By Scott Farwell Staff Writer Dallas Morning News
DALLAS MORNING NEWS
A nurse asked Lauren to step on a scale in the emergency room of Children’s Medical Center Dallas, but quickly realized the emaciated 8-year-old was too weak to stand.
So she stepped on the scale first, then scooped up the frail girl and subtracted.
Lauren weighed 25.6 pounds.
“She was hospital sick, and more than sick, you could tell she was in pain."
About the same time, just south of Dallas, Lauren’s mother, Barbara Atkinson, was being booked into the Hutchins city jail.
She weighed 242 pounds.
Over the next 18 months, detectives plumbed the depths of depravity Lauren suffered at the hands of Barbara and Kenneth Atkinson — the prolonged starvation, the savage sexual torture, the unremitting neglect.
The mounting evidence against Lauren’s mother and stepfather formed the basis of the couple’s high-profile criminal trials in 2002.
Hutchins Assistant Police Chief David Landers, who led the investigation, knew Lauren had been starved as he stood in the emergency room the night of her rescue in June 2001. But he could not fathom the suffering she had endured.
Lauren seemed unfazed by the commotion.
She sat, boney shoulders slumped, staring straight ahead — eyes puffy and red, hair lice-infested and almost colorless.
“She was hospital sick, and more than sick, you could tell she was in pain,” Landers said. “And she was just so little bitty.”
At one point, Lauren mentioned she was thirsty.
So Landers stepped around the corner and bought her a soda. Lauren perked up when he poured some over ice and handed her the cup.
“I didn’t want to give her anything strong,” Landers said. “So all I could think of was a Mountain Dew.”
In retrospect, he said, it might not have been the best idea to give a starving child a sugary drink. But as a dad and a detective, he’s convinced he did the right thing.
“The doctors told me later it didn’t hurt her,” he said. “I just couldn’t let her sit there thirsty.”
The only thing Lauren remembers from that day is “the Mountain Dew man.”
It was the first kindness she had been shown in years.
“I never loved Lauren. I never wanted her”
Within hours of their arrests, the Atkinsons were speaking freely to police.
“Lauren should be able to be out playing and laughing with the whole family,” Barbara Atkinson wrote the night she was taken into custody. “I know the one [I] owe the most love and security to is Lauren. She deserves so much more and I love her with all my heart and soul.”
But days later, in an interview with Child Protective Services investigator Stephanie Boniol, she hardened.
“I never loved Lauren. I never wanted her,” Barbara Atkinson said. “When my other kids hurt, I hurt. When Lauren hurts, I felt nothing.”
Kenneth Atkinson mostly blamed his wife for the abuse, which he said intensified in 1996 when the family moved into an old home in Waxahachie and his wife fell into depression after a miscarriage.
Atkinson, a carpenter by trade, built a wall of cabinets to partition off a windowless room where 3-year-old Lauren was kept. A hole was cut in the floor and a potty chair placed over it.
Barbara Atkinson said her husband would get frustrated when Lauren cried or got into things. He’d duct-tape her legs at the calf, bind her hands behind her back and throw her into a crawl space under the kitchen pantry. It was known in the family as “The Hole.”
By the time the Atkinsons and their six children moved to Hutchins a few years later, Lauren was confined to a closet in the master bedroom almost full time.
She languished there for nearly a year on cans of cold soup, crackers, bags of bread and an occasional tub of butter sneaked in by her older sister, Blake.
“Barbie said it started off where she’d just be mad at her for mistakes and accidents, and she would spank her, and the spankings got a little harder, and the feelings got a little harder,” said Emily Owens, an investigator for the Dallas County District Attorney’s office.
“And as things happen, they don’t seem so bad after you do it over and over. Then it gets easier to do, and you do a little bit more, and you do a little bit more, and then we got to where we are now.”
Food for dogs,
Dallas police Detective Dan Lesher kicked in the trailer door the night the search warrant was served.
Over the next several hours, officers from at least three police agencies moved through the home with video and still cameras, looking for evidence.
It smelled like a filthy litter box and looked like a homeless camp: piles of dishes with rotting food; mounds of moldy clothes; toys and stuffed animals strewn everywhere.
The detectives took note of cabinets packed with graham crackers, macaroni and cheese, bags of bread and tubs of coffee.
The refrigerator was stocked with bottles of Coors Light and a few cartons of eggs. In the freezer, a chicken and a ham sat on a shelf next to two packages of microwaveable enchiladas.
“There was a lot of food in the refrigerator and fast-food boxes everywhere, so people were eating and Barbara sure wasn’t missing many meals,” Owens said. “But what got me was there was food down for the dogs, and dog vitamins. They were treating the dogs better than Lauren.”
The officers discovered a box of sex toys, but no direct evidence of sexual abuse or drugs. They seized a wooden paddle and a book, 101 Activities for Kids in Tight Spaces.
Eventually, officers made their way to the master bedroom closet.
“I remember two things about that closet: the smell and the first step,” said Lesher, who is now retired. “It was carpeted and urine just squished up around my shoes. There wasn’t a dry place I could find that wasn’t soaked with body fluids, and there was feces smeared everywhere.”
Lesher was called in to supervise the collection of evidence because he’d worked some of the city’s most vile crime scenes.
“I’d been in trailers worse than that in my career, but I’d never been in a cage like that before,” he said. “And that’s what it was. It was a cage, not a closet.”
Lesher made two critical decisions that night.
One, he instructed deputies to collect the closet door as evidence — there were scratch marks on the door handle, possibly from Lauren biting and clawing to escape. And two, he asked them to roll up the foul carpet and bag it for use during trial.
“Nobody was thrilled about that, but everybody understood it was a necessary evil,” Lesher said. “The jury needed a vision of what this girl was subjected to.”
‘The stronger case’
Patricia Hogue, who was head of the district attorney’s child-abuse division, has been described by detectives as “meaner than three snakes dipped in kerosene.”
It was meant as a compliment.
“It was a big case, and there was a lot of media attention,” said Hogue, now an attorney for a nonprofit focused on child-abuse issues.
“Obviously, I was aware of that and that’s why I was handling the case. I didn’t want this one coming back on appeal, because she [Lauren] just couldn’t handle that.”
While there was never any real doubt about Barbara and Kenneth Atkinson’s guilt — based on the damage done to Lauren’s body and their confessions — they were never tried for sexual assault.
Both denied raping Lauren.
Kenneth Atkinson was charged with aggravated sexual assault of a child, but those charges were dropped when prosecutors learned Lauren could not testify.
She acted out some of the abuse during play therapy, where she said the “bad dad hurt me,” and demonstrated by poking a hand and thumb into the vagina of an anatomically-correct doll, according to court documents.
She then hit the doll over and over between the legs, moaned in pain, screamed and growled.
But Lauren would not verbalize what happened to her. When asked, she would shut down, narrow her eyes and stare into space.
Psychologists said it could take years of therapy before she would feel safe enough to put the abuse into words.
“Lauren was so developmentally traumatized and emotionally traumatized, she really wasn’t in any condition to talk about the sexual abuse,” Hogue said. “We went with the stronger case, and the one that wouldn’t require her to testify.”
Victim and victimizer
“Think about how
Barbara Atkinson’s trial unfolded methodically — medical testimony, police reports and psychologists’ statements — until the moment prosecutors unrolled the closet carpet in front of the jury.
Almost in unison, the panel leaned forward to get a closer look, and then recoiled at the stench.
Barbara Atkinson pleaded guilty to felony injury to a child midway through her trial to spare two of her children from testifying. But the jury still had to deliberate her sentence.
Watch Monday’s editor for Part 7 of 8 parts in which Lauren improves.
The original series of Girl in Closet published in the Dallas Morning News. For video interviews visit the Dallas Morning News website at dallasnews.com/interactives/2013_October/lauren/.