Tamryn Klapheke ()
ABILENE, TEXAS — Senior Airman Christopher Perez was sentenced Oct. 18 to three years in prison and a dishonorable discharge for adultery and child endangerment in the August 2012 death of a toddler at her home on Dyess Air Force Base, Texas.
Perez, who was having an affair with the toddler’s mother, was living at the home where 22-month-old Tamryn Klapheke was found unresponsive in her crib by her mother. Tamryn was pronounced dead at an Abilene hospital. An autopsy later revealed Tamryn had died from malnutrition and dehydration. Her sisters, who were six months and three years at the time, showed similar signs of neglect. All three girls suffered chemical burns from lying in their own waste, according to trial testimony.
The girls’ father, former Senior Airman Thomas Klapheke, had deployed two months before Tamryn died.
“Sir, I will be haunted by what happened to the Klapheke children for the rest of my life,” Perez said in a tearful statement before he was sentenced.
Military judge Col. Donald Eller found Perez not guilty of dereliction of duty following a week-long court-martial at the base. Perez had asked a judge, rather than a jury, to decide the case.
Tiffany Klapheke stands trial in January on a charge of felony injury to a child. She faces up to 99 years if convicted.
The prosecution contended Perez had a duty to intervene on behalf of the children and should have reported the neglect. The defense said it was not Perez’s responsibility, and that he rarely saw the girls, who were kept in a bedroom for days.
Perez told police he heard the girls crying but did not check on them.
“Those children were imprisoned in their room,” said Air Force prosecutor Capt. Jason Gammons. “Thirsty, hungry, confused, scared. Staring at the knob of the bedroom door, hoping it would turn.”
The room was covered in food, vomit and human and animal waste, according to testimony.
“Perez had a duty to open that door,” Gammons argued.
Defense attorney Capt. Justin Lonergan said, however, that Perez “felt like an outsider in this home and he didn’t feel like a father because he’s not.”
Perez was not aware of the neglect and was not obligated to report the living conditions inside the home because he was not contracted to care for the children, Lonergan said. “The only thing worse than this tragedy is a miscarriage of justice.”
The girls’ father also testified during the week-long court-martial, where it was revealed publicly for the first time that Thomas Klapheke had received an Article 15 related to child neglect allegations. He testified he had seen the girls over Skype on his cell phone just once leading up to Tamryn’s death and that he did not believe they were being neglected. Thomas Klapheke also denied he had any role in the children’s neglect.
He has since divorced Tiffany Klapheke and left the Air Force. The two surviving children are being cared for by family, according to Child Protective Services.
Tamryn’s death left many in the Dyess community asking how it could have happened. Both Child Protective Services and the Dyess Family Advocacy Program had investigated the family on allegations of neglect multiple times in the two years leading up to Tamryn’s death. CPS closed an investigation just days before the girl died without a required home visit and supervisor approval.
Christopher Collins reports for Abilene Reporter-News. Kristin Davis reports for Air Force Times.