Ashley: 00:06 It’s a wonderful thing that I’ve met them, but then I will never hear her voice. I will never get to touch her. I never get to see her. I will never get to have that experience and I think that hurt, it hurt from this world, prematurely and You know why? Why did you have to do that? Why did you have to murder her. Like, what was the point?
Voices: 00:34 Who am I? Who am I? Am I? Who am I? Who am I? Who am I ?
Damon: 00:45 This is who am I really a podcast about adoptees that have located and connected with their biological family members. I’m Damon Davis, and on today’s show is Ashley. She called me from New Jersey, but she grew up in Portland, Oregon. Ashley shares her story growing up in adoption and having a positive outlook on her life because she felt like she was placed for a reason. She searched off and on for years and with periodic focus, but it was a quick lunch break, Internet search that changed everything. Ashley learned that her birth mother had been violently taken from their family and her aunt was looking for her and the aftermath. This is Ashley’s journey.
Damon: 01:30 Ashley was adopted at the age of two. Her father was a social worker, so he was friends with the social worker on Ashley’s adoption case who told him that there was a cute little girl he might want to adopt. Ashley grew up mostly with her mother because her parents divorced when she was seven years old. She had two sisters, one who was also adopted. The other who was biological to their parents. Ashley found out she was adopted at eight years old
Ashley: 01:57 from what I remember, we were in her room on her bed and she just was like, you’re adopted, and I don’t quite remember My sister’s reaction but mine was like, no, I’m not. I’m your daughter you know there’s no way I could possibly be adopted. I’m your daughter stop playin, cuz you know I thought she was joking. Cuz you know how people do that. Sometimes, you’re adopted. But she was like, no, no. You’re really adopted and I think in my eight year old brain, I couldn’t quite comprehend what that meant. I just knew that I wasn’t my mother’s daughter, but that’s really the level I. I comprehend it.
Damon: 02:33 Wow. So you’re a little eight year old brains like, Nah, this can’t. That’s not right.
Ashley: 02:37 Right. Because I don’t think I was exposed to the word adoption and really understood what it was. Maybe I saw it on tv, but really didn’t understand what that meant.
Damon: 02:46 What did you do? Did you ask questions of your parents about it? Did you ask your friends about it? Do you recall anything about how you sort of reacted to this sort of bewildering news?
Ashley: 02:59 I think at the moment I was hurt, confused. I didn’t really ask too many questions to my mother because I, I think I was in such a state of shock that I didn’t know what to ask and how to ask. Now when I went to school, we were talking about different kinds of families and my teacher mentioned, you know, one time of family is adoption, like you know, the children are adopted into the family, the parents chose the children and I was like, wait a minute, I recognize that word because my mom said that word to me and I raised my hand. I was like, well, I’m adopted. And my teacher was like, really?, you know, she didn’t really go into it. She was like, you know, that’s wonderful. You know, your parents got to choose you and made it very comfortable for me. I didn’t feel out of place or uncomfortable but me saying that in my classroom, I had a friend that came up to me now we’re still lifelong friends and she came up to me and we became best friends because she’s adopted as well. So in saying that I gained from it.
Damon: 04:03 Ashley was thankful for her new friend, also an adoptee because she had someone to bond with over adoption. I asked her if she and her younger sister spoke of their adoptions, but she said no, not until they were adults. She felt like they left the topic alone in their house because they were unsure how their mother would react. When Ashley got to Middle School, she said she admitted her adoption to friends more freely and with maturity. She developed a positive outlook on it even though she didn’t know what her story was. She told herself there must have been a reason she was placed with her parents and her faith told her that God had done this for that reason. When I asked Ashley what catalyzed her interest in searching for her birth relatives, she told me that when she reached high school, her mother showed her a collection of personal items.
Ashley: 04:51 My birth mother left me a box of things. I had a ring, a spoon with my zodiac sign on it. A picture of her and a diaper pin. Wow. And so my mother let me see that. And so once I saw that, that sparked my interest and interest in finding information
Damon: 05:17 at that moment, her adoption was tangible. There were artifacts from her earlier life and a photo of her birth mother made it all real. Ashley also saw a polaroid instant picture of herself as a little kid in foster care. She said she thought the picture was really cute, but she also noticed that words had been whited out on the border of the photo. She scraped away the white out
Ashley: 05:40 and that’s when I found out what my birth name, what it was on the picture.
Damon: 05:45 Really. That’s really interesting. What did you think when you saw that?
Ashley: 05:53 I was like really? So many different motions, like really that’s my name? do I look like that kind of like really? I don’t know if that fits me now Because I’ve been actually, since I can remember,
Damon: 06:02 we agreed it can be kind of trippy to learn your birth name or even to see a picture of yourself from a time before every other photo you’ve ever known. Ashley had a copy of her birth certificate, which had her birth name, her birth mother’s name, but not her birth father’s identity. It was the late 1990d, so she searched online for her birth mother, but her name was so common. It was too hard to distinguish her birth mother from the other women. She found. She narrowed her search to a combination of the woman’s name and the state of Louisiana where her birth mother was from, but there was still too many hits. Ashley’s stopped looking for awhile and she was a little discouraged and frustrated. She checked online from time to time for 19 years checking social media and search engines. It wasn’t until Ashley was 35 years old and she was at work one day when she found the information she needed completely by accident.
Ashley: 06:57 My coworker and I were talking about starting a nonprofit. She was like, well, why don’t you start a nonprofit helping people find their birth families? And I was like, how am I going to do that if I haven’t found my own birth family? Well, I can’t put myself out there like I know what I’m doing if I hadn’t done what I need to do. So I was like you know what, let me just sit down on this computer and I’m going to show you how I don’t know what I’m doing. And I googled, what I thought was my mother’s name. And on Google it has, you know, keywords that it finds on different articles or magazines or whatever. So her name actually was in the article and I was like, well here’s this article, but the name I thought was my mother’s name was clearly not her name. The article had just had her name that had names that I thought was a name in the article, but it wasn’t the title of the article at all.
Ashley: 07:48 So let me read the article down until I see her name, My mother, anytime to ask questions. When I was older she would tell me little things like she would visit me, her, my birth thought I would visit me. They lived in Oregon for a while. I know what hospital I was born in. I know what county I was born in, so those little things I read and I knew that she had a record because the picture I have of her is actually a mug shot. I know she was booked in Portland a couple times. So I was like, okay, well she lives in Portland. I know that much and I know she was a prostitute. And in the article it’s spoke about her being a prostitute in, so I just kept reading article house to me, similarities, but I was like, but the name doesn’t match. That’s what really shook me up. The name never matched
Damon: 08:41 the name Ashley had for her mother was sherry. But the article kept referring to a woman named Rita. Ashley did an Internet search for Rita.
Ashley: 08:50 A picture popped up. I was like, okay, that picture what I have. It’s not the same picture, but it looks like it could possibly be her. Now I saved the picture into my email. Just, I don’t know why I just saved it. So I pulled the picture up on my email and I can put it up to the computer screen and I compared the pictures and I was like, oh my gosh. I called my coworker over. I was like, if I the same person to you. And she just started crying, So I was like wait, that doesn’t really answer my question. I was like do you think?.. and She’s like, that’s her. That is her. And I was like, okay. So I read the article and it was a cold case file on her was what the article was and they were trying to find who she was because she was murdered in [inaudible] 88 and they to find her body until 89 and they were looking for any family members that she may have just to identify the body and you know, so they could try to solve this mystery.
Damon: 09:53 Ashley read that article dated 2014 where she learned that none of the aliases she knew so far where her mother’s real identity, her birth mother’s name was Celia. Ashley continued reading articles about Celia’ss death. And at the end of one of them dated 2016, there was a link to a video news report where Celia’s sister, Ashley’s aunt was interviewed,
Ashley: 10:20 which I didn’t know if my aunt and she was like, at the end of the interview, I’m searching for her children and she was like, I know that she has a daughter whose name is Starla. And if anybody has any information, please call me. And when she says Starla, it broke down, started crying because I knew that was what my birth name was.
Damon: 10:42 Oh my gosh.
Ashley: 10:45 Yeah, so it. It took me a long time to like calm down. I’m just crying. I’m like, it’s really her. It’s really everything that I’ve been looking for a name was. It calmed down. I was like, okay, what do I do next?
Damon: 10:59 Ashley went to facebook where she found her aunt’s account was wide open. She had posted a gang of pictures, so Ashley scrolled through them all until she found a baby picture.
Ashley: 11:10 Click on the baby picture and it says, this is my niece Starla what we’re looking for her. She should be 34 years old now. If anybody has any information, please call. And she put a number underneath it. I didn’t have the nerve to call. I didn’t, but I facebook messaged her and I was like, hi, my name’s Ashley. Has been on this date. Uh, I think I maybe your niece. And this was actually Christmas Eve, Christmas Eve when I emailed her on and left my number and everything in it, like two or 3:00 in the morning she was calling me. I was like, I don’t have the nerve. I can’t, I don’t, I can’t answer the phone right now, so I waited until Christmas day and then I called her and I gave her the information that I know and I guess she, you know, compare the information that she knew and that’s how we initially made contact.
Damon: 12:02 So you speak with her on Christmas Day? That must have been so emotional.
Ashley: 12:08 Oh gosh yes. Yes, it was. It was. Yes It was so emotional. It was a blessing because you know they’re sitting around giving gifts, you know. I’m getting gifts also.
Damon: 12:19 I’m so sorry that you didn’t, you never got to meet her. I mean, there must have been really, really difficult to discover that she had been murdered. She was dead, but that she had been murdered
Ashley: 12:36 Yeah, but hen you’re devastated, hurt, confused cuz to this day its still a cold case file and it’s still open and they still don’t know what happened.
Damon: 12:41 That was 2016 and Ashley’s aunt didn’t know where her sister was at the time of her death, one of the aunts friends saw a show featuring missing or unidentified people and told the aunt that it looked like her sister on the program. Her aunt called in to identify Celia, a murder victim in Washington state. Of course, Ashley’s aunt wanted to meet her. Ashley lives in New Jersey. Her aunt is from Sacramento, California, so it was a long way to meet one another. Ashley was feeling a little guarded too. She felt pretty confident that she was the Starla they were looking for, but they had no DNA proof to confirm their relation. To top it off. She didn’t know these people, so there were the natural butterflies of meeting strangers compounding the logistics of connecting from across the nation. Ashley’s aunt told her that the local news said if they ever found one another, they wanted to do a news story recognizing Ashley had taken in a lot of news and had been on a huge emotional journey. I wondered whom she had confided in about her experience so far.
Ashley: 13:48 It was huge. I spoke with my aunt who lives here, who is my adoptive aunt. I of course told my mom. I called my mom like seconds after I found them. I was like oh my gosh I found my birth family, and I’m crying and hysterical but she’s very supportive. She was very, very supportive in this situation and also my husband was here and I called him. I called him that I can think of in my family. This is what happened to me on my lunch break
Damon: 14:22 Ashley reminded me that every time she sat down to focus on her search, she didn’t uncover anything meaningful, but this particular time just messing around on her lunch break. All of this unfolded, so I asked her what she decided to do for their first meeting.
Ashley: 14:37 I went on my spring break because I’m a teacher during my spring break in April of 17.
Damon: 14:46 Wait! You’re a teacher? How did you gather yourself to teach for the rest of the afternoon?
Ashley: 14:52 That’s a really good question because I’m not sure I did it, but I did it. It was right before Christmas holiday break, so I didn’t have a lot of kids. Right, but I’m not sure how I did that.
Damon: 15:07 She booked a plane ticket for spring break, 2017 with her husband. Her aunt told her during their layover in Chicago that the news cameras would meet them at the Sacramento airport on the ground in Chicago. Ashley rushed to the bathroom to make sure her hair and makeup were on point. Then she boarded the plane for California. She was on facebook live at every stop from Newark to Sacramento. The TV cameras captured the rest.
Ashley: 15:33 It was dramatic. It was like a long escalator down and as I’m going down the escalator, well at the top of the escalator, one of my aunts, met me so two of them came to the airport. The one that met me at the top of the escalator and we went down and I see the news cameras. My other aunt who was the one who was on the news and the news cameras just capturing every moment that happened, you know, crying, hugging I did a little interview, my aunt did an interview then I grabbed my bags and we left. We went to eat, I have a brother from my mother and he met us at the restaurant.
Damon: 16:14 You knew that before you went there?
Ashley: 16:17 I did know I had a brother. My aunt told me that now there may be other siblings, but we don’t know.
Damon: 16:23 Wow. So what did you learn about your biological mother? from you aunt?
Ashley: 16:29 She was very headstrong. She left the house early. She took care of herself, she got her apartment. She was in the lifestyle of prostitution and you know, she did get arrested a couple good time,s you know, for prostitution, for drugs, but I don’t think finding that out ever changed my opinion on her, but you know, I can’t judge. I’ve never judged either one of my parents for the way they lived. That’s impressive. Made a mistake.
Damon: 17:03 Yeah. Yeah. Not to mention she carried you to term?
Ashley: 17:07 Yes. And you know what he had me for the first three months of my life. Oh really? So she tried, yeh she tried. I’m not quite sure what happened, but I was taken away.
Damon: 17:19 Fascinating. What else did you learn about her?
Ashley: 17:22 Like I said, they all told me she was a beautiful person. She had a big heart, like I said she was head strong, but she always would call and check in on him on my brother, so she always made sure he was okay. Until she couldn’t anymore and for a while he didn’t know why the phone calls stopped. He didn’t know for years until they figured out where my mother was, that she was deceased.
Damon: 17:50 Ashlee’s brother is three years older than herself. He was raised by his father’s family and their mother was in and out of his life until he was about eight. Ashley said he’s really funny. He has a great heart and he’s just a really good guy. People tell her she looks like Celia, but she can’t really see it herself. It sounded like the family thinks there may be other children have. Celia is out there, but no one knows for sure. When I asked if she ever sought out her birth father, she said No. Ashley learned his name when she got her original birth certificate, which had his name on it and her mother’s alias. Ashley googled him with search terms, including his full name, the state of Georgia, where he’s from, and his estimated age.
Ashley: 18:37 So I googled his name and of course a picture popped up. Again, I don’t have any pictures of him, so I’m assuming that’s him but I really don’t know. so you know, I go in,i tentatively look. I found an address and a phone number, but I haven’t done anything with it. I guess I’m nervous because my, my birth mother’s family, I knew they were looking for me, so it was very easy for me to be like, hey, here I am. I don’t know how he feels. I know he tried to get me at one point as a baby, but I’m not quite sure exactly what happened with that, but I know he tried. that makes me feel better.
Damon: 19:19 Yeah, absolutely. That should give you some encouragement to reach out then.
Ashley: 19:26 It should. So, I’m still afraid of the rejection because he’s older now. So I’m still afraid of that.
Damon: 19:35 Yeah, I hear you. Do you feel like you. Do you feel like you need anything from him, like need to know him?
Ashley: 19:44 No, I don’t think… I would like to know him. I would like to hear his stories about my mother because he had a different relationship than my family had with him.
Damon: 19:57 You think you’ll ever get up the nerve to do it? To reach out.
Ashley: 19:59 My friend told me I need to because he’s older. He’s 77 now, so she’s like, you need to do it before you know you can’t do it.
Damon: 20:08 That’s a really, really good point. People are here one minute gone the next and heaven forbid something and I’ve been. You’ll have two people whom you don’t have the opportunity to connect with and that will be really tragic. Ashley had been holding onto her birth father’s information for more than six months. When we chatted awhile back, she said she examines the man’s face in the photo to look for pieces of herself. I know what that indecision is like to sit with important contact information for a relative but not know when or whether to reach out. I encouraged Ashley to just write the letter. Then one day when she feels up to it, she can just send it off and it’ll be done. She agreed that she needs to do it because she wouldn’t want to live with the regret of not even trying to make contact. Considering the emotional journey Ashley’s been on. I asked how she’s doing now.
Ashley: 21:03 People ask me that all the time. Like, how do you feel like, how do you feel about everything that’s gone on it’s so confusing to to really describe how it is I’m grateful to have met wonderful people. Really great people and you know, we’re supposed to go to Hawaii in December for a family reunion, my Hawaiian side cousin in everything that over there. So it’s, you know, one thing that I’ve met them, but then I will never hear her voice. I will never get to touch her. I will never get to see her. I would never get to have the experience and I think that hurt. And I think it hurt that someone took her from this world, prematurely, and why would you have to do that, you know, why? Why did you, why did you have to murder her? Like what was the point? So, so many different emotions that go into all day
Damon: 21:57 because you don’t get what people classically sort of think of as closure, you know, sort of an end to the story. It’s, it’s an open case. Right, that’s crazy.
Ashley: 22:12 And all these years later like I have, I’m so grateful for the police department decided to keep it open. You know, she, they found her in ’88, it is 2018 and it’s still an open case they kept her remains. I was able to get in urn with her remains in it.
Damon: 22:28 Wow.
Ashley: 22:30 But you know, and my aunt didn’t find her until 2016 and they still had her urn and that’s amazing to me.
Damon: 22:38 That is amazing. That shows a great deal of compassion that they recognize that this wasn’t just some horrible street person. This is somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister, somebody’s what have you. That’s really, really great.
Ashley: 22:53 Yeah, so thankful for that detective.
Damon: 22:55 wow. Ashley, I appreciate you reaching out to tell your story. Ashley, I’m so sorry for how that it is, how it unfolded prior to your ability to find her, but you know, hopefully your birth father will lend some clarity to the situation prior to you discovering basically who you are and um, and shed some light on the thing. It’s going to be interesting to see when you gathered the guts to do it.
Ashley: 23:21 Yeah, it is. And um, you know, I’m excited to do it. I need to do it. It’s just that little tiny bit of fear… know how this panned out. I was like, okay, I know it’s not going to be as tragic as this. So that’s a positive thing because if he’s still alive, he’s pretty much a normal life, I’m assuming in Georgia.
Damon: 23:50 Yeah. If this has taught to anything, I’m sure it’s that you can’t predict what the story actually is. Right? I mean,
Ashley: 23:58 Not at all, I mean I could have never written this myself
Damon: 24:00 Yeah, that’s exactly right. So just open minded going into this next phase is all you can be. Right.
Ashley: 24:08 That is true.
Damon: 24:08 All right, Ashley, thank you so much. I appreciate you sharing your story. That was very brave. This is. This is tough.
Ashley: 24:15 Thank you for having this platform for me to tell the story. I really appreciate that.
Damon: 24:20 It’s my pleasure and I hope you’ll reach out when you do finally make this second connection because I’d love to hear what happens next. Okay?
Ashley: 24:30 Okay. All right, definitely will.
Damon: 24:31 All right, Ashley. All the best to you. Take care. Bye. Bye.
Ashley: 24:34 Bye
Damon: 24:39 Hey, it’s me. Ashley expressed deep sorrow for the fact that Celia was taken from their family and that she would never get to know any piece of her. Many adoptees are scared that when they begin their search they will find their birth mother is deceased, but to learn that she was murdered was an additional level of cruel discovery that Ashley never could have prepared herself for. I felt hopeful when Ashley said that her birth father tried to keep her years ago. For me, that meant he’d be more likely to receive her positively when she decided to reconnect. I emailed Ashley to see if she had contacted her birth father since we spoke. Here’s what she said. “Unfortunately, I have not reached out yet. I have attended in adoption support group here in New Jersey and it was an amazing experience. They also encouraged me to reach out. I’m slowly writing the letter prayerfully. It will be in the mail soon.”
Damon: 25:34 I’m Damon Davis and I hope you’ll find something in Ashley’s journey that inspires you, validates your feelings about wanting to search or motivates you to have the strength along your journey to learn who am I really? If you would like to share your adoption journey and your attempt to connect with your biological family, please visit who am I really podcast.com/share. You can choose to share your whole story, maintain some privacy about parts of your journey or share completely anonymously. You can find the show at facebook.com/WAIReally, or follow me on twitter @WAIReally and please, if you like the show, you can support me at patreon.com/WAIReally, you can subscribe to who am I really on apple podcasts, Google play or wherever you get your podcasts and while you’re there, it would mean so much to me. If you would take a moment to share a rating or leave a comment, those ratings can help others to find the podcast too.