“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
Bursting with beauty
A shining star already in her parents eyes, Geraldine Nieto displayed her ray of beauty Sunday in Tyler to claim top status in the Sunburst Talent/Beauty Contest.
The 5-year-old Athens resident is the daughter of Jaime and Karla Nieto.
Dozens attend council meeting for recovery, transfer station
Nathan Bullard, owner of Yellow Box Environmental LLC, was at Gun Barrel City Hall to explain future development plans for property located at 546 Gun Barrel Lane.
Bullard said he wanted to introduce himself and his company to the neighbors who own property close to his project.
Bullard was on hand to inform the public and address any concerns about the company’s plan to build a recovery and transfer station.
Commissioners sign proclamation for San Jacinto Day
The battle of the Alamo may be the best remembered conflict in Texas’ fight for independence, but the battle at San Jacinto closed the deal.
Representatives of the Sons of the Republic of Texas were on hand at the Henderson County Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday in observance of a proclamation, declaring April 21, San Jacinto Day.
Ram to donate $20 per test drive to FFA Organization
On April 26 between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. the Ram Truck brand and Elder Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram will host The Next Crop Project fundraising event at the dealership to benefit the National FFA Organization and local FFA chapter leadership programs in Henderson County.
Athens tables large purchase
The Athens City Council Monday tabled awarding a bid for a large piece of equipment that removes asphalt from the surface of paved roads to make way for repairs.
City Director of Utilities Glen Herriage recommended that the council award the bid to RDO Equipment Co. of Irving for a Road Hog cold planer. The RDO bid was for $123,267.06, which is below the budgeted amount of $134,000.
Former TVCC basketball coach Joe Curl passes
Joe Curl, the former head coach of the Lady Cardinal basketball program, passed away at the age of 59 on Monday.
Review earns six awards
The Athens Daily Review was honored with six awards for journalism excellence during the North and East Texas Press Association yearly convention held Thursday-Saturday in Tyler.
Mabank civic leader Alene Gibbs, 94, died Friday
Long time Mabank civic leader Alene Gibbs passed away on Friday, April 11. She was born in Van Zandt County on Jan. 18, 1920. She was 94-years-old.
Here comes the champs!
Friday was a big night for the Eustace FFA at the Henderson County Livestock Show and for Jordyn Costlow, who presented the Grand Champion.
Saturday was payday at HCLS
Payday came Saturday for the youth who placed in the 54th annual Henderson County Livestock Show.
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