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Adopted man finds his long-lost family years later

For 30 years, Phillip L. Merrill Sr. wondered who he was. Then four years ago he launched an exhaustive search to answer that question. Now Merrill knows he's someone else.

Born in 1969, the Tampa native was given up for adoption at age 2 by his unwed mother. A Miami couple took him home, but it wasn't until he was 7 or 8 that it sunk in that he was adopted, said Merrill who moved with new parents to Ohio. Distance to quell his desire to know about his birth parents. "I wanted to know my real mom and dad. I also wanted to know why they didn't want me," said the now 34-year-old Merrill, who lives in Spring Hill.

His feeling of being unwanted increased as his adoptive mother gave birth to two more children.

"I felt like an outsider quite often," Merrill recalls. "I never felt love like my friends did with their moms and dads. I felt like a second-class citizen."

Merrill's story is one of being lost and found. It's one he finds easier to tell now that he has his long lost aunt Sandy Hovatter Martino, to hear him tell it and to fill in the gaps.

Martino remembers when Merrill had been given as an infant to her parents to raise.

"He was like my little brother," she remembers. Then one day, her parents and Merrill's mother went off to court with the toddler and returned empty handed.

At the time, Martino said she was confused and saddened by the absence of the baby boy whom she cuddled and knew as Troy Vaughn Hovatter.

For much of his life, Merrill didn't even know his birth name. His adoptive parents had been given a doctor's certificate bearing a patient's name, "Troy Vaughn," so the youngster thought Vaughn was his surname.

"My adoptive parents didn't know who I was," Merrill said.

Merrill's curiosity about his natural parents increased after he got married, had children of his own and physicians asked for family health histories. Merrill had no way of supplying the information.

Several years ago, he hired a New York private investigator to research his origins, but the investigator "disappeared" with $4,000 of Merrill's money, he said.

Merrill then traveled from his home in Hudson, Ohio, to courthouses in Tampa and Tallahassee seeking records of his parentage, last name Vaughn. Adoption records, he learned, are sealed to all but the parents.

"I wasn't a 14-year-old. I wanted to know (for) health-related issues," he says. "I think you have a right to know who you are."

To get additional information, both he and his mother would have had to register a request. And he didn't know who or where his mother was.

He repeated his mother's given name to a Department of Children and Families staffer, asking if he was on the right track.

""No,"' said the staffer, who whispered that his mother's first name began with the letter B. But she couldn't reveal more.

In Tampa, Merrill got a judge to reviewed the file but he told Merrill it contained only "non-identifiable" data.

"I was numb," he recalls.

After temporarily shelving the search for his parents, two years ago Merrill decided to stop in Florida on his way to a New Orleans convention. He wanted to renew his search for his family again.

His big break came when he called the Tampa Police Department, who suggested he contact Sylvia Dial, a local private investigator.

Dial, with nine years experience mainly in records searches with the Tampa Police Department, told Merrill on how she'd approach the case: look for hospital birth records, newspaper birth announcements, Tampa-area school yearbooks, marriage licenses - Merrill's adoptive family had mistakenly heard that his birth mother had later married his father. She married someone else.

Dial was working on other cases so she counseled patience. Results could take a while. But Merrill wasn't about to wait.

"He was such a go-getter," recalls Dial, who has since established her own agency in Tampa, Sylvia's Process and Investigative Services. "He was funny" in his enthusiasm to grasp a lifeline idea and run with it, she said of Merrill.

"Hey, you're paying me and you're doing the work," she playfully chastised him.

On the hunch that he must have been born at Tampa General Hospital, Merrill went to their records department and asked for births registered on Oct. 7, 1969. They told him that records from that period were destroyed during a fire.

When he went to check newspaper microfiche files at the Tampa library, he soon learned that back then newspapers didn't announce births to unwed mothers.

Merrill and Dial found nothing in high school yearbooks, looking for a young woman, name Vaughn.

"You have to constantly think, put things together, add, subtract, multiply and divide. Sometimes . . .," Dial said of the investigative process.

Back at the library, Dial looked at marriage records for the year following the birth of Troy Vaughn.

"The year I needed was missing," she groaned.

Pacing the room, head bowed in thought, she inadvertently spied at floor level marriage license application files, "And it was by dates," she said. If a couple got married after their child's birth but that same year, if the mother was 17 or 18 years old and the father "older," the mother's name began with a B . . ." Dial perused the appropriate-year files.

Within a week, Dial called Merrill in Ohio with good news: She found his mother and father.

Ecstatic Merrill said he'd drive to Florida the next day."

"I think I averaged 100 miles an hour," he said of that trip south.

His mother, Bonnie, now married name Bunker, lived in Knoxville, Tenn., so that reunion had to wait.

Merrill first met his aunt Donna Hovatter, who still lived in the Tampa house where Merrill's grandparents once lived. Aunt Sandy remembered snuggling him as an infant in that same house.

"It was very tear-jerking," Merrill said of the initial encounter with his blood relative. Having left at age 2, he didn't remember the house.

He learned that his grandfather had died but his grandmother lived in a Spring Hill nursing home. In recalling meeting his grandmother, Merrill choked up as he said how he'd watched her, as Dial inquired if she'd had a daughter, Bonnie and if Bonnie had a son and daughter?

Doris Hovatter said she didn't know what had happened to Troy or where he was.

""He's been looking for you,"' said she Dial told her. ""Would you like to meet him?"'

They met after 32 years.

Soon afterward Merrill met his long lost sister, Kimberley Craig Kipp, with Dial's help. Merrill's birth mother had told Kipp she had an older brother so she wasn't taken too aback when Merrill and Dial came to the door.

"We hugged," Merrill said. "This was wild."

When his mother arrived that night, there were more hugs and tears.

Next day, all the relatives gathered for a reunion at the Embassy Suites in Tampa. Aunt Sandy Hovatter Martino, was one of the last to meet him.

Merrill's natural father, whom his mother never married, wasn't there. He met him later and learned that he has a half-sister and a half-brother. Merrill has since "built quite a relationship" with his half-sister, Laura Watson of Plant City.

"One of the rights of happiness," he said,"is knowing who you are."