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Originally published November 26, 2011 at 8:03 PM | Page modified November 27, 2011 at 9:56 AM

A brother's search, a family reunited

For 52 years, older brother Orlando Garduno searched for the triplets he had lost when his family was torn apart in Hoquiam. By finding each other, they found themselves.

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes Wow, what a story. It's too bad that his health was so poor so he could have enjoyed... Read more
quotes Nice story, and in the season of thanks. If those of us readers with families intact... Read more
quotes What a beautifully touching story, albeit with a bittersweet ending. May Orlando rest... Read more

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CHIMAYO, N.M. — Their eyes. Three pairs, brown like his, all gazing back.

Orlando Garduno lost his triplet sisters 52 years ago. During their improbable reunion last July, he could not look away. He reveled in that precious sight, erasing time, soothing his pain.

In that moment, Orlando was 12 again, caring for his baby sisters in a Hoquiam shack with four other siblings. No mother. No father. As the oldest, he was forced to act older.

When Orlando peered into their eyes in 1959, he understood his mission, and he protected his family for several weeks.

Then the authorities intervened, separated the children, and the rest, Orlando said, "is a bad story, man."

The twerps — he used to call them. Angela, Betty and Carol Kniseley hadn't changed, really. Different names: Susan Walters, Debbie Custer and Janna Kach. But he knew his little sisters.

Their eyes didn't reflect his struggle, a half century of searching and fearing and grieving. The twerps, now 52-year-old married women with children, looked back with gratitude.

"It felt like he was soaking in 50 years," Debbie said. "It felt like a sacred moment."

Later, Orlando invited all his kin to meet the triplets at his home, a self-made abode in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in northern New Mexico, a 1,500-mile trek from the Washington state town where the family was torn apart. He stood before a packed house and raised a glass of wine.

"To my sisters, the princesses," he said. "I have them back."

He wanted to say more, but his tears were too strong.

That night, in a quiet moment with his wife of 46 years, Sally, Orlando finished his thought.

"I can die now," he said. "My sisters are home."

A father's dark secret

On the surface, it was an ordinary love story. Calvin Kniseley met Theresa Valdez in Denver in the late 1950s. They were both in their early 30s. She already had four children. They fell in love, wed, and in 1958, they had their first child, Elizabeth.

Orlando remembers his stepfather as a tall, handsome, bald man who wore fancy suits. He was a machinist, and "a real brilliant man," Orlando recalled. He was nice to the children, but he was always antsy.

Kniseley had a dark secret: He had robbed a bank in Detroit and escaped from prison. The family returned to New Mexico, Theresa's home. And in 1959, the parents were shocked to learn Theresa was pregnant with triplets.

When they were born on March 27, 1959, The Albuquerque Tribune announced the news on its front page, complete with photos of Theresa and the triplets. It also included Calvin's worst nightmare: his name, address and place of employment. No longer anonymous, Kniseley moved the family, now with eight children, again.

They went to Utah, then Oregon. Finally, Kniseley brought them to Hoquiam, and he found a job in a machine shop.

"And from there, it's kind of hard for me to talk about," said Orlando.

A few months later, Kniseley fled, this time by himself. Theresa, whom Orlando described as a beautiful and loving but temperamental mother, became mentally ill and spent the rest of her life in and out of hospitals. So Orlando, who was just shy of 13, was left to care for his seven siblings — 10-year-old Jerry, 10-year-old Michael, 4-year-old Patsy, 1-year-old Elizabeth and the triplets.

He begged the dairyman for milk. He used a water hose to clean the triplets' diapers and reused them. Angela, Betty and Carol were ill and malnourished. Orlando did his best to help them survive.

After a few weeks, a neighbor called the police. The children were placed in foster care, and eventually, the five older kids were sent to Denver or northern New Mexico, where they had relatives. But the triplets' foster mother, Ruby Rowe, convinced a judge that the babies had ear infections and couldn't fly. Orlando was told the triplets would join him once they were healthy.

Instead, they vanished from his life.

A brother's search

For the next 52 years, the triplets' disappearance haunted Orlando. He returned to Washington state four times to search for them, but he didn't know they had been adopted and had their names changed.

Theresa's brother tried to get custody of the triplets but was denied. In April 1960, Grays Harbor County Superior Court Judge Warren Poyhonen removed the family's legal rights to the triplets.

Rowe took good care of the girls until they were adopted, when they were 13 months old. She was in her 60s, but she managed with the help of her daughter, Ruth Johnson. Because the girls were identical, the mother and daughter sometimes would take ballpoint pens and write the first letter of their names on their feet to keep them straight.

Walter Peterson and his wife, Joy, adopted the triplets and moved them to an 80-acre farm in Spokane. Walter was a lawyer, and Joy was a teacher. Rowe remained in their lives. They told the girls of a courageous brother who cared for them because their mother was ill. They shared a baby picture taken of the triplets and Orlando. They never knew the name of their lost brother.

The triplets grew up and married. Susan lives in Modesto, Calif. The other two stayed in the state: Debbie in Edmonds, Janna in Carnation. The three talk almost daily. They're all housewives who are humble, dependable, deeply religious and private. Susan has a disarming personality. Debbie analyzes people and situations. Janna is the organizer.

The triplets had been curious about Orlando, but they loved their adoptive parents so much that they never pushed to search for him.

"We had a wonderful childhood," Susan said. "But thinking about where we came from, it was really kind of painful. We felt an allegiance to our adoptive parents, and we never wanted them to feel like their love wasn't enough. So, it was really a secret pain."

Orlando's pain couldn't be ignored. One brother, Jerry, was shot dead during a fight with a cousin in 1973. His brother Michael died of pneumonia in 1982. He wasn't close to Patsy, who was adopted by an uncle, until later in life. And like the triplets, Elizabeth had disappeared as the kids were shuffled from home to home.

"In my life, I've traveled all over the world, looking for my sisters, looking for the meaning of things," said Orlando, who had retired as a hospital executive in New Mexico. "It's a beautiful Earth."

He paused and thought again about the sins of his stepfather. "You know what makes this world bad?" he asked. "It's the people. Hate to say, but it's true."

A box of revelations

Susan kept that old picture of the triplets and Orlando in a jewelry box and prayed they might one day meet their brother. Debbie often dreamed of a dark, unfinished house, and as she moved down the hall, each room grew brighter and brighter. Her husband, Mike Custer, would tell her, "You're getting closer to meeting your brother."

Debbie envisioned the road back to Orlando would start with a knock on the door. The knock came last spring. It was a woman named Jolene Gladsjo.

Gladsjo, 68, was the granddaughter of Ruby Rowe and the daughter of Ruth Johnson, the foster family who nursed the triplets back to health. Ruby died in 1980, and Ruth in 2009. While sifting through some old boxes, Gladsjo found letters between Rowe and Orlando dating back 52 years and letters between Rowe and their mother, Theresa.

At last, the triplets knew their brother's name, and within weeks, they contacted him. Just as important, by reading those letters, they realized how much Orlando and Theresa loved them. The correspondence stopped once the triplets were adopted, proof that their family hadn't tossed them aside.

One letter from Theresa was sent a day after the triplets' first birthday. In it, the mother expresses her love and desire to reunite with the girls.

"May God permit us to be reunited again in a Happy Family," she writes to end the letter.

Theresa died in 1992. But Orlando was very much alive. After contacting an aunt, Janna connected with Orlando last May.

"Good to hear from you," Orlando said over the phone. "I've been looking for you."

A family reunited

The triplets flew to New Mexico to visit Orlando in July and again this month. Their sister Patsy also traveled from Denver to attend both reunions. The young, handsome brother in their picture was now 65, heavy, diabetic, struggling with gout in both feet and receiving dialysis three times a week. But he was still their hero.

For the past six months, Orlando has talked to each sister at least once a week. He's always good for a funny comment. But he has cried with them, too.

"I looked for you in every crowd," he told his sisters.

Natalie Kach, one of Janna's three children, said the triplets never shared their story. "They wouldn't talk about it — ever. My cousin, Rachel, and I would kind of speculate, 'What is out there? Why don't they try to find anyone?' It was so locked down. Once they found Orlando, it allowed them to open up. All of a sudden, my mom is talking about it."

The triplets also visited their mother's grave in Vadito, N.M. A cousin told them their biological father died in prison.

Even though Orlando was the only child who had a lifelong relationship with his mother, he spoke for all his siblings with the headstone inscription.

It reads: "Our Beloved Mother."

An unexpected ending

Before they said goodbye, Orlando, the triplets and Patsy posed together for pictures near Orlando's orchard.

After five minutes, Orlando's legs grew wobbly, but he insisted on taking more photos. After 10 minutes, the sisters were keeping him upright. They locked their arms inside their big brother's arms, and he smiled through the pain. They stood silent, the clicks of cameras sounding like seconds ticking on a clock.

When they finished, the sisters and their husbands walked Orlando back to the house. He took hard breaths and could take only a step every three seconds. His health would not hinder his spirit, however.

"I'm 65, and I'm still good looking," he joked.

The family — his family — laughed. "This is a happy, happy family reunion," he said. "And I never dreamed of it. My heart is full, full of love."

For the next week, Orlando replayed the visit for all his family and friends. He couldn't stop talking about the triplets. He had reunited with his sisters, and the rest, Orlando now said, "is a beautiful story, man."

"But the ending will be unexpected," he told a friend.

A few days later, on Nov. 9, Orlando trudged to his car on a crisp autumn morning. He sat down, lifted his keys to the ignition, and his heart, vigilant for all those years, seized.

He slumped over the steering wheel, causing the horn to honk. Sally, his wife, ran out to the car, but she already knew what she would find.

I can die now. My sisters are home.

Their beloved brother.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @Jerry_Brewer.

Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

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