ROBERT DOLFEN'S STORY is so fantastic that sometimes he doesn't seem to believe it himself.
But then he remembers the unusual circumstances, the compelling testimonies, the amazing coincidences.
And he begins to suspect that the improbable could be true.
The 68-year-old Norton, Ohio, man has always maintained silence about his family's secret. His friends don't know. Nor do his neighbors. Nor do other retirees from PPG Industries.
"You don't run around telling people, 'I was the Lindbergh baby back in 1936,' " Dolfen explains.
Yes, that Lindbergh baby--Charles Augustus Lindbergh Jr., the kidnapped son of aviator Charles Lindbergh and author Anne Morrow Lindbergh.
History books record that the 20-month-old baby was stolen from his crib March 1, 1932, from the second-story nursery of the Lindberghs' home near Hopewell, N.J.
Although the Lindberghs paid a $50,000 ransom, the toddler's body was discovered May 12 of that year in a wooded area only a few miles from the family home.
Or was it?
Some began to have doubts when 4-year-old Bobby Dolfen was thrown into the international spotlight in January 1936.
Summit County, Ohio, sheriff's deputies and federal agents found themselves investigating a wild rumor that the Akron youth was really the Lindbergh boy. Bobby's great-aunt on his father's side, a 60-year-old Barberton, Ohio, woman, contacted Akron private detective John I. Silverstein, who took her story to local authorities. She told Silverstein that the boy's mother, Glendora "Dorry" Dolfen, was involved in a 1932 conspiracy to exchange her sickly son, not yet 7 months old at the time of the kidnapping, for the Lindbergh boy.
Dorry was unable to defend herself against the claim, having died in December 1934 of complications from childbirth.
Officers scoffed at the allegation but dutifully checked it out. When witnesses began to corroborate the far-fetched tale, the story took on a life of its own.
Bobby was living with his aunt and uncle, Thelma and Clifford Miller, when a caravan of deputies, newspaper reporters and photographers arrived unannounced at their home on Oakwood Drive in Ellet, Ohio.
"I can remember when the detectives come up in Ellet . . . guys in suits and topcoats," Dolfen says. "I was out in the back playing."
Officers did a double take when they spotted the youth. He really did fit the Lindbergh boy's description: blue eyes, curly blond hair, dimpled chin.
In a bizarre coincidence, the boy was wearing an aviator's helmet and goggles--just like what Charles Lindbergh wore on the first solo flight across the Atlantic.
"There was a guy with a big camera come around there and he took a big flash," Dolfen recalls. "Well, that scares the hell out of you when you see a big flash in the daylight. I didn't know what was going on.
"My aunt come out and asked them what was going on and then she took me in the house."
Akron's media circus had begun. Local newspapers published photos and articles about "Lindy's double." The news spread to the Associated Press and United Press International, which transmitted stories to newspapers around the world.
"The pictures of this Ohio youngster Robert Dolfen, they call him, so resemble Mr. and Mrs. Lindbergh that I honestly believe from the bottom of my heart that that boy is the Lindbergh baby," Chicago housewife Marie A. Marten wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, after spotting a Chicago newspaper article. "The lips, the mouth, the nose, the shape of the cheek and the chin . . . I think that child should be investigated further."
Reporters camped out at the tiny home in Ellet.
"They stayed there day and night," Dolfen says. "They kept walking around the house, trying to get a peek in there and take more pictures."
Aunt Thelma told the officers that there had been a mistake: The boy was her nephew Bobby, not the Lindbergh baby. She stayed awake at night with a shotgun in her lap, fearing that someone might try to break in and kidnap the child.
"There probably is only one chance in a million that Robert Dolfen might be the missing Lindbergh baby," Summit Sheriff James Flower told the Akron Times-Press. "But that one chance must be checked out."
Bobby was taken to the Akron police station to have ink fingerprints and footprints made. When the boy took off his shoes, it was noted that he had an overlapping toe on his right foot--just as the Lindbergh baby had.
"I gave 'em hell when they got my feet all dirty with those footprints," Dolfen says. "It took a while to come off."
Digging in the Garden State
Meanwhile, details emerged that backed up the great-aunt's conspiracy theory. Detectives learned that Dorry Dolfen, a New Jersey native, had taken her son Bobby to the Garden State only days before the Lindbergh kidnapping. She said she was going to visit a sick uncle.
When she returned two weeks later, a handful of witnesses would later tell police and reporters, she was carrying a large wad of money, which was unusual during the Depression, and her son didn't look the same.
Ira Myer, an Akron auto mechanic, reportedly told detectives in 1936 that he had driven "the real Bobby" to Children's Hospital in early 1932, about a month before the kidnapping, for a hernia operation.
"The baby was very ill at the time and lay limp in my arms when I took him into the hospital," Myer told the Akron Beacon Journal in 1936.
He didn't see Dorry again until she returned from New Jersey soon after the Lindbergh baby was taken. He stopped by the Dolfen house one day and she offered to reimburse him for the gas he used driving her around town.
"She took out a roll of bills and gave me some," Myer said. "Then she said, 'Have you seen Bobby?' I looked at the child and was amazed to see that the child was a third larger than the other Bobby had been. Also, he had curly hair where the original Bobby had had one little tuft of straight hair . . .
"I took one look at the child and I said 'Why, that's not Bobby, Dorry.' I'll never forget how she stood there a minute, thinking, and then she suddenly admitted it. 'No, you're right,' she said. 'That's not Bobby.' She didn't say any more and I didn't press her. I figured her own baby had died, though I had never seen the death notice, and that she had adopted a child. I never thought of the Lindbergh child at that time."
Esther Ebert, who had worked for the Dolfens, gave the newspaper a similar account:
"I was there when they took Bobby to the hospital. Mrs. Dolfen then told me that she was going to New Jersey to see a sick uncle. When she returned in about two weeks, I was called back to the house. There was a child there but it was not Bobby. I said to her: 'Why, Mrs. Dolfen, that is not Bobby.' 'Oh, yes it is,' she said, 'Only they fed him up at the hospital and he got bigger and his hair got curly.' "
Strangest of all, Bobby's father began to have doubts.
"I was summoned home from a trip I made to St. Louis when my child was a baby," Andrew Dolfen, an Akron bus driver, was quoted as telling police. "They informed me my son was very ill. When I arrived home, I found a perfectly healthy child who didn't resemble my baby at all.
"I said to my wife at that time, 'This is not our child. Our child did not have curly hair.' Later, I noticed that my wife had plenty of money. I saw $600 in $20 bills in her possession at one time. She could not seem to explain to me where she got it. Off and on, I would say to her 'This is not our boy.' "
According to newspaper accounts (the police records are lost), Bobby's great-aunt told detectives that Dorry Dolfen knew Violet Sharpe, a maid who worked for Anne Lindbergh's mother, Elizabeth Morrow, at her Englewood, N.J., estate.
During the kidnapping investigation, police suspected that Sharpe might know more about the crime than she was telling. They grilled her repeatedly, wanting to know her whereabouts during the kidnapping.
In a shocking development, Sharpe committed suicide on June 10, 1932, rather than face a fifth round of police interrogation. Conspiracy theorists believe the suicide proves that Sharpe played a role in the kidnapping, but skeptics say the maid killed herself to avoid having to reveal she had been cheating on her fiance.
Bronx carpenter Bruno Richard Hauptmann, an illegal immigrant from Germany, was charged with the murder in September 1934 after passing some marked ransom money in New York. Officers searched his home and found $13,760 in ransom bills hidden in his garage.
Hauptmann told officers that the money belonged to his business partner, Isidor Fisch, who had died a few months earlier. He said he spent some of it because Fisch owed him $7,000.
Bobby's great-aunt told investigators a bizarre tale: that Fisch had visited Akron in the early 1930s and was in league with a Barberton gang that had planned the Lindbergh kidnapping. A body of a child was dug up from a cemetery by this gang for authorities to find in place of the Lindbergh baby. They took off the child's sleeping garments and put them on the body, then gave the Lindbergh child to Dorry, who returned from her New Jersey trip with a new baby.
"Bruno Richard Hauptmann has nothing to do with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh child," the great-aunt told police. "They planted the money on him one time when he and his wife were away." Pressed on how she knew all this, she shut down, saying she was afraid for her life.
Hauptmann was convicted of murder on Feb. 13, 1935, in a circuslike proceeding that became known as "The Trial of the Century." Although circumstantial, the evidence was compelling:
The ransom money was hidden in Hauptmann's garage.
Handwriting experts agreed he wrote the ransom notes.
Wood from a homemade ladder used in the kidnapping was traced to a Bronx lumberyard near the carpenter's home.
Telltale marks on the ladder matched Hauptmann's tools.
Finally, a board used to make the ladder had been sawed out of Hauptmann's attic floor, experts testified.
Hauptmann went to the electric chair April 3, 1936, proclaiming his innocence. He refused to confess to the crime, even when the New Jersey governor offered to change the death sentence to life in prison.
Skeptics speculating on motives have wondered if Bobby Dolfen's great-aunt knew Hauptmann and was trying to save Hauptmann from execution by inventing the baby-switch story. Whatever the case, the tale began to unravel.
It was learned that the great-aunt had been committed to Massillon State Hospital in 1924 because of "hallucinations that her family was persecuting her."
Andrew Dolfen, who earlier said he doubted his son's identity, disputed the quotes attributed to him in earlier statements. He told the Akron Times-Press: "All I said was that he didn't look very sick after the operation. I never said he didn't look like the same child."
The Bobby Dolfen investigation screeched to a halt when Akron officials heard from Col. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the New Jersey State Police and father of the future Gulf War general.
Schwarzkopf said Bobby's fingerprints had been compared to prints taken from one of the Lindbergh baby's toys. They didn't match.
And that was that.
Well, not exactly.
More than 60 years later, an Akron journalist tracked down Robert Dolfen in Norton after rediscovering 1936 files about the baby-switch allegations.
For the first time, Dolfen decided to talk about the case that has haunted him all his life.
You see, Dolfen still has doubts about his identity.
And he's been thinking a lot lately about exhuming his mother's body at Old Tallmadge Cemetery to do a DNA test.
He wants to know for sure.
Over the years, dozens of people have claimed to be the Lindbergh baby. One man, who recovered "memories" of being carried out of the Lindbergh nursery through hypnosis, legally changed his name to Charles A. Lindbergh III. Many of the tales have been at least as outrageous, including that of a black woman from Oklahoma who said she was Charles Lindbergh Jr. until someone changed her sex and dyed her skin.
As far as Robert Dolfen knows, he's really Robert Dolfen. He's the guy who worked for 41 years at PPG and spent seven years in the National Guard. He's the guy who graduated from Norton High School in 1950. And he's the guy who was born to Andrew and Dorry Dolfen on Aug. 24, 1931--13 months after Charles Lindbergh Jr.
"You only know what you've been told, and what I've been told is I'm me," he says. "I don't have anything to dispute that. But you wonder."
He keeps thinking about the family legends: His mother knowing the maid who committed suicide. Bobby Dolfen being in New Jersey the week of the kidnapping. The small fortune his mother brought back from her trip. The neighbors saying the boy was someone else.
"You know, the more you run onto, it puts maybe a little more doubt in your mind," he says.
The Family Secret
It would be easier to dismiss the baby-switch theory if Dolfen didn't so resemble Charles Lindbergh. Photos of the American icon, who died in 1974, bear an eerie likeness to Dolfen: the receding hairline, the piercing eyes, the wide nose, the prominent ears.
Dolfen is friendly, soft-spoken and intelligent. He has a dry sense of humor and a warm smile. In adulthood, Dolfen provided for his family what he never had as a child: a stable home.
He and his wife, Betty, have three children: Norton school board member Cindy Webel, University of Akron employee Denise Montanari and Bank One worker Bob Dolfen.
All are self-taught experts on the Lindbergh kidnapping case. The Dolfens didn't tell their children about the family legend until 1972, when fourth-grader Denise brought home a biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh from the Norton library.
"When we came home, my dad saw it and he sat my sister and I down--I think my brother was too young at the time--and explained it to us," she says.
Her parents showed them the old news clippings and photos.
"And they told us we weren't allowed to tell anybody," Montanari says. "We haven't told anybody for years."
The family has spent years of quiet research on the kidnapping. They know just about every conspiracy theory associated with the crime and can name every prominent figure connected with the case.
And despite evidence that most historians consider definitive, they maintain room to doubt. For instance: What if the dead infant found in 1932 wasn't really Charles Lindbergh Jr.? What if it was Bobby Dolfen? "The garments could've been switched," Robert Dolfen speculates. "The baby that was found had a soft spot," or fontanel, in its skull and "the Lindbergh baby wouldn't have had a soft spot. But then it was cremated and they really never had a regular autopsy on it."
Cindy Webel says, "I don't think it's the Lindbergh baby because of that 1-inch soft spot," she says. "A 20-month-old baby could not possibly have a soft spot. It doesn't matter who it is. It's not the Lindbergh baby."
Betty Dolfen adds: "The Dolfen baby was smaller than the Lindbergh baby. When Bobby came back from New Jersey, he was bigger."
What about the fingerprint evidence that ruled out Bobby Dolfen in 1936?
"There's a doubt there," Dolfen says. The latent prints on the toy "could've been any baby--not the Dolfen baby, but some other baby that was in the house that had a hold of the toys . . . If you didn't see who put 'em on there, you don't know whose they are."
What about Bruno Hauptmann? Did he kidnap the Lindbergh baby?
"He was probably connected," Dolfen says. "Maybe he had something to do with it."
A Doubter's Brief
Author Russell Aiuto, a retired educator who served as president of Ohio's Hiram College from 1985 to 1988, is a Lindbergh buff who has "read almost everything published" about the case.
Contacted at his Maryland home, Aiuto offers a few theories of his own.
"I don't put much stock in the idea that the Lindbergh baby survived into adulthood, or for that matter, that the corpse in the woods wasn't Charles A. Lindbergh Jr.," he says.
Conspiracy theories about the body not being the Lindbergh baby seem to originate from two sources, Aiuto says.
"The first was the confusion about the corpse's length," he says. "It was measured as 33 inches, but the original fliers about the baby's disappearance said 29 inches. Of course, 2 feet 9 inches is 33 inches, and the measurement on the flier was a misdescription.
"The other issue is that the corpse had a 1-inch-in-diameter fontanel that usually disappears at one year of age. The Lindbergh baby was 20 months old. While this may be uncommon, it is also uncommon for a 1-year-old to be 33 inches tall."
Furthermore, Aiuto points out, the body was identified by two people who should have been able to recognize it.
"Despite the condition of the body and the sloppy autopsy, both Lindbergh and Betty Gow, the nurse, identified the body, not only by the curiously bent toes but by the shreds of clothing as well," he says. "If it is a conspiracy, it had to include those two as co-conspirators. I think that is unlikely."
Former FBI agent Jim Fisher, a criminal justice professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, has written two books on the subject: "The Lindbergh Case" (1987) and "The Ghosts of Hopewell" (1999).
"There's this whole sort of subculture of Lindbergh case buffs," Fisher says. "There's enough mystery in the case that you can sink your teeth into it. Nobody, myself included, has all the answers to the case. And there are mysteries and loose ends, as there are in all cases of complexity."
However, Fisher is "absolutely convinced" that the body found in 1932 was the Lindbergh baby. "All the evidence that I'm aware of--and it's considerable--establishes the identity," he says.
Still, he declines to rule out completely that the body could belong to someone else.
"I wouldn't say anything is impossible until the DNA would straighten it out," he says.
DNA testing would be the best way for Dolfen to prove he's really a Dolfen. That's why he's been thinking lately about his mother's unmarked grave in Tallmadge.
"I don't like that idea of digging anybody up," Dolfen says.
"We're pushing it," Webel says. "You just want to know one way or the other."
Betty Dolfen says, "We just want to know, is he or isn't he?"
It would cost thousands of dollars to exhume the body and test the DNA. Even so, Dolfen was asking his family doctor about the idea recently.
"He says there's a lot to that," Dolfen says. "It ain't like taking a swab of spit."
There is another option, although it might be difficult persuading New Jersey officials to act. A lock of the Lindbergh baby's hair is on exhibit at the New Jersey State Police Museum in West Trenton, along with Hauptmann trial evidence including the kidnapping ladder and ransom notes.
Museum curator Mark Falzini says microscopic analysis shows that the Lindbergh hair matches hair found at the wooded area where the body was discovered. The color, texture and cellular arrangement are the same.
However, the DNA has never been tested, Falzini says, and there are no plans to do so.
A Quest for Truth
Robert Dolfen says he only wants the truth. He isn't looking for fame. He doesn't want to be on "Oprah."
"If you find out for sure, okay, and if you don't, hell, I'm about done anyhow so it ain't gonna make that much difference to me," he says.
"We're not after any money or nothing," Betty Dolfen says. "We just want to know."
And what if the improbable tale somehow became true? What if all the history books had to be rewritten?
"Life would change--as I know it--dramatically," Dolfen says. "You could probably never surmise what the change would be. It would be so much."
One thing is for certain: The news media would be camped outside the Dolfen home again--just like in 1936.
Truthfully, Robert Dolfen likes being Robert Dolfen. It's what he knows best.
Would he really want his life to change so dramatically at this point? Would he really want to be plastered across every newspaper and magazine, beamed by satellite to every television set?
"No," Dolfen says after a moment of thought. "Not that much."