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Switched at birth: DL attorney handled unusual case

DETROIT LAKES - It seems more of a story that producers in Hollywood should be hearing rather than a Detroit Lakes attorney.

Two baby girls switched at birth, only to find out 50-some years later they had been raised by opposite families.

"When I first heard, I certainly thought it was interesting," said Jeff Stowman, the Detroit Lakes attorney that handled the federal case in the Federal District Court for North Dakota.

"I didn't care if we received a bunch of money for these families. It was more about the hospital held accountable for their mistake," he said. "Since you can't turn back the clock, money is the only remedy in a lawsuit."

It all began July 27, 1946, when two girls were born on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota -- one to Susie and Virgil Bowker and one to Grace Medicine and Michael Ryan. The daughters went home with the wrong parents.

Growing up in the same small community, there were rumors the girls had been switched at birth. Who would believe such outrageous rumors, though?

"The rumors were nagging questions to Beverly Bowker," Stowman said.

In her 20s, Bowker decided to see if there was truth to the rumors and find her biological parents. She found her biological mother, Medicine, in Denver. Stowman said she didn't feel a connection with the woman and didn't think she resembled her. But she continued her quest and tracked her biological father, Ryan, to California. She had the same disconnected feeling with him.

"She went home having put the rumors to rest," Stowman said. "It wasn't put to rest, though. She always had that nagging feeling," he said she testified in the case.

Once during a chance meeting at the hospital, Bowker and Rowena Madrigal -- the other daughter -- were introduced, and Bowker testified she was amazed how much Madrigal looked and sounded like Bowker's brother. Bowker was raised with several siblings and parents that were married until their deaths. Madrigal was raised an only child, mainly by her grandmother after her parents divorced when she was 6.

In 2004, when Bowker was in her 50s, she lived in Sacramento, Calif., and her biological father, Ryan, lived in Oakland, Calif. They contacted each other and decided to have a DNA test performed. It proved there was over a 99 percent chance Ryan was her father.

"They developed an acquaintance, but never a father-daughter relationship," Stowman said.

After the DNA test results, that's when Ryan became Stowman's client after a South Dakota attorney referred the case to Stowman, a personal injury attorney.

Stowman proceeded to track down the daughters and parents to get involved in the case. Bowker and Madrigal agreed to participate, as did Bowker's mother, Grace, but she died before the case was heard. Bowker's father had already died by that time.

As for Madrigal's mother, Medicine, Stowman said she was so upset she would burst into tears when he tried to contact her and wouldn't take his calls after that.

"It was too painful and disturbing for her to talk about," he said.

"They were confused and disappointed," he said of those involved in the case. "I don't think I saw any anger." Except when it came to Medicine, who had as much anger as sadness, he said.

So, Ryan, Madrigal and Bowker became his clients, ready for some accountability from the hospital. Stowman said it was purely accidental the girls were switched at birth, but there were also rumors that someone on the nursing staff was drunk the day of the deliveries.

He traveled to South Dakota to meet with Madrigal. He also traveled to California to meet Ryan and Bowker. He said he could see why Bowker would've walked away from her biological father years ago, thinking they didn't look alike, because they didn't resemble each other at all.

Trying to find something at the hospital proved fruitless for Stowman. He said he had the hand-written birth certificate from one of the women, but trying to decipher the doctor's signature was nearly impossible and then it turned out to be an extremely common name. So even if he weren't already deceased -- he would have been at least 90 years old -- he would have been virtually impossible to track down.

Also, any medical documents from that time period were destroyed after 25 years, a federal law.

In its defense, the government argued marriage infidelities -- even though the two families didn't know each other -- and the court dismissed the case because the statute of limitations had been exceeded -- it had been more than two years since the daughters knew they were switched.

When Stowman took the case, he knew it would be a challenge, because of time and the fact that it had been 50-plus years, but he was also sure he could argue the two-year clock shouldn't have started ticking until the DNA proved Ryan and Bowker were father and daughter.

A second test was taken to prove Madrigal was not Ryan's daughter.

The court disagreed. The case was dismissed February of 2007.

Stowman said the court saying the women and families should have filed suit years ago, when rumors swirled, rather than a few years ago, when DNA tests confirmed it, is like saying DNA test results are equal to rumors.

He added that DNA testing is used to convict and acquit murderers and rapists years after the event, so the DNA tests should have been just as important in this case.

Besides losing, Stowman said there were several low points throughout the case.

The argument of marriage infidelity was one. Another was Susie Bowker's death. The only woman Beverly Bowker had known as a mother died, and the woman who had actually been Madrigal's mother, but that she hadn't gotten to know, was gone as well.

After the case was dismissed, Stowman did a search and found a Wyoming attorney that had handled a baby switching case in the past.

He referred Ryan, Bowker and Madrigal to the Wyoming attorney for the appeal. On July 22, the appeals court upheld the dismissal, leaving the families with no more legal avenues.

"Nothing more can be done to get the hospital to admit blame," Stowman said. But that doesn't mean the families can't build their own relationships, he added.

It's been about a year since Stowman has had contact with his former clients. He said once he handed off the case, he didn't want to meddle in it, but would like to know how things turned out for the families.

"They were interesting people," he said.

Ryan is a go-getter, he described, with a prosthetic foot he is working on patenting. Bowker was about to earn her doctorate in education, and Madrigal had dropped out and not finished high school.

Still awed by the "colossal blunder" of being switched at birth, Stowman said, "This is stuff of TV or movies. This is not real life."