crowded into her office as the call went through. They waited apprehensively, listening silently to their sergeant’s end of the conversation. “We have a strong family bond in our office. Everybody is very supportive of each other,” Dorsey said.

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Back at Maston’s L.A. salon, customers listened in amazement as their stylist reacted first with astonishment and then joy.

“Since I’m old and can’t hear very well, I put it on the speakerphone. Everybody was sitting there with their mouths open,” said Maston, 63. “I’d known about the baby, but I’d thought she had died at birth.”

The conversation, routed through a military phone system, lasted only a few minutes.

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“She asked me what I wanted her to call me. I told her that my son -- her brother -- calls me ‘Old Man.’ She said, ‘I’m going to call you ‘Dad.’ ”

Dorsey’s Army buddies cheered when they heard her say that and saw the huge smile on her face.

There was a flurry of calls between Iraq and Los Angeles after that. Maston and other family members learned more about his lost daughter.

He found that he has a 14-year-old granddaughter named Tatiana Miles. And that his daughter will be marrying another soldier later this year.

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Not all of Dorsey’s news was joyful.

Her birth mother, Mary Santos, died of a heart ailment a year and a half ago. Her maternal uncle died under similar circumstances this year. On the positive side, her maternal aunt, Priscella Santos, lives in West Los Angeles.

The most delicate part of their discussions dealt with how Dorsey came to be adopted.

Maston said he and Mary Santos had been in a relationship for several years. Dorsey, it turned out, has a brother who was born about a year and a half earlier, Ugene Wilson of Claremont.

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Maston said he and Santos broke up around the time Dorsey was born, though they remained friends throughout her life as he helped with Ugene’s upbringing.

“She told me that the baby was stillborn,” he said.

Because Santos was considered the custodial parent at the time, no one contacted Maston about the adoption in 1971, he said.

“The day she died she called me here at the shop, but I was too busy to talk. I told her I’d call her that night,” he said. He learned of her death when he tried to call her back.

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“I think she knew she was dying and was going to tell me about our daughter,” said Maston, who lives in a neighborhood south of Silver Lake.

“The funny thing is that Felecia lived nearly her whole life within a 10-mile radius of her mother.”

Priscella Santos speculates that another family member persuaded her sister to give the baby up for adoption.

“I didn’t know, and my sister told me everything,” she said. “It’s so amazing. Even though she’s gone, it’s like my sister has sent a message to us.”

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Last week, Dorsey’s unit returned to Ft. Hood, Texas. When debriefing is completed Friday, she will be granted a leave. And her father, brother, sister-in-law Vanessa Wilson and aunt will be there to meet her in person. They plan a four-day visit; a larger family reunion is being talked about for December in Los Angeles.

“There’s going to be a lot of hugging,” Maston said. “I’ll probably be crying,” Dorsey said.

Williams said she was deeply moved by Dorsey’s desire to find her family.

“She said, ‘I can’t stand it anymore. I need to know what the story is. I know nothing,’ ” said the investigator. Using scraps of information available through public and government databases, she was finally able to piece together Dorsey’s story, even though she was slightly delayed along the way because of the fact that Maston sometimes uses the name “Larry Matsui” professionally in his salon work.

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Although father and daughter have been reconnected and Friday’s reunion has been scheduled, Williams said she isn’t finished.

“The case is not closed for me. I’m coming out to California in September with my husband for a conference. We’re all going to get together. I love Larry. Most fathers finding out for the first time they’re a father tend to hesitate. He didn’t. Larry’s dynamite.”


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