Athens Review, Athens, Texas

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November 13, 2013

The Girl in the Closet PART 4 OF 8

Lauren begins long journey on the road to hope

Athens — “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.”

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