Single, pregnant and alone in the world, 20-year-old Janis Krepcik took herself out of the running for mother of the year.
It was 1965, she had met a guy while doing seasonal work at Sun Valley, Idaho, and they had gotten careless. She found herself in a San Francisco home for young, unwed mothers.
She gave birth 17 days into the following year to a boy she named Curtis Cutler, though it didn’t really matter what she named him. Cutler was his father’s last name. She was giving him up, telling herself all along that there had to be a better mother for her son.
“After he was born, I hugged him for 15 minutes. I hugged him so hard, I thought I was going to suffocate him,” said Krepcik recently. “Then I let him go.”
But there wasn’t a better mother. And after nearly 39 years, and an unpredictably cruel childhood, the son Krepcik put up for adoption contacted her out of the blue. He was living five miles away from her – in Spokane.
Cutler spent the first three months of his life in a foster facility before Don and Linda Denton, a couple from Contra Costa County, Calif., adopted him.
Curtis Cutler became Steven Denton. By the time he was 5 years old, his adoptive mother had given birth to two daughters, and the little boy – considered hyper and tantrum prone – was in the way.
Social workers, according to a six-page summary of Cutler’s childhood published by Contra Costa County Employment and Human Services, tried to talk the Dentons out of giving up the boy. Counselors concluded the 5-year-old suffered from extreme anxiety and low self-worth, not hyperkinesias and discontent.
Eighteen months later, Cutler was back in foster care. Cutler remembers social workers putting a sort of glass-is-half-full spin on his predicament; it was his chance to select his parents. How many kids got to do that?
Eight years old, Cutler chose Marylyn and Daniel Robert Denning. Steven Denton became Steven Denning. His selection couldn’t have been worse.
“The first time I met my new dad, he sexually abused me,” Cutler said. “He said, ‘No one has ever loved you.’ And he abused me. He said, ‘This is what love is.’ “
Daniel Denning molested his adopted son for three years until the father was caught molesting another child. Divorce followed. He is imprisoned today on four child molestation charges, including child kidnapping for sexual purposes, according to an online sex offender registry maintained by the California attorney general.
Marylyn Denning took Cutler and her two daughters to Southern California after her husband was caught. When Cutler acted up, he said, she would threaten to “give me back to the Indians.”
Cutler and Denning regularly fought, which led him to leave home for extended periods of time. Eventually, he put the Dennings behind him, like he did the Dentons.
He started his own family, marrying a girl he had met as a teenager in a Baptist church in Southern California. They moved to Spokane, where Cutler’s wife, Amy, had a sister.
It felt good for Cutler to put some real miles between his adult life and his childhood, but Daniel Denning went on trial in 1994 for molesting children. Cutler was subpoenaed to return to California to relive his childhood on the witness stand as part of Denning’s trial.
The trial put Cutler into a tailspin. He said he suffered extreme depression, eventually attempting suicide. Cutler and Amy agreed he needed to check into an inpatient treatment center in Arizona. When he got out, Cutler didn’t want anything to do with his two adopted families.
“I took all my photographs of them and burned them,” Cutler said. “I didn’t belong with them. They weren’t like me. And I remember feeling like somewhere, someone talked like me and acted like me.”
He started tinkering with the Internet last year, trying to find his parents, really just casting about for anything rather than looking for specifics.
Cutler didn’t have specifics. He had a description of his mother, provided by Contra Costa County, Calif., that could have described any of a million North American women: 5 feet 2 inches tall, 116 pounds, brown hair, brown eyes, nervous. He knew she’d taken the bus, pregnant, from Idaho to San Francisco to take part in an experimental treatment for narcolepsy and left him behind when she returned home. It was information jotted down by someone at the home for unwed mothers some 40 years earlier.
The description of Cutler’s father was equally vague: 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, woodsy. The father had apparently been injured in a sawmill accident. The report suggested that were it not for the accident, Cutler’s parents might have married. He would have had a family. The report wasn’t that accurate, he later learned.
State law prevented Contra Costa County from giving Cutler his parents’ names. The county would tell him his parents were both Idahoans.
Cutler just started calling Idaho towns. He called churches hoping to find someone who remembered an unwed mother in her 20s who set out for California in 1965. He called sawmills looking for someone who remembered a young man injured in an accident. He didn’t get far.
Then, he found an Internet address for a woman, who for $1,500 promised to locate birth parents. Cutler already had a lot of the information the woman needed – his birth certificate number, the hospital where he was born and an old post office box placing one of his parents in Filer, Idaho.
The woman cut him a deal, agreeing to get the names of his parents, as well as his birth name for $100. Up until that point, Cutler had never known his real name. He had lived all but three months of his life as Steven, the last 20 as Steven Denning. The woman he met on the Internet produced the names in 12 hours. His father was C.W. Cutler, just initials, no first name. Cutler’s mother was Janis Bennett, though there were no current addresses for either.
Cutler turned to the post office box in Filer, given to him by Contra Costa County. He got on the Internet and located the phone number for every Cutler in the area, calling them all until he found himself speaking with a woman in Hailey, Idaho, who thought Cutler’s father could be her husband. It was the detail about a sawmill accident that convinced her.
“You know about the sawmill accident?” Kathleen “Kat” Cutler said. Her husband had been caught in a chain 40 years earlier – long before they were married – and dragged through a sawmill sprocket. “Do you want names to put on those initials?”
Kat Cutler gave Cutler more than names. She walked into the back yard and handed the phone to Cutler’s father, Carl.
Carl Cutler isn’t really sure what was said beyond “hello.” He’s pretty sure Cutler rattled off a list of questions trying to make sure his dad was found. Carl’s end of the conversation went something like, “OK, OK, OK, OK,” as he confirmed what he was hearing.
The father ended the conversation by inviting Cutler to Hailey for a visit, a sort of first-contact trip that Cutler assumed he would make immediately on his motorcycle, alone.
“How are you going to put your family on your motorcycle?’ Carl said. The dad was in for a reunion, not a handshake.
Cutler still didn’t know where his mother was. She was no longer Janis Bennett, no longer lived in Idaho. Carl gave him a phone number for a relative of Janis Krepcik. The relative passed Cutler’s phone number on to his mom.
She looked at the number and told her husband, “That’s a Spokane phone number,” Krepcik said. It was a Shadle Park number, to be exact.
She had expected this phone call 21 years ago, when the son she gave up turned 18. The call hadn’t come then. She was worried. Why was he contacting her now? She called Carl Cutler, and asked him about their lost son’s motives.
It was an answer that never dawned on her: “He just wanted to find us so he could thank us for everything, for doing the best we could have done, putting him up for adoption.”
Krepcik sat by the phone and rehearsed what she would say. “Hi, I’m your mom. Hi, I might be your mother. This is your mother.”
One quick, short ring, and they were talking.
“Let’s meet. Let’s meet tonight,” Curtis Cutler told her.
Her mothering instincts kicked in. “No, it’s late.”
Krepcik and her son, Curtis Cutler, met the next day at the Village Inn restaurant in north Spokane. She’d always considered her life complete. She already had two children, grandchildren, all of whom lived within driving distance of Krepcik’s home in Mead. But when she saw Cutler’s green Suburban pull into the restaurant parking lot, Krepcik knew she’d been missing something: that infant she’d hugged so hard in the hospital 39 years ago. She could still feel that hug.
“As soon as I saw him, I knew it was him,” Krepcik said. “He looked too much like his father not to recognize.”
Like the man Krepcik said goodbye to 40 years ago, Curtis Cutler is tall, 6 feet 2 with a wry smile and wide shoulders that match his father’s perfectly. And he has become the man that Krepcik assumed 39 years earlier required a better mother than she. Her boy, a self-employed auto detailer with three young daughters and a wife of 15 years, had turned out all right.
Cutler and his mother have spoken most days since meeting last fall. As they tell their tale now, they are incredibly affectionate with each other. She is sitting beside him in his modest living room in the Shadle Park neighborhood. Krepcik never stops touching his hand, patting his back, making up for lost time.
And Cutler wasted no time claiming his new family. He not only changed his name from Steven Denning, but also got his wife to change hers. Their children, Emily, Maisy and Mallory, will all be Cutlers as soon as they can be processed through Superior Court.
Throughout their rediscovery, Cutler and his mother have marveled at coincidences. Krepcik’s other son, Kevin, and Cutler ate Thanksgiving dinner with each other, unknowingly, five years earlier at the Fire District 8 hall where Kevin Krepcik worked with a close friend of Cutler’s. Cutler is a car buff who never misses an auto show, never passes up an exhibit. Krepcik and her husband, Robert, show cars locally.
The mother told her newfound son how she’d broken the news of his birth to her other children just a few years earlier. Krepcik’s daughter was pregnant and wanted to name her would-be son Curtis. Krepcik couldn’t live with the pain of the name and had to speak up.
The mother and son even celebrated Cutler’s 39th birthday, their first together since that brief 15 minutes in 1966, with one candle.
“Yes, we had cake and balloons,” Krepcik said.
“We even had beer,” Cutler said. “How many kids get that on their first birthday?”