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Serendipity, Captured in Family Snapshots

Va. Woman Recovers Heirloom After 6 Years

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page B01

In an episode of true faith, blind luck, dogged professionalism, the miracle of technology, duty, the interconnectedness of humankind, or, if you like, the enduring mystery of the universe, a small, yellow photo album was returned to its owner yesterday, nearly seven years after she lost it on the streets of Alexandria.

The circumstances, according to memories of those involved, are thus:

Sgt. Liz Magyar, right, was an Alexandria Police Department rookie in 1998 when someone handed her Patricia Morningstar's photo album. Magyar kept it, eventually tracked down Morningstar and returned the album. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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It was fall of 1998. Patricia Morningstar's father had died. The family was gathering in Falls Church, and Morningstar was driving there with the yellow photo album -- "Our Baby" it was titled -- filled as it was with black and white pictures of her and her father, squinting in the sun. She was his first.

Distraught, she pulled over in Old Town to buy some chocolate, left the photo album on the roof of her car, and sped off without it.

That day, or maybe the next, she retraced her steps. She left word at Sutton Place Gourmet. Then Patricia Morningstar, who has a PhD in anthropology and also reads Tarot cards, resolved that if it was meant to be, the photos would come back to her.

Liz Magyar thinks she was a rookie with the Alexandria Police Department at the time. She was on patrol in Old Town -- the precise when, where and who of it is blurry -- when a passerby who found the photo album turned it over to the cop with a sentimental streak.

"I looked at it," Magyar said. "And you could tell it was old."

It had baby teeth marks on its soft cover. She paged through it: A young man in a pinstripe suit holding a baby, "Columbus, Ohio, May, 1946," someone had written, "age 17 days; weight 7 pounds, 8 ounces." The baby in a lawn chair; "Sugarcreek, Ohio; age 2 months, weight 10 pounds, 2 ounces," and so on.

Magyar ran the name written in the book, Patricia Cleckner, through the police records, but no match came up. She checked a list of items reported stolen, and again turned up nothing.

The procedure at that point would have been to turn the album over to the lost-property division. But somehow it seemed wrong, and also sad, to turn over something with baby teeth marks on it to the lost-property division, where, Magyar knew, it would be destroyed in a year.

"So," she said, "I just kept it. . . . I figured it was something dear to somebody."

She put it in a desk drawer, where she'd see it from time to time. When she got promoted to detective, she ran the name through more databases and programs but still got no match. When she was promoted again, she packed up the album in a box and stored it in her basement.

And when she got promoted again recently -- she is now a sergeant in charge of school resource officers -- she unpacked the box and resumed the search. An officer on her staff, who is from Ohio, suggested that Magyar ask Amy Bertsch, the department's public information officer, for help.

Bertsch did an Internet search for the name, came up with a family tree, some documents, and eventually, a sibling in Virginia.

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