1 Aug 2017

The DNA test that revealed a life of mistaken identity

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:07 pm on 1 August 2017

On a lark, Alice Plebuch – a retired IT manager in Vancouver, Washington – thought it would be fun to find out more about her genetic heritage.

The results of her DNA test – and a subsequent three-year search for answers – led Plebuch to uncover a mistake made more than 100 years ago that changed everything she thought she knew about her family.

Plebuch was raised in an Irish Catholic home (wearing green every St Patrick's Day) but her DNA results clearly showed she was from two different populations – the British Isles (as she expected) and another.

"It sure did look like I was Jewish."

While she was sure there'd been a mistake, it couldn't be denied that neither she or her sister – who tested with the same result – looked anything like their father's father.

"My sister sort of jumped on it. She said 'That's not surprising because we don't look like John Joseph."

There was some secret and Plebuch wanted to uncover it.

Did their mother have an affair? Were their grandparents Jewish immigrants who decided to pass themselves off as Irish?

First cousins on both Plebuch's mother's and father's side were tested, and the results revealed Plebuch had no genetic relationship to her father's nephew.

"Since he was the son of my dad's sister, there's no way it would have mattered if she had cheated, because he would have inherited his mother's chromosomes."

Males inherit an X chromosome from their mother and a Y chromosome from their father, while women inherit an X chromosome from each parent.

The man who Plebuch had believed was her cousin – Pete Nolan – didn't have the blue dot which indicates Jewish blood on his X chromosome, she says.

"So he was showing what my mother was. And there was no Jewish on my mother's side."

A lightning bolt hit.

"I had the proof Dad was Jewish. And I knew he didn't know he was."

When a forensic imaging specialist confirmed the 11-month-old baby in a photograph with her grandfather was the man she knew as her father (Jim Collins) Plebuch realised he must have been switched at birth.

"I had done enough research to know that in 1913 [the year Collins was born] they didn't have bracelets, they didn't do fingerprints or footprints so it would be pretty easy for someone to make a mistake. It turns out that was what happened."

Over the next three years, 21 people in Plebuch's family and some others – such as a baby born on the same day as her father also in the Bronx – had their DNA tested, but the search for answers seemed to have reached a dead end.

Then one day in 2015 Plebuch was on the phone with her cousin Pete Nolan (who she was close to, but not genetically related to, she now knew), telling him she thought she would never solve the mystery.

She had a casual look at Nolan's DNA matches online and noticed he had a new match with someone closely related to him, possibly a first cousin once removed.

Plebuch wrote to the person (a woman called Jessica Benson who lived in North Carolina) and requested Benson compare her genome with Nolan. Benson agreed.

"I wrote to her and asked her whether or not she was expecting to find Collinses and Kennedys and Nolans. And she wrote back 'No, it's very strange. I thought I was Jewish, but I'm seeing Irish."

That sent chills up Plebuch's spine.

She asked Benson if there was anyone in her family born in 1913.

"She wrote back 'I think you're on to something. My grandfather – Phillip Benson – was born on September 24, 1913 in the Bronx."

For three years, Plebuch had been studying a list of men born in the Bronx around that time who her father could possibly have been switched with when they were babies.

"All of a sudden I realised there was a 'Philip Banson' listed. It turns out his name was misspelled both on the New York City index and his birth certificate. But 'Philip' was the name that my father was originally given."

Once Plebuch exchanged pictures with Jessica Benson there was no question that the child who was supposed to be Phillip Benson had instead become Jim Collins, she says.

"We didn't all look like our grandparents, but one of my brothers was a clone of our [biological] grandfather. My father, if you line up his picture with my [biological] grandmother, there's absolutely no question whatsoever."

Peter Nolan – the cousin whose connection to the Benson family revealed the secret – only found Plebuch by accident after 62 years estranged from his own family, she says.

"If I hadn't found him I never would have found the Bensons. And even stranger, my cousin and my brother, unbeknownst to my brother, worked together – my brother was his manager ... There are all these strange coincidences – or some higher authority was trying to set the world correct."

Jim Collins –  a "brilliant mathematician" who grew up in an orphanage and had to fend for himself when he left both the orphanage and high school at 13 – died in 1999 at 85 years of age.

Plebuch says she goes back and forth on whether it's for the best that he died without knowing his true origins.

"My father was very into being Irish. Poignantly, my sister sang 'Danny Boy' at his funeral, we made sure he had an Irish wake."

Looking back, Plebuch finds it curious that her closest childhood friend was Jewish and she and her sister's first boyfriends were Jewish.

"My mother was worried I was going to marry a Jew and I always think that's the irony of it – she was the one who married someone who was Jewish."