Real Name: Dorothy Johnson
Case: Lost Mother
Location: Omaha, Nebraska
Date: November 16, 1945
Details: August 14, 1945: the end of the Second World War. All across the country, people spontaneously took to the streets in joyous celebration. There would be no more fighting. The troops were coming home. Life would return to normal. In November, Seaman First Class Donald Caffrey boarded a train in Seattle, heading home to his wife in Omaha, Nebraska, after almost two years at sea. In the smoker car, he ran into a young woman named Dorothy Johnson. Separated from her husband, and just seventeen, she was traveling to Utica, New York, with her eleven-month-old daughter, Eyvonne.
Donald was delighted to hold Eyvonne. Before long, he became her unofficial babysitter. That evening, as the train proceeded east, Dorothy sat with Donald and slowly revealed the details of her life. She was in dire financial straits and had no way of supporting her baby. She told Donald that when they got to Utica, she would have to put Eyvonne in a foster home. As they got closer to Omaha, he asked her if she would like to have him take the baby home with him until she got settled and could send for her. He also suggested that he could bring the baby back to her. She agreed to that.
Donald decided that he wanted to get something in writing to prove that he was not kidnapping the baby. He wrote up an agreement, which stated that Dorothy had willingly entrusted Eyvonne to Donald’s care and that if she did not call for the child within sixty days, Donald and his wife could begin adoption proceedings.
Eyvonne, now Sandra Lee Nelson, believes that Dorothy was at her “last rope” and did not know what to do with her child. She thinks that Dorothy picked Donald because she could see that he cared. Sandra notes that he is compassionate and has a good heart. She feels like Dorothy knew that, and knew that she could trust him.
At 2pm on November 16, the train pulled into Omaha. Donald’s wife, Barbara, and his parents were there to give him a hero’s welcome. When he got off the train, he and hugged and kissed Barbara. Then, he told her the “good news”: that he had unofficially adopted Eyvonne. Barbara was shocked; he tried to explain the whole situation to her, but she did not believe it at first. She thought it was some of his “scouting around.”
Barbara soon got over her initial shock. Within days, both of the Caffreys were completely in love with Eyvonne. However, when county officials caught wind of the unusual arrangement, the Caffreys became fearful that Eyvonne would be taken from them. They decided to file for legal custody before the agreed-upon sixty days. A few days later, Donald received a wire from Dorothy. It said, “Arrived home Tuesday, and I want Eyvonne very much. How is she, anyway? Dorothy Johnson.”
Donald was in a quandary. The very next day, he and Barbara were due in court for the custody hearing. He decided to proceed, believing it was in Eyvonne’s best interests. At the hearing, the judge said that before making a decision, he would need to speak personally with Dorothy. A new court date was scheduled. Eyvonne was placed in temporary foster care and became an overnight celebrity. Newspapers throughout the country seized upon the story. They dubbed her, “The Smoker Car Baby.”
Dorothy was summoned to Omaha to explain her actions. Otherwise, she might be charged with parental neglect. She never appeared in court, but a witness did show up to challenge the Caffrey’s custody suit. The witness was Dorothy’s sister. In court, she said that Dorothy did not want to come to Omaha herself because she faced charges of neglect and feared going to jail. Her sister hoped to adopt the baby instead. She said she felt she could provide a good and decent home for Eyvonne and hoped to raise her as her own child. The request was denied.
Donald claimed that no one ever called or showed up at his house to ask for Eyvonne back. So, he and Barbara decided to go ahead and adopt her. In June 1947, after a two-year struggle, a juvenile court judge awarded the Caffreys sole custody. By then, Eyvonne had been renamed Sandra Lee. “The Smoker Car Baby” ceased to be headline material. When she was nine, her parents separated. After that, she spent most of the time with her grandmother.
When Sandra was eighteen, Barbara finally told her the truth about her past. When she found out she was adopted, she was very surprised. When she came back home that day, she asked her grandmother if she was adopted. She said yes, with tears in her eyes. Sandra thinks that her grandmother never really wanted her to know the truth.
A few months later, Sandra received an unusual letter in the mail. For the first time, she saw the face of her natural mother. The picture, part of a newspaper article, came in an envelope. There was no address or note. She wonders if Dorothy herself sent the article. She speculates that Dorothy may have been afraid to meet her and wanted to stay “in the background”, but still wanted her to see her face. She, however, still does not know who sent the article. The envelope was postmarked Omaha, Nebraska. Only later did Sandra discover that an anonymous woman had phoned her grandmother and asked if she could send Sandra clippings about the Smoker Car Baby.
Sandra later married and lived in Singapore for part of her life, but later settled in Florida. Today, armed with little more than faded clippings and a single photograph of Dorothy, Sandra is more determined than ever to reunite with the mother who reluctantly gave her away nearly fifty years ago. She thinks Dorothy got scared. She thinks that Dorothy wanted her, but maybe did not have any help from her family to try to get back to Sandra. She says that she has a void in her life. She is certain that there is a void in Dorothy’s life, too, along with a lot of hurt.
Dorothy was last known to be living in Utica, New York, where she had relatives. She also used the last names, “Sumyer” and “Felix”.
- This case first aired on the November 24, 1993 episode; it was updated on the January 26, 1994 episode.
- Similar cases include: The Hatbox Baby, The Family of Jeanne Martin, and The Parents of Elizabeth Bagwell.
Results: Solved. On the night of the broadcast, Sandra’s long search came to a bittersweet end. A viewer, Dorothy's former sister-in-law, called the telecenter with the sad news that Dorothy had passed away on October 1, 1968, in Caldwell, Idaho, as a result of a car accident. She was forty. However, Sandra was overjoyed to learn that she had an Uncle Mickey, and two aunts, Jan and Alice, who had always wondered about Sandra and were anxious to meet her.
A month later, on December 28, 1993, Sandra and her husband, Chet, arrived in Syracuse, New York, to receive a most remarkable Christmas gift: a house full of relatives, waiting to meet Sandra for the very first time. She said she never thought she would ever find anyone. However, once she met them, she said she had a very warm feeling inside.
Sandra and her new family began to compare notes on Dorothy’s life. Although Sandra was unable to learn the identity of her birth father, she did discover that in the early 1950s, Dorothy had married a man named Wayne Rogers. Sandra wanted to find Wayne, in the hope that she could fill in the remaining gaps in her past. She said that she got little bits and pieces from friends and relatives, telling her a little bit about Dorothy. Those little things meant a great deal to her. She felt that she had found a family, a wonderful family that she never thought she would ever have. She said it’s “the best time in [her] life.”
Sadly, on May 3, 2013, Sandra passed away at the age of sixty-eight.
- Caffreys Awarded "Smoker Baby" - May 27, 1947
- Dorothy (Johnson) Rogers' Obituary
- Sandra Lee Nelson's Obituary