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Teen was persistent in seeking half-sister

| Saturday, Aug. 16, 2003

By CARL PRINE

Tribune-Review Media Service

Jaycee Reese never understood why her birth mother told her to “get off the cooler” while she ate a picnic dinner earlier this month at her mom's home in Parks Township, Armstrong County .

Then on Aug. 8, Pennsylvania State Police told the Ligonier Valley High School sophomore the shocking truth: She had likely been sitting on a drink cooler holding the starved body of her little half-sister, 4-year-old Kristen Tatar. Before that, Jaycee believes, the tiny girl likely spent her last days in bleak anonymity, wasting away in the “Forbidden Room” attic, a pacifier taped over her mouth, her frail wrist lashed to the ribs of her befouled crib with a filthy shoe lace.

“I mean, here I was, sitting on my dead sister, and I never knew it,” said Jaycee, 15, who was adopted two years ago by a Stahlstown family. The troopers found the cooler as it set on the curb, the corpse swaddled in thick plastic, waiting for a weekly trash pickup. But because of plucky Jaycee, 15, her supportive sister Jocelyn, 17, and their adoptive mom, Michelle Reese, Kristen's corpse never went to the dump. Instead, the dead girl's parents, Janet Crawford, 41, and James Tatar, 35, are awaiting a preliminary hearing on criminal homicide charges at the Armstrong County Jail.

Jaycee wanted to forge a stronger bond with her birth mother, so she started visiting her for overnight visits in June. She also hoped to re-unite with Kristen. When Kristen was first born, Jocelyn said, the two half-sisters had been “more mothers to Kristen than (Janet Crawford) was,” changing her diapers, even living in 1999 at the Pittsburgh McDonald's House while surgeons operated on Kristen to fix her digestive tract. At the Parks Township home, however, Jaycee saw things that didn't add up: She wasn't allowed to see her sister. There were no pictures of Kristen on the walls. No toys for the toddler. No clothes. Her brother, Nicholas, 6, who also lived in the Tatar house told his sister, “Kristen went up there and never came back down.”

On June 6, Jaycee smelled a rancid odor coming from the attic. She recalled that Crawford said Kristen was in a “rehabilitation center.” Then on July 30, her mom said the toddler was at a Catholic Charities clinic in Pittsburgh.

“They were stupid answers,” said Jaycee. “I mean, a rehab center overnight• For a week• I mean, come on. At the Catholic Charities Diocese in Pittsburgh• Well, I called the Diocese, and I got their address and phone number. Then I called my mom and said, ‘Can I have Kristen's address so I can write to her?' And the first one, she said, ‘This is it, but I'm not sure.' Then the second address, she said it was right, but it didn't match up with the address I was given.”

Jaycee had help from her adoptive mother. “I dialed the phone numbers for her and I let her do the talking,” said Michelle. “If she got a voice mail, she'd call back. She was very persistent. She did a better job than the caseworkers did.”

Jaycee tried several times to alert Armstrong County social workers that her sister was missing. Responding to her first tip, on June 18 Armstrong County caseworker Carla Danovsky tried to visit the child, but Crawford told her Kristen was at a “behavior clinic” in Pittsburgh. The next day Crawford had a girl about 4 years old Crawford said was her daughter, police affidavits state.

Jaycee feared Crawford had put Kristen into foster care. Michelle Reese thought Kristen's disappearance was more sinister. They didn't give up, and they didn't believe Danovsky had truly identified the right child.

Jaycee contacted Pam Walmsey, a Penn State Extension parenting expert who had the last known outside contact with Kristen. But Walmsey told her she had never placed Kristen in a foster home and, in fact, hadn't seen the toddler since April 2002. Jaycee then talked to the state police. Throughout the two-month ordeal, Crawford kept telling Jaycee she “loved her” and “missed her.” At one point, Crawford said Kristen was “napping” next to her.

“It was so hard, because I was beginning to get a relationship with my mom, yet I still needed to know where my sister was,” said Jaycee. “I mean, I didn't want to hurt my mom, but I knew what I had to do.”

Armstrong County officials said they couldn't discuss specifics of the case. In Greensburg, Marilyn McSparrin, assistant director of Westmoreland County Children's Bureau, said she would “love to talk about this,” but couldn't discuss specifics because of state law. In Westmoreland County documents, McSparrin writes about her opposition to releasing Kristen to Tatar and Crawford. In September of 2001, however, following a Westmoreland County Juvenile Court order, caseworker Sandra Pallato retrieved Kristen from the foster home of Lori Weimer of Stahlstown, three days before Weimer could begin proceedings to adopt the girl.

Pallato also was the caseworker for Jaycee and Jocelyn. Pallato did not return telephone calls.

“The tragedy is that I was living only a few minutes from Michelle Reese's house,” said Weimer. “I could've walked with Kristen to visit her sisters. No one from the Children's Bureau even told me that we were so close to each other. The sisters weren't told. There was all this secrecy, and now a child is dead. Someone should answer for that.”

Jaycee, Jocelyn and Michelle Reese hold child welfare officials in both Westmoreland and Armstrong counties responsible for Kristen's plight. “It's the major truth,” said Jaycee. “But they don't want the public to know what really goes on.”

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