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Lost and found — LDS TV host turns family searches into his life's work

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Troy Dunn built a business and a life searching for people's missing relatives and friends, and it couldn't have started any closer to home.

With his own mother.

"Mom here is the reason that I started doing this," Dunn said. "She's adopted. I grew up listening to her talk about her desire to find her birth family."

It was his first such search.

"We gathered up the information that she had found and were able to locate her family," he said. "And I placed a phone call to Mom. It was a Saturday afternoon. I said, 'Mom, are you sitting down? I'm holding the piece of paper that is your mother's phone number.'

"Mom began to weep in a way that I've never heard her cry, and I knew at that moment this is exactly what I wanted to do."

That grew into a business that is hugely successful — both in terms of finding lost people and financially. Over the past 18 years, he's found more than 40,000 people. In 2002, Dunn sold the business to the Utah-based but still takes an active part in searches. In addition to working as a motivational speaker, author and investigator, he's set up a lot of reunions for TV shows over the past decade.

He also finds time to be a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Fort Meyers, Fla.

Dunn's television exposure has led to his own TV show. "The Locator" debuts on cable/satellite channel WE on Saturday.

Ironically, Katie Dunn's story didn't have a happy ending. As a matter of fact, it "still makes me cry," she said.

"Her birth mother rejected her," Troy Dunn said. And she did so by using "the most painful phrase I've ever heard in my 18 years of doing this."

"She ... said, 'If I knew it was going to call, I might have aborted it.'"

Which was the toughest thing Katie Dunn could have heard.

"Now, did I take it gracefully? Not at first," she said. "But I wasn't going to push myself into someone's life where I wasn't wanted. And I knew this could be stirring up such pain. And that's the last thing I want for the woman who gave me life."

And she has no regrets.

"I'd do it over again in a heartbeat," Katie Dunn said. "I wanted a couple of things out of it. I hoped for a new beginning, and I needed closure. I got the closure, which was a huge gift."

As a matter of fact, Katie Dunn said the experience turned out to be a "total positive." For one thing, she met biological siblings she never knew existed.

"But birthdays and Mother's Day continued to be really tender spots for me, and I kept thinking, 'Maybe she'll call. Maybe, maybe maybe.' Until I just had to reach a point to let go and say, 'You know what? It's OK and it's over.'

"And I've now been able to help other people accept that if it happens."

That's because Katie Dunn became her son's first employee when he began searching for other people's lost loved ones.

"It wasn't easy at first because she kept saying to me, 'Why would I want to relive something that didn't happen for me?'" Troy Dunn said.

"It was kind of an open wound. I didn't really want to do this," Katie Dunn said. "But I found it to be healing."

And now she's a bit of a TV star — she appears in episodes of "The Locator," identified as an investigator named Katie. Although she admits she was taken aback when she saw a TV commercial for the show.

"I remember sitting up on the couch thinking, 'That is just freakin' weird,"' Katie Dunn said with a laugh.

Dunn said that, when he started out, he dealt mostly with adoption searches. "Ten percent of the U.S. population is affected by adoption. That's about 30 million people that are either adopted, birth parents or adopted parents," he said.

While some counsel against searching for birth parents or children given up for adoption, the Dunns disagree.

"We believe fully that you can't find peace until you find all the pieces," Troy Dunn said.

"It's like having a life without a Chapter 1," Katie Dunn said.

But the business soon expanded beyond just adoption cases.

"As it kept going, that's when I started to realize half the world was looking for the other half," Troy Dunn said. "If you're not looking for somebody, you can't really comprehend what that hole in the heart means to somebody who's looking. It's really, really hard to completely settle in and enjoy all the life when there's that one person. ... People will look for 10 or 20 or 30 years. And in some cases, they pass away having never found that person."

"The Locator" itself is less about the searches than it is the reunions. And they're not all about adoptions, either. Saturday's premiere follows the search for Mike Peterson, a man who was taken to Salt Lake City by his biological father, who — along with the father's parents — never allowed Mike to know he had a half-brother, half-sister and mother who have been searching for him for almost four decades. Until Dunn and his team find Mike in Boise.

(It's a story that doesn't reflect well on the father or grandparents.)

Half of the 10 episodes deal with adoptions; two deal with separations caused by divorces and custody disputes; one involves both; one features a daughter searching for her estranged father; one features a search for a long-lost friend; and one is about a woman searching for her godmother.

Though he operates, Troy Dunn said the Internet is "probably the most overrated tool there is" to find people. On the other hand, "I think one of the greatest secret techniques we use a lot is genealogy — family history. It's not that exciting and glamorous to talk about, but the dead don't lie. And when you find somebody's deceased relatives, you can sometimes trace it forward."

From a modest start in the back bedroom of his home, the business grew include 1,800 investigators in all 50 states and 32 countries. When he started out, Dunn charged a flat fee of $1,400. Now that he's a millionaire, it's more "philanthropic." you can go to the Web site and pay $10.

So, yes, if you're looking for, say, an old girlfriend, you pay your $10 and Troy and Co. do the rest.

"That's the simple version of it. Yes, that's true," Troy Dunn said. "We developed the Web site because we really can't reunite everybody on 'The Locator' television series, and we do need options for them. So we came up with the $10 option as a way to provide public records to people who otherwise wouldn't have access to them."

If a search proves to be more complicated, there are links on the Web site to help you find investigators.

"I know it sounds cheesy ... but I'm going to tell you the truth," Troy Dunn said. "I feel like it's become my life work to reunite people with long-lost family members, and I'm trying to develop whatever tools we can to do that."

And much of the proceeds go toward pediatric cancer research. The fourth of Dunn's seven children, Jocelyn, is battling gastrointestinal stromal tumors, a rare form of cancer. (She's currently in remission.)

Troy's father and Katie's husband is also in the end stages of terminal cancer. But they're still working to locate people.

"This isn't an 8-to-5 labor of love," Katie Dunn said. "This is something that embraces not only Troy and my lives and the teams that we work with, but our families."

And Katie Dunn hasn't completely given up hope that her biological mother will come around.

"I always hope when I get to the other side that she's waiting and goes, 'Oh, thank you!'" she said.

If you watch ...

What: The new series "The Locator"

When: Back-to-back episodes air Saturday at 7 and 7:30 p.m. They repeat Saturday at 10 and 10:30 p.m. and Sunday at 1 and 1:30 a.m. and noon and 12:30 p.m.

Channel: WE (on cable and satellite)