On a morning in August, Debra Mulligan left her Glen Burnie home and traveled across the Bay Bridge looking for peace of mind. She was too nervous to drive, so a friend was behind the wheel when they pulled into a Stevensville office park, heading for a company known as LabCorp.
There, a technician swabbed the inside of Mulligan's mouth. The simple procedure takes less than a minute - but it could hold the key to solving a six-year-old mystery that torments Mulligan.
DNA recovered from her mouth is being compared to a sample taken from a young man, who for a year lay comatose and anonymous before dying in a Georgia hospital.
If the DNA samples match, Mulligan will know that the "John Doe" in Georgia is her son, Donald Lee Izzett Jr., who left for a California vacation in May 1995 and never returned.
In the years since Donald disappeared, Mulligan has looked at hundreds of pictures of missing children on Internet sites. She has badgered police to devote more time to their investigation and angrily complained when their reported findings raised disturbing questions about her son's life.
Over and over, she has relived her last conversation with Donald - a panicked phone call from him during which he said he wanted to come home.
The answers she hoped for never came, and she struggled with the heartbreak of fading memories.
"I started forgetting his smell after a period," she says. "It was probably one of the hardest things."
About two months ago, a stranger set in motion a chain of events that might finally bring an answer. Mulligan found herself shaking in front of a computer screen, studying autopsy photos of an emaciated, tattooed young man who died alone at Atlanta's Grady Hospital.
At first it was hard for her to imagine that this person, who died of injuries sustained when he was struck by a car, could be the handsome honor student smiling in photographs in her apartment.
But after years of praying for Donald's safe return, she has come to hope that it is. More than anything, she wants to know what became of her son.
"I want to put him to rest," she says, "and have a place where I can visit him."
Mulligan, who gave birth to her son when she was 16, says the two of them grew up together.
She and the boy's father were married for a few years, but she says her second husband, Mike Mulligan, was the only father figure her son ever knew.
Growing up in Cumberland, Donald was a bright child who spent his allowance on books.
He graduated from Fort Hill High School in 1993 near the top of his class. When it came time to consider colleges, Donald chose Frostburg State University, 20 minutes away. He came home most weekends and often brought college friends with him.
For Donald, as for many freshmen, the first year of college was at times a confusing mix of new friends and new freedoms. But he grappled with other issues.
By then, he had told his mother that he was gay.
"I was devastated. I was absolutely sick," recalls Mulligan, 41, a caseworker with Anne Arundel County's Department of Social Services. "I tried to convince him he wasn't, and we did fight about it."
After her anger subsided, Mulligan said, she and her son had many long talks.
"I wanted him to take it slow," she says.
Mulligan was nervous about Donald's plans to travel to California with a friend. She says she worried that her son, book-smart but hardly street-wise, wasn't ready for so much freedom.
She says she thought the vacation might have been his way of trying to resolve his sexual confusion.
"He said he hadn't been with anybody - boy or girl - but was so confused," Mulligan says. "Maybe his going to California was his trying to meet people like himself."
The last conversation
Mulligan can still hear the panic in her son's voice. It was May 14, 1995 - a week after he'd left Cumberland - and he was on the phone.
"He called me hysterical, crying," she says. "He wanted me to wire money, and said he'd call me back to tell me where and when."
"He said, `I gotta go, 'bye,' and he hung up the phone," Mulligan says. "It was like he didn't want somebody to hear him."
Starting the search
Mulligan tried to get in touch with anyone who knew her son. She blanketed Cumberland and Frostburg with posters. She sought help from the police, who opened a missing-person investigation in August 1995.
From the start, Mulligan has criticized the handling of the case by the state police, saying they have been slow investigating tips. Mulligan also is enraged that police reports about the case portray a young man she does not know.
According to a case summary posted on a state police Web site, Donald spent the summer of 1995 on an odyssey through gay communities in Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. The report describes the friend who accompanied Donald to California as his boyfriend, and refers to fights between the two that led Donald to travel to Canada and then Florida.
The report states that, after a reconciliation, the friend left Donald in New Orleans.