Unsolved Mysteries Wiki
Unsolved Mysteries Wiki

Dorothy Johnson in 1945

Real Name: Dorothy Johnson
Case: Lost Mother
Location: Utica, New York
Date: November 1945


Details: Sandra Lee Nelson is searching for her mother, Dorothy Johnson, who left her with Seaman First Class Donald Caffrey while on a train from Seattle to Chicago. In November 1945, he was traveling to Omaha, Nebraska, to reunite with his wife, Barbara. While in the Smoker Car, he met Dorothy, who was seventeen and separated from her husband.She was traveling to Utica, New York, with Sandra, who was eleven months old at the time and named "Yvonne".
That evening, Dorothy sat with Donald and told him about how she was in dire financial straits and could not take care of Yvonne. He asked her if she wanted to leave Yvonne with him and Barbara until she got settled back in Utica. She agreed; he wrote up an agreement that said that she willingly entrusted Yvonne to his care. It also stated that if she did not contact them within sixty days, they would adopt Yvonne.

At 2pm on November 16, 1945, the train arrived in Omaha; Barbara was surprised to find Donald with a young child. Within days, they were in love with Yvonne; however, when county officials learned about the unusual arrangement, they feared that she would be taken from them. They decided to file for legal custody before the sixty days were up.
A few days later, Donald received a letter from Dorothy, asking how Yvonne was and hoping to see her soon. The very next day, however, he was due in court for the custody hearing. He decided to proceed with it. The judge said that before he could make a decision, he needed to speak to Dorothy. A new court date was scheduled and Yvonne was placed in temporary foster care. Newspapers throughout the country wrote about her, called the "Smoker Car Baby".
Dorothy was summoned to Omaha to explain her actions; otherwise, she would be charged with parental neglect. She never showed up, but her sister came in her place. She told the judge that Dorothy was afraid to come to court because of the charges. She wanted to adopt Yvonne, but the judge denied the request. In June 1947, Donald and Barbara were awarded custody of her, now called "Sandra Lee".
When Sandra was nine, her parents separated; she spent most of her time with her grandmother. When she was eighteen, Barbara told her the truth about her past. A few months later, she received an unusual letter in the mail; she finally saw a picture of Dorothy. It was postmarked "Omaha, Nebraska"; she later learned that an anonymous woman had called her grandmother and asked to send her newspaper clippings about her childhood.
Sandra later married and lived in Singapore for part of her life, but later settled in Florida. Sher believes Dorothy was scared, but still wanted to be a part of her life. Today, she is searching for her.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the November 24, 1993 episode.

Results: Solved. Upon the broadcast, Sandra had calls from people who recalled her on the train, as well as from the sister of the man who eventually married Dorothy. She passed away in 1968, after a car accident in Caldwell, Idaho, leaving behind her brother, Mickey, and sisters, Jan and Alice. She had tried to reclaim Sandra after leaving her, but she was already adopted at the time.
On December 28, 1993, Sandra and her husband went to Syracuse, New York, to be reunited with Dorothy's family. Although she was unable to learn the identity of her birth father, she did learn that in the 1950s, Dorothy had married a man named Wayne Rogers. She hoped to find him to learn more about her.
Sadly, Sandra passed away on May 3, 2013 at age sixty-eight.