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Airman faces court-martial in toddler's death

Feb. 26, 2013 - 02:20PM   |   Last Updated: Feb. 26, 2013 - 02:20PM  |  
Tamryn Klapheke, the 22-month-old daughter of Tiffany Klapheke, died in August 2012 of malnutrition and dehydration.
Tamryn Klapheke, the 22-month-old daughter of Tiffany Klapheke, died in August 2012 of malnutrition and dehydration. (Courtesy photo)
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A senior airman charged in connection with the August death of a toddler at a home on Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, is scheduled to stand trial March 4.

Christopher Perez of the 7th Security Forces Squadron faces up to 10-1/2 years in prison and a dishonorable discharge if convicted on charges he failed to report the maltreatment of his girlfriend's three young children, with whom he was living at the time.

Local police charged the children's mother, Tiffany Klapheke, with three counts of felony injury to a child after 22-month-old Tamryn Klapheke died from malnutrition and dehydration. Authorities said the child had gone weeks without a diaper change and had suffered chemical burns from lying in her own waste. Tamryn's sisters, ages six months and three years, showed similar signs of neglect.

Klapheke's husband, a Dyess fuel specialist, was deployed at the time of the child's death and has since filed for divorce. Klapheke will stand trial in a civilian courtroom in June.

Perez's court-martial comes less than a month after Abilene police were again called to a Dyess home — this time on a report of unsanitary living conditions. Police discovered an airman, his wife, a second woman, three children and seven dogs at the home. A news release said the conditions "presented an immediate danger" to the children, ages 7, 4 and 11 months. Police charged the women, Britni N. Valdez, 26, and Kayla J. Phillips, 22, with three counts each of child felony endangerment. Security forces apprehended the airman, whose name was not released.

The children did not require "immediate medical attention" and were taken into the custody of CPS.

The case of Tamryn Klapheke stunned the Dyess community and illuminated a growing concern for the military, where reports of child fatalities from abuse and neglect across the four services rose from 14 in 2003 to 33 in 2011, according to the Department of Defense. An Air Force Medical Operations Agency review reported eight abuse and neglect deaths in 2011, more twice as many as the year before and the most since 2006.

In many cases, including Tamryn's, the Air Force's Family Advocacy Program office had already received complaints about the home where the child lived.

The Dyess Family Advocacy program had closed its case with the Klaphekes eight months before Tamryn's death. In the meantime, Klapheke gave birth to a third child.

The Child Protective Services division of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services was also no stranger to the Klapheke family; it had opened — and closed — three child neglect investigations in the two years leading up to Tamryn's death.

The Abilene Police Department began looking into allegations CPS employees tampered with or fabricated evidence after the child died. That case has been presented to a special prosecutor and will go to a grand jury at some point, detective Eric Vickers said in an email.

Soon after Klapheke's arrest, she said in a televised interview with KTXS-TV that she had been overwhelmed after her husband's deployment. She said she felt trapped, couldn't afford child care and that no one had offered to help her.

A former neighbor of the Klaphekes', who has a child about the age of Tamryn, said that was hard to hear. Dyess is a close-knit community, she said, and both she and a number of other people would have done anything to help.

There was never any indication things were amiss, she said. In fact, she didn't know there were three children living there until investigators told her.

"I knew of one," she said. "We had lived next door for about eight months. We tried to get to know them. They were not real interested in getting to know us."

Dyess also offers a number of services for airmen and their spouses, said Capt. Trisha Guillebeau, base spokeswoman. Among them: the Key Spouses program, military family life consultant services, chaplain services, the Airman and Family Readiness Center and the Dyess first sergeants' group. There is also a host of child development and youth programs and family child care options.

Also since Tamryn's death, Dyess has set up a "Family Support" link on its website to make it easier for airmen and spouses to find services.

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