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Published 11/12/2010 at 8:02am  |  Views: 15661
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by Audra D.S. Burch
Original Article

Cyn Bird grabbed a torn piece of notebook paper to scribble the secrets spilling from her mother's mouth as she neared death: The mysterious Miami doctor named Katherine Cole who delivered and supposedly sold babies to couples. The phone call on Jan. 12, 1962, that a baby girl with sky blue eyes was available. The $2,500 cash price tag.

After 46 years, Bird had learned the stunning truth about her birth from her mother. Bird was adopted. Illegally.

"How do you wake up at my age and realize you have no idea who you really are?" asks Bird, a New Jersey wife, mother and artist who discovered her adoption in March 2008, four months before her mother's death. "I am still trying to wrap my head around this."

She turned to the Internet and found others like her. The people of this new community even had a name for themselves: Cole babies.

In what authorities call one of the most haunting, widespread cases of illegal adoptions in Florida history, Cole reportedly placed more than 1,000 babies, most without legal documentation, out of her two-story Southwest Eighth Street clinic from the 1930s to the 1960s. She died in 1981, leaving no records and without ever admitting the full scale of the shadowy operation that created three generations of Cole babies struggling to piece together their identities. For most, the discovery was triggered by a revelation and a birth certificate on which Cole listed the adoptive parents as the birth parents.

"She absolutely played God," said Josette Marquess, a retired Florida adoption official who shepherded dozens of Cole babies through mostly fruitless state searches for family. "We have no official record of their adoptions -- like they never happened -- which makes it nearly impossible to help these folks find their birth parents."

The discovery of this vintage Miami mystery has come in waves: In the 1950s, as part of a federal investigation into black-market baby adoptions. In the early 1990s, as some Cole babies reached adulthood and began asking the questions.

Now, a third Internet-fueled push is unfolding.

And this time, there's more at stake than longing to know. The youngest of the Cole babies are in their 40s. Most are parents. Some are grandparents. Health issues are becoming more important. They want medical histories from biological parents.

Others have given up on finding birth parents, but hope to find siblings. Maybe someone will see their pictures posted on the Internet, and recognize the blue eyes, the wisp of blond curls, the crooked smile. They seize the tiniest of clues gleaned from scant documents, resistant memories of relatives and the help of Marquess, the Tallahassee adoption reunion director who retired three months ago.

Along the way, the Cole babies found each other.

Through websites, Facebook pages, registries, forums and e-mail exchanges, they built a special community bound by the unknowns and the peculiar deeds of "Granny Doc" Cole.

Bird -- who continues searching online -- writes on her Web page: "I look forward to meeting some family, but don't want to disrupt anyone's life, I just really want information."

Another Cole baby, Bob Lightner of Gainesville, posted 16 of his baby pictures with the question: Who am I? Though Lightner, who was raised in Miami, hasn't found the answer yet, he has found companions on the same tortuous journey.

"In a way, it's comforting that I am not alone, that there are people out there who share the same story," said Lightner, 61, who found out from an aunt he was adopted. "I will always wonder if there is someone out there who looks like me. I will always wonder if I have a brother or sister."

MEDICAL NEED

At 24, Bird had a stroke. Could her birth mother's medical history have yielded clues to her own health? The same question plagues Dolores Slavin Tomarelli, a Texas elementary school teacher who suffered breast cancer twice, in 2006 and 2007.

Another adoptee detailed her medical history online in the hope it would ring a bell: juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, asthma and skin cancer removed from her nose at age 12.

Adoption records are sealed in Florida to protect the identity of the biological parents but under certain circumstances, including a medical or family emergency, a judge can appoint an intermediary to act as a go-between for the adoptee and the biological family.

Lightner found out he was adopted as he was researching what he believed to be his mother's family history. His aunt told him the truth.

"It was like listening to a record player that skips, over and over," said Lightner, a husband and father. "She told me that my mother was older and they paid $200 for me. I should have gotten a few hints when I was growing up, but I didn't feel like I was adopted."

And then the realization began to sink in. He called his doctor.

"Everything we thought we knew about my health history, we don't anymore."

MYSTERY IN DEATH

Cole left behind a world of questions, unearthed a dozen years after her death when a Cole baby named Carole Landis Baker became the first adoptee to publicly search for her birth mother. The story of her quest, published in The Miami Herald on June 6, 1993, under the headline Dark Secrets, ended with more questions than answers.

Baker never found her birth mother, but dozens of other Cole babies came forward and at least three found birth parents.

Some Cole babies held a reunion in Coral Gables in January 1994 to celebrate the kinship that had formed as they searched for their roots.

Like the first waves, the Cole babies now coming forward live all over the United States -- some in Florida, some learning as 40-somethings that they had been adopted, often as their adoptive parents were dead or dying.

Tomarelli, 49, of Spring, Texas, learned she was adopted from a cousin in 2001.

"My parents were older and they took this trip to Florida and came back with me and nobody was supposed to ever tell me. I was told they paid $10,000 for me. All of a sudden everything I thought I knew about me . . . " She doesn't complete the sentence.

Adoptive parents still alive have been reluctant to reveal details. In Bird's case, her mother denied she was adopted for years before her confession. She told Bird she had lived in fear for years that someone would knock on the door and take away her baby girl.

Lightner remembers being sent to a British boarding school not long after he asked why he didn't have red hair like his father.

Elaine Clarke, of Miami Beach, was 16 when a neighbor delivered the news. She remembers the day -- Oct. 4, 1957 -- because it was the day the Sputnik 1 satellite was launched.

Gaye Koconis, a Chicago midwife who was a Cole baby along with her younger sister, found out while arguing with her mother: "She screamed it at me through the door. I was 16."

Her father later filled in some of the blanks. Koconis' birth mother was likely in her 30s and had had one other child. Unlike the others, she was separated or divorced. "I wouldn't be incomplete if I never found out all the details, but it would be nice to know. Everybody wants to feel connected to somebody, a person who looks like you or has a similar personality."

Loralea Carrera, 69, was 9 years old, riding in the car with her parents as they drove past Cole's clinic, when she started putting the pieces together.

"I was sitting in the back seat and we passed the building and they started whispering," said Carrera, a seamstress living in the Keys. "They talked about how my mother couldn't have children and there was this doctor looking for good homes."

A cousin later told Carrera the details of her adoption.

"Of course my mother would not talk about it. I guess she came from a different age where you just didn't discuss these kinds of things," Carrera said. "She was handed me and was told to never tell a soul."

WILLING TO PAY

For three decades, East Coast couples ventured to what was then the western edge of Miami, middle-class whites who, for the most part, could not conceive but had cash and were willing to pay $25 to $2,500 or more for a baby.

The birth mothers were mostly from South Florida, unwed, broke and looking for a way to discreetly start over. Their expenses were paid and secrets held by the adoptive parents.

The popular doctor brought the parties together, with no red tape, no records, no court hearings, no questions. And no answers for the adoptees who would later search for clues.

Cole housed pregnant women and girls in apartments and houses clustered around the clinic at 4725 SW Eighth St.

Cole, who began practicing in 1927, was arrested five times between 1943 and 1967 -- once for manslaughter, twice for attempted abortion, once for unlawful possession of barbiturates and once for failure to file a birth certificate. She was cleared of all charges but one, attempted abortion, and served less than a year in jail.

But to so many local families of the time, the accusations seemed not to matter. Cole had legitimately delivered generations of babies for a half-century. She even delivered the adoptive brothers and sisters of Clarke, the Miami Beach retiree who would later find out she was a Cole baby.

"Dr. Cole was a huge person in the community," said Clarke, 69, of Miami Beach, the only known biracial Cole baby who searched over the years for her birth parents. "Who she was makes this story even more interesting."

Cole's supporters saw her as a kind woman who understood the societal challenges unwed mothers faced and placed the children in decent homes.

"I just felt lucky that situation was available," Mary Knox, who put her daughter up for adoption through Cole in 1938, told The Herald in 1993. She was reunited with her daughter that year. "I had no way to support a baby, and I was too darn young."

In previous stories, Cole's daughter, who died in 2007, defended Cole.

"She would only do what was the best thing for the baby, for the mother," Ellen Avery, the doctor's fourth child, told the Herald in 1993. "My mother never did anything to make money off people."

And this was decades before Roe v. Wade offered more choices.

"You have to put this in the proper time frame. Back then, these women were sent to maternity homes because it was a shameful thing to be pregnant and unwed. People were also encouraged not to tell their children they were adopted," said June Lewis, a Miami licensed clinical social worker who performs adoption home studies. "We are still living with that legacy."

The Cole babies' stories may start in Miami but most wind up in Tallahassee with Marquess, the recently retired director of the Florida Adoption Reunion Agency.

For two decades, Marquess had been the state's only adult adoption services official, keeper of a collection of 3x5 index cards listing birth and adoptive parents in Florida adoptions from 1944 to 1980. Few Cole babies were in the files.

"Over the years, I would get all these calls from Cole babies. Their information wasn't here as it was supposed to be so I would have them send me a copy of the birth certificate," she said.

She would know immediately if they were Cole babies: "In 98 percent of the cases, she handwrote out the birth certificates in bright red ink."

Then she had to break the disappointing news: "It was hard to hear their voices, and you know in reality you probably wouldn't be able to help," she said. "They deserve closure."

But for many Cole babies, the yearning to know more has been left unfulfilled.

Sara Arwine, retired and living in Titusville, offers this assessment: "The Cole story forced ordinary people to become sleuths and then the cases go cold." TO MIAMI

After the Marquess conversation, the Cole babies often head to Miami, believing someone, somewhere, must have a clue who they are.

Tomarelli stewed over her adoption for several years before she traveled to Miami from her home in a Houston suburb.

She and her husband found the old clinic and took pictures. At the University of Miami library, they combed through yearbooks until she found a 1964 volume.

"I had been told by relatives that Dr. Cole said my parents were premed college students from wealthy parents, but who knows if that's true," she recalled. "Then I was looking through this old annual and found a picture of this young woman who looked liked me. It was eerie."

They had the same oval faces, brunette hair, same eyes. Her name was Gale and she was a student from Walterboro, S.C.

Tomarelli tore out the page. She searched the Internet, checked adoption registries, even joined a classmate forum in Walterboro. She never found Gale, but she has never stopped trying.