Albuquerque woman uses forensic science to uncover family secret

Community Reports

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) -The Geneology Center in Albuquerque’s Main Downtown Library is helping New Mexicans uncover their family history, and led one local woman to pioneer a new use for forensic-style DNA testing.

Many of us are curious about our family history, but few of us are as driven as Toni Leon Kovarik. The Sandia National Labs retiree has spent the last 40 years tracking down the man she’s named after, her great-great-grandfather Tony Leon.

Over the years, Toni’s family has gathered various bits of information on Leon, including that he ran away from home and wound up in Chicago where he tried to sign up for and fight in the Civil War at the age of 12-years-old. He was of course, too young, so the recruiting office instead allowed him to become a drummer boy.

They also know that after the war was over, Leon joined an acrobatic group called, The Leon Brothers, which is where his descendants believe he adopted the name from and leaving their true surname, a mystery.

After his days as an acrobat, Toni says Leon became a tailor and at one point led a famous Military Band on tour all across the country. He eventually wound up in Toledo, Ohio where he converted a building into a roller-rink and dance hall. Toni says it was that space that would end his life after he stepped on a rusty nail and died from tetanus in 1916.

Toni says there are plenty of gaps in Leon’s story that prevented her from learning the family’s true last name, but in the late 90’s she had a breakthrough. She was able to track down the last male descendant of the Leon family.

His name was Robert Leon and he lived in San Jose, California. Toni thought her long-lost second-cousin could be the key she needed to unlock her family’s true last name, but Robert passed away in 2017 before they could test his DNA.

That’s when Toni says her wheels started turning, she just wasn’t ready to give up the search. After getting permission from Robert’s family, she tracked down his funeral director and asked her to take a male-specific DNA test. The purpose was to see what other men Tony Leon might have been related to, in hopes of uncovering their true last name.

The funeral director was able to take a postmortem, post-embalming hair-root sample, giving Toni the genealogical information she needed to continue her search. After sending the sample out of the country for testing, Toni and a team of volunteer DNA and genealogy specialists settled on sending the sample to Family Tree DNA, a company in Houston, Texas to search for possible relatives.

What Toni didn’t know, was that doing that type of DNA test is usually only used for forensic science, like testing old sexual assault kits to reveal a deceased perpetrator. Genealogy specialist Blain Bettinger says it had never been done before for any known genealogical research, making Toni Leon a pioneer in the field.

Toni’s findings have lead her to believe that her true last name is Elliot, but when the Elliot family came from Scotland or England to the United States, remains a mystery. She’s currently working with John Ferris, Philip Spivey, and other researchers at Albuquerque’s Main Downtown Library in the Genealogy Center to uncover those hidden facts. She’s also working to share her story with the world through an academic-style paper.

She says her motivation for this decades-long process lies in the fact that she loves her family, and that she wants to solve the mystery behind the man she was named after.

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