Dorothy Johnson

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, Donald was traveling to Omaha, Nebraska, to reunite with his wife Barbara. While in the Smoker Car, Donald met Dorothy, who was seventeen and separated from her husband. Dorothy 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 her child. Donald asked Dorothy if she wanted to leave the child with him and his wife until she got settled back in Utica. Dorothy agreed; Donald wrote up an agreement that said that Dorothy willingly entrusted Yvonne to Donald's care. The agreement also stated that if Dorothy did not contact the Caffreys within sixty days, they would adopt Yvonne.

At 2 pm on November 16, 1945, the train arrived in Omaha; Barbara was surprised to find Donald with a young child. Within days, the Caffreys were in love with Yvonne; however, when county officials learned about the unusual arrangement, the Caffreys feared that Yvonne 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 Johnson, asking how Yvonne was and hoping to see her soon. The very next day, however, Donald was due in court for the custody hearing. Donald decided to proceed with the hearing. The judge said that before he could make a decision, he needed to speak to Dorothy Johnson. A new court date was scheduled and Yvonne was placed in temporary foster care. Newspapers throughout the country wrote about Yvonne, called the "Smoker Car Baby".
Dorothy was summoned to Omaha to explain her actions; otherwise, she would be charged with parental neglect. Dorothy 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. Dorothy's sister wanted to adopt the child, but the judge denied the request. In June 1947, Donald and Barbara Caffrey were awarded custody of Yvonne, now called "Sandra Lee".
When Sandra was nine, her parents were separated; she spent most of her time with her grandmother. When Sandra was eighteen, Barbara told her the truth about her past. A few months later, Sandra received an unusual letter in the mail; she finally saw a picture of her birth mother. The letter was postmarked "Omaha, Nebraska"; Sandra later learned that an anonymous woman had called her grandmother and asked to send Sandra newspaper clippings about her childhood.
Sandra later married and lived in Singapore for part of her life, but later settled in Florida. Sandra believes her mother was scared, but still wanted to be a part of her life. Today, Sandra is searching for her biological mother.

  • Sandra reunited with her aunt
  • Sandra with her aunt and cousin

Extra Notes: This case was featured as part of the November 24, 1993 episode.
Results: Solved. Upon the airing of the segment, Sandra had calls from people who recalled her on the train, as well as from the sister of the man who eventually married Dorothy Johnson. She passed away in 1968, after a car accident in Caldwell, Idaho, leaving behind a 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 her mother's family. Although Sandra was unable to learn the identity of her birth father, she did learn that in the 1950s, her mother had married a man named Wayne Rogers. She hopes to find Wayne to learn more about Dorothy.
Links: None

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