ONTARIO, Ore. — As a child, Patrick Niiranen fantasized that his birth parents were desperately searching for him, but that his adoptive parents were somehow managing to keep him hidden.
As an adult, Niiranen killed his adoptive parents by beating both with a hammer in their home.
Niiranen says his murderous rage in February 1997 resulted from years of physical abuse. Prosecutors say he murdered them for $600 to buy cocaine.
Now 40, he is serving a life sentence.
But Niiranen still wonders who his biological parents are. He yearns to hug his mother and say that he loves her, to fill what he calls a "hole in my heart."
"Even people who have been adopted and grown up in good homes are still seeking their parents," he says, seated in the visitors' room of the Snake River Correctional Institution in eastern Oregon.
"I can only assume that there is this internal calling. It's almost animalistic. You take a cub away from its mother, and they're both going to do whatever they can to get back to each other."
Niiranen may finally get his chance to track his birth parents.
Oregon, like most other states, had a state law keeping adoption records confidential. But in November 1998, Oregon voters approved a measure to give adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates.
After more than a year of court battles, the Oregon Supreme Court in March let stand a lower court ruling upholding the law. For now, the birth certificates remain sealed while opponents of the law decide whether to try to take their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Just four states--Alaska, Kansas, Tennessee and Delaware--have laws similar to the one on hold in Oregon, allowing all adult adoptees to get copies of their original birth certificates. Ohio and Montana give some adoptees the records, depending on when they were adopted.
In other states, adoptees must rely on their own detective work or voluntary registries, in which identities are released only when both the adoptee and the birth parent sign up and agree to it.
Opponents of open adoption records laws say Niiranen is a good example--albeit an extreme one--of what's wrong with such laws.
They say parents who gave up babies for adoption would have to worry that years down the road, children reared by someone else would show up on their doorsteps and place unknown burdens on them.
"Once you open the door of privacy, then anything can happen," says David Malutinok, president of the National Council for Adoption, an advocacy group. "This should not be forced on people."
Born at Portland General Hospital, Niiranen was soon adopted by Henry and Mercedes Niiranen. The Portland couple already had another adopted son at home.
Niiranen maintains that he was emotionally and physically abused by his parents until he was old enough to run away. Beatings with bats, belts and paddles seemed to be for everything--from forgetting to bring his lunch sack home to watching television after school.
In a third-grade report card, one teacher, a nun, did indicate that "the family environment doesn't seem favorable to child development." And in 1969 Patrick and his older brother were placed in a shelter for battered children.
From there, he bounced among foster homes, friends' houses and the streets. At 13, he started using alcohol and drugs "to deaden the pain."
A marriage ended in divorce. When his older brother found his biological parents and changed his last name, his adoptive parents disinherited him.
But Niiranen stayed in touch with them.
He claims that he had been off drugs for a year when he went to their home in February 1997, asking his adoptive parents for money to help him and his pregnant girlfriend get an apartment.
An argument followed.
His mother started calling him worthless, he recalls, and he snapped.
"The next thing I knew they're laying at my feet in puddles of blood," he says. "It was like riding a carnival ride--you want to put the brakes on but the brakes don't work."
Niiranen claims not to remember, but court records offer grisly details.
They say Patrick Niiranen beat Henry, 77, and Mercedes, 74, with a hammer. Then, worried that his father was still alive, Niiranen tied his legs with an electrical cord. He took about $600, a checkbook and a credit card from his father's pocket and drove away in his parents' Ford Explorer.
A cocaine binge followed before Niiranen turned himself in at a police station. He eventually pleaded no contest to two counts of aggravated murder and one count of burglary.
In preparation for trial, Niiranen's attorneys received limited access to his adoption records in case medical details about his birth parents' mental status might offer a possible defense.
The attorneys relayed what they learned--that Niiranen's mother was 28, that she had four children by a previous marriage; that she was poor, divorced and maybe depressed when she became pregnant again. The attorneys were not given access to his birth parents' identities.
Niiranen acknowledges that he blamed his birth parents for abandoning him, but he also claims that he has grown out of that. Now he is curious about his family history and wants to know more. He has already begun a letter to his biological mother that he hopes to mail if he learns her name.
"Part of the letter is making sure she doesn't blame herself," he says. "I want to let her know how I feel about her in my heart. I want her to know about the unconditional love I have."
But he does not expect unconditional love in return. "The biggest thing I worry about is that with the situation I'm in now, it's going to shock her so much that she won't have anything to do with even knowing who I am.
"I've waited all my life for this, and now I've tainted the moment."