Arika Herron, Indianapolis Star Published 5:14 p.m. ET Aug. 24, 2019.
Everyone in “Diamond” Mike Watson’s life told him he should give up. The baby in the 60-year-old photograph was probably dead. And if she wasn’t, they said, she may not want to be found.
It wasn’t out of callousness or apathy. The opposite was true, really. But his wife and friends — even the women who’d spent years combing the internet for clues about what happened to little baby Deborah Kay — had come to the conclusion that whatever answers lay hidden in decades of rumor and mystery were unhappy ones.
“I told him last year, ‘You have to stop. You have to let her go,’” said his wife, Carmen Watson.
The California jeweler, though, wasn’t ready to give up. He had to know what happened to the baby in the photograph, an older sister he never knew he had.
“The moral of the story is, ‘never give up,’” Watson said while standing on the front porch of that sister’s house on Saturday morning. “I really believe that. It might take a year. In my case, it took 25 years.
“But I mean, that’s my sister.”
A Missing Sister
This is the last-known picture taken of Deborah Kay, now Debbie Phillips, while sitting on her birth mother’s lap. Debbie is about six months old in this photo. (Photo: Photo provided by the family)
Watson, 61, was adopted as an infant in Indianapolis in 1958. Raised by Martha and Stoy Watson in New Albany, Indiana, he had a happy childhood. But that didn’t stop him from wondering about his birth mother.
At the age of 17, he began looking for her with very little to go on — just her name, her age when he was born, 22, the hospital he was born at and an address listed on hospital paperwork.
It wasn’t until 1994 that Watson finally found his birth family: younger half-siblings, Ken Snyder and Susie Robinson, aunts and uncles and grandparents. His birth mother, Betty Price, had died 13 years earlier at the age of 47.
A reunion with that family — the day Watson says he “unlocked the secret of how I arrived on planet Earth” — is when he first saw the photograph of his mother, young and beautiful, with a round, smiling baby on her lap.
“And I said, ‘Who’s that?’” Watson remembers. “And they said, ‘Well, that would be your sister.’”
His other sister.
It was when he asked where she was that Watson remembers the room getting quiet.
The baby was Deborah Kay. She would be his sister, two years older.
She would be — if anyone knew where she was.
Family lore said the baby had been taken by a social worker or left with a babysitter. There’d never been a police report made for the missing child. There was no death certificate or adoption records.
“She vanished,” Watson said. “Nobody knows.”
So he set out to find the missing piece of the family he’d only just found.
Left to right, four of the “Fabulous Five,” genealogical researchers, Cori Baker, Judy Moore Hill, Linda Sulek, Tina French, and Lori Van Every (not shown), in Muncie Ind., on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. “Diamond” Mike Watson, who’s in the diamond business, was adopted as an infant. He was able to find his family in 1994, but one sister was not accounted for. After twenty-five years, he was able to reunite with her thanks to five female genealogical researchers “The Fabulous Five” and a facebook page, “Find Deborah Kay.” (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)
He wrote books about it. He posted online. Tina French read a story about a missing Indianapolis baby and offered to help since she lived just outside the city. Eventually they created a Facebook group called “Find Deborah Kay.”
Before they found Debbie, though, they found Judy Hill, Cori Baker, Linda Sulek and Lori Van Every, amateur genealogy sleuths who offered the skills they’d honed over years of researching their own families.
“We looked through high school yearbooks, social media, archived newspaper articles,” said Sulek, whose husband calls her Laptop Linda, “anything we could think of.”
“We all searched for years,” Baker said.
“We contacted every Deborah Kay,” French said.
On the Brink of Giving Up
That was about the point they started telling Watson that maybe he should think about letting Deborah Kay go.
“We had turned over every leaf,” Hill said. “At that point the only way we were going to find her was either if she DNA tested or one of her children DNA tested.”
Watson had submitted his own DNA test years earlier, and Hill was managing his online ancestry account. Each day she’d log on to see if he had any new matches.
And one day, there she was.
“I called Cori, and we got on a three-way call with Mike,” she said. “We were literally screaming.”
Debbie Phillips, center, hugs Tina French, center left, of “The Fabulous Five” genealogical researchers, as family members like to call the women who helped the siblings find each other, during the siblings first group gathering at Phillip’s home in Muncie Ind., on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. “Diamond” Mike Watson, right, who’s in the diamond business, was adopted as an infant. He was able to find his family in 1994, but one sister was not accounted for. After twenty five years, he was able to reunite with her thanks to five female genealogical researchers, DNA, and a facebook page, “Find Deborah Kay.” (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)
Meeting Deborah Kay
Deborah Kay Price had, in fact, been raised by an older couple that started out as her babysitters. She says the man she came to know as “Pa” picked her up from her mother’s house once to find her in a diaper that hadn’t been changed in days.
There was a dispute over unpaid babysitting money. Not wanting or not being able to pay it, Betty Price never came looking for her oldest daughter. She goes by her married name, Debbie Phillips, now.
Phillips said she thinks she was around a year old when she went to live with Johnnie and Laura Gore, Mama and Pa, permanently. The family eventually moved to Kentucky, where she was raised.
“They were good,” Phillips said. “I couldn’t have asked for better parents.”
She found out in the third grade that they weren’t her biological parents but didn’t know much more. Phillips said she’d wondered about her family over the years, but she never was able to find anything out.
Debbie Phillips’ brother spent years searching for her and his siblings. Now, thanks to DNA and volunteer researchers, she can share her story. Michelle Pemberton, firstname.lastname@example.org
Phillips’ husband, Eugene, died last year. She has two adult children.
Were there other family members out there, though? At the encouragement of friends, she took a DNA test earlier this year.
“If she didn’t do the DNA (test), we probably would have buried her,” Carmen Watson said. “She’d be gone.”
That 25-year search ended Saturday on the front porch of Phillips’ Muncie home when Mike Watson finally had a chance to meet his older sister in person.
Brothers and sisters left to right, Ken Snyder, Susie Robinson, Debbie Phillips, and “Diamond” Mike Watson are all reunited at the same time in Muncie Ind., on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. “Diamond” Mike Watson, who’s in the diamond business, was adopted as an infant. He was able to find his family in 1994, but one sister was not accounted for. After twenty five years, he was able to reunite with her thanks to five female genealogical researchers and a facebook page, “Find Deborah Kay.” (Photo: Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar)
All four siblings have been in touch since May, and Phillips and Robinson, who still lives in Indianapolis, have met previously. But Saturday was the first time they’d all gotten together.
Snyder, who’d flown up from his home in Florida, arrived last. When Phillips got her arms around him, it seemed like she might never let go.
“That’s my baby brother,” she said. “God. I’ve got a baby brother. “I just can’t believe I’ve got siblings.”
Call IndyStar education reporter Arika Herron at 317-201-5620 or email her at Arika.Herron@indystar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @ArikaHerron.