04/04/2008 AT 12:00 PM EDT
Hours after Heath Ledger's body was discovered in a New York City loft on Jan. 22, stricken loved ones gathered in his hometown of Perth, Australia, to address the media. Acting as spokesman, Heath's father, Kim Ledger, wrapped a protective arm around his ex-wife, the actor's mother, Sally Bell, and spoke to reporters on Bell's front lawn, of their "generous, kindhearted, life-loving son," who had died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs at age 28. In the days that followed, the Ledger family – joined by Michelle Williams, 27, and his 2-year-old daughter Matilda Rose – remained united in grief. But in recent weeks, that image of a close-knit clan has begun to crack, exposing old grudges, bitter infighting over money and, most shocking of all, a report that Heath may have fathered a child at 17 with an older woman. The rumor, which made headlines across Australia on March 31, "could well be just talk, but a DNA test would certainly fix it," says a Ledger cousin, Richard Syme, who along with several other family members is estranged from Kim. "That would be the best thing for everyone."
Stories of a secret child – and possible heir alongside Matilda to the millions Ledger earned in his short career – have swirled around Perth for some time. "It's been a very well-known rumor" for years, says the actor's uncle Haydn, who with his sibling Mike fell out with their brother Kim over money more than a decade ago. Heath's parents and sisters have not commented, but the uncles and other relatives alienated from Kim say they believe the actor had an affair with a 25-year-old woman, who at the time was in a relationship with another man. After the fling ended, according to Sydney's Daily Telegraph, she discovered she was pregnant and gave birth to a girl. In an interview with People, the woman at the center of the controversy sought to defuse the speculation. "I'm not going to say anything. Sorry. I've got to get my head around this," said the woman, who lives in Perth with her husband and children. "They don't think of an 11-year-old girl's interests here, do they?"