“She’s not going to look like the chubby toddler you remember.”
The news was almost too horrible to believe: an 8-year-old girl found locked in a closet, starved nearly to death, singled out for torture in a home of six children.
In the back of Sabrina Kavanaugh’s mind, she wondered.
It seemed like her adopted daughter Lauren had just disappeared after that terrible night six years earlier, when Kavanaugh handed the squiggling 20-month-old to her birth mother, Barbara Atkinson, in a Walmart parking lot in Jasper.
“I knew she was going to abuse her, but there wasn’t anything we could do,” Kavanaugh said, the pain still fresh in her eyes. “I asked her, ‘Why do you want her back?’ because I knew she hadn’t bonded with Lauren.”
Atkinson’s answer was unsatisfying and infuriating.
“My mom spent too much money getting her back,” she said. “I can’t give her up.”
The attorney’s fees were $650.
Kavanaugh and her husband, Bill, tried everything they could think of to find Lauren after they let her go that night.
They called Atkinson’s mother, Doris Calhoun, begging for information. The answer was curt: You lost her in court, now just let it be.
They hired a private investigator. He came up empty.
So, after eight months of pure parenting joy and a yearlong custody fight, their house fell silent.
Sabrina Kavanaugh couldn’t stand to box up Lauren’s toys, so she kept the Tonka trucks and tea sets on shelves next to the toddler’s empty crib. The room remained untouched for years.
The Kavanaughs moved from Ennis to Canton in 1999 when Bill retired after 35 years at a glass company in Waxahachie. They raised llamas, and Bill — a 6-foot-2 cowboy with a barrel chest and snow-white beard — spent as much time as he could fishing and deer hunting.
Sabrina Kavanaugh decorated her new house with posters from John Wayne movies, memorabilia from “Gone With the Wind” and photos of Lauren — her deep dimples and pursed lips smiling back from frames on the living room wall.
And each year at Christmas, Kavanaugh bought Lauren “Brilliant Barbie” dolls with painted-on smiles and sparkly dresses. She stacked the unopened boxes in her bedroom closet, privately hoping one day her little girl would come home and open them.
As the Kavanaughs struggled to keep Lauren’s memory alive, her birth mother tried to forget her.
The unemployed mother had six children with four fathers
In the six years after Barbara Atkinson was awarded custody of Lauren in an Ellis County court, she had married twice, divorced twice and eventually reconciled with Kenneth Atkinson, an unemployed carpenter.
She seemed to move every time the rent was due — from Jasper to a women’s shelter in Louisiana, a mobile home park near Longview, a couple of places in Waxahachie and, finally, a filthy mobile home in Hutchins.
At each turn, Lauren’s life got worse.
Detective Sgt. David Landers of the Cockrell Hill Police Department led the criminal investigation of Lauren’s mother and stepfather in 2001. He remembers every detail, even the ones he’d like to forget.
“It started out with Barbie just putting Lauren next to her on the floor on a pallet,” said Landers, a burly man whose kind voice and gentle manner betray the macho-cop stereotype.
“But Lauren would get up and go into the other room and get into stuff, so Barbie started putting her in the closet with a little gate across it. Then, when Lauren got old enough to push it down, Barbie just shut the door.”
Lauren was rescued from the closet on June 11, 2001.
She had more than two dozen cigarette burns and puncture wounds across her back and face. Her hair was lice-infested, almost translucent, and her esophagus was clogged with feces, carpet fibers and plastic.
News of the abuse exploded locally, and within days it had ricocheted around the country.
A crowd screamed insults as Barbara and Kenneth Atkinson were led out of the Hutchins Police Department the day after their arrest, and more protesters met them when they arrived at the Dallas County Jail.
Local television stations led their newscasts with the “perp” walks.
In Canton, Sabrina Kavanaugh was working the night shift at the Dairy Queen when the newscasts played.
Her husband Bill called with a question: “What were Barbie and Kenny’s full names?”
She told him their last name was Atkinson.
He said, “Sabrina, they’re on TV.”
She was skeptical, so she called her sister and asked her to watch the news at 10 p.m.
Kavanaugh was outside smoking a cigarette when her relatives pulled into the Dairy Queen parking lot.
“That’s when I knew it was Lauren,” Kavanaugh said. “The next thing I remember, I was on the ground crying.”
Lauren begins long journey on the road to hope
“She’s not going to look like the chubby toddler you remember.”
- Local News
Hydrating first responders
First responders were invited Wednesday to the Athens Brookshire’s grocery to celebrate a promotion formulated by the store. When customers purchase five 32-ounce bottles of Gatorade, they will receive 200 points. Customers are encouraged to donate the Gatorade to first responders. The promotion will last one month. Shown, from left, are Brookshire’s Store Manager Charles Beasley, Athens Police Department Patrolman Wesley Hoover, APD Cpl. Billy Westover, APD Assistant Chief Rodney Williams, APD Lt. Jeremy Hugghins, APD Patrolman Taylor Chancellor, APD Sgt. Eddie Smith, APD Chief Buddy Hill, Athens Fire Department Firefighter Brian Davis, AFD Firefighter Aaron Munn and AFD Firefighter Payton Lambe.
HC fine-tuning application to get CETZ funds
It’s been three months since Henderson County got word that money has been allocated from the Texas Department of Transportation in the form of a County Energy Transportation Zone grant, but Commissioners Court is still fine-tuning its application to get the funds.
Police arrest suspect with meth and scales
A 47-year-old woman faces felony drug charges after she was arrested in Athens Tuesday morning.
Connie Loraine Stokes was booked into the Henderson County Jail for manufacture/delivery of a controlled substance, possession of drug paraphernalia and a traffic offense.
Corbin to perform at Cain Center
Easton Corbin will be in Athens on Sunday, Aug. 3 to say “Thank You” with a free concert at the Cain Center. The invitation-only concert will begin at 4:30 p.m. The concert is free, but a ticket is required. Tickets can be obtained from any Athens or Brownsboro Future Farmers of America (FFA) member.
Bark for Life honors contributions of Canine Caregivers
In honor of Canine Caregivers, Bark for Life, an American Cancer Society event, will be held at Gun Barrel City Park on Saturday, Sept. 6 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The event is to honor the life-long contributions of Canine Caregivers. It's an opportunity for everyone to be empowered through their canine companion partnership and to contribute to cancer cures.
Mabank High School senior represents USA
Amanda Woods of Mabank is very proud of her son, and for good reason. Seventeen-year-old Bryan Henderson, a senior at Mabank High School, just came home from playing baseball in Europe.
In January of 2014, Woods received an e-mail from a college coach in New York. In that e-mail was an invitation for Bryan to join a 22-man baseball team to play 10 games against French and German National teams.
Silent auction Saturday, August 9
Andrea Pickens at Tri-County Ford is collecting silent auction items for the upcoming Rotary at Cedar Creek Lake Celebrity Waiter event. Celebrity Waiter, the largest fundraiser the Rotary hosts, is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 9 at Athens Country Club. Any business wanting to donate an item to the silent auction can contact Kathi Nailling at 903-340-7597 or Andrea Pickens at 903-887-2121.
Third elementary school to replace Athens Intermediate School
The Athens Independent School District school board approved campus realignment Monday that will go into effect for the 2015-16 school year.
While full details of the plan are still being discussed, the district unanimously approved adding a third elementary school, while doing away with the intermediate level.
Laying Splash Pad bricks
Workmen from Rosenberg’s Outdoor Designs of Athens are shown installing bricks purchased by individuals, businesses and other organizations at the Kiwanis Park Splash Pad. Shown, left to right, are: Nick Rosenberg, owner of the company; Jonathan Perez and Gutierrez Concepcion.
Burton’s severance approved
The Athens City Council on Monday narrowly approved a budget amendment from reserves, to fund a severance package for City Administrator Pam Burton who is retiring at the end of 2014.
Mayor Jerry Don Vaught and council members Monte Montgomery and Tres Winn entered yes votes, while Joe Whatley and Charles Elliott opposed the adjustment.
- More Local News Headlines
- Hydrating first responders