Keeping her children safe
A woman struggles to keep her cats - her 'babies' - after she failed as a mom years ago
November 22, 2013
Tami DeVore reluctantly gave away several of the dozens of cats she keeps in her mobile home on the south side of Glidden.
About this story:
This is the first of a two-part series about Tami DeVore, a Glidden woman who lived with 53 cats and three dogs in her mobile home on the south side of Glidden. She reluctantly agreed to give away most of the animals at the request of Carroll County sheriff's deputies and animal rescue workers. The second story publishes November 25th.
How it was reported:
This series contains information from interviews with Tami DeVore in Glidden, her father John DeVore in Omaha, her ex-husband Douglas Barlow in Council Bluffs, law enforcement officers and animal rescue workers in Carroll, firefighters in Council Bluffs, court documents, crash reports and medical records provided by Tami DeVore.
Tami DeVore and her blue slippers pace from room to room of her mobile home on a recent night.
From her bedroom and its Mickey Mouse drapes, pillows and stuffed toys, where she sleeps each night with seven cats and two dogs.
Step. Step. Step.
Through the kitchen where a standing chest freezer stores three dead cats that Tami plans to bury in her pet cemetery just outside the home. She plucks their stiff bodies from the freezer and gives each a kiss and apologizes that she can't afford to cremate them.
Across the living-room carpet that - despite daily vacuuming - is thick with hair.
To a room devoted to her cats. There are two litter boxes and pails of food on the floor, cutout pictures of cats and dogs taped to the wall, and, on a shelf near the window, a cat named Kenga.
"They can't have that one. She's fixed," Tami says to no one in particular. "Go on, girl."
Tami glares out the window and down the lane, where at any moment animal rescue workers will arrive with stacks of cages to haul away some of her cats.
"These are my babies," she moans. "They're taking my kids from me."
Her oversized sweatshirt - with painted birds on its back - dwarfs her slender frame. At 47 years old, Tami stands just over 5 feet and normally weighs 95 pounds.
She claims she has lost 18 pounds to depression in recent weeks after sheriff's deputies searched her home for drugs and later returned to persuade her to give away some of the 50 cats there.
The deputies wore gas masks, Sheriff Doug Bass said, because the smell of urine and dander was unbearable.
"They're liars," Tami says. "You can't tell me that it smells in here."
But it does. There are so many animals that - despite Tami's daily, two-hour cleaning routine of litter boxes and floors - it's impossible to eliminate the stench.
Tami's nose is merely accustomed to the smell after years of hoarding animals. She takes in the unwanted pets of friends and the strays that stalk the mobile home park where she lives on the south side of Glidden.
She's afraid to give them to an animal shelter, where those that aren't adopted sit for weeks in cages and are sometimes euthanized.
She is fiercely protective of the animals.
"I'm going to kill him," Tami said of one of the sheriff's deputies who wore a gas mask. "I'm going to kill that man if he comes on my property again."
That unfiltered anger - and her obsession with fostering cats and dogs - were not a part of DeVore when she was a child, her father John says.
Rather, they are the baggage she carries from two horrific turns in her life.
She can't cope.
Tami and her best friend Ellen Frazier went roller-skating on a June night in 1980, at the long-gone Maranatha Skateland on Carroll's east side.
Tami was 14. Ellen was 13.
They later walked from the skating rink along U.S. Highway 30, on their way east to the trailer park that still stands on the south side of the highway. It was Tami's teenage home.
They strode side-by-side in the eastbound lanes that night at about 11 p.m.
They wore dark clothing on the dimly lit road. One car that came from behind narrowly missed them. The next one didn't. It struck the girls at an estimated 35 mph, the speed limit.
The force of the collision knocked Ellen out of her shoes. She was thrown at least 40 feet forward onto the roadway.
"The impact snapped her neck and possibly killed her instantaneously," said Carroll Police Capt. Mark Heino, who was a young officer at the time. It was the first traffic fatality of his career. "The community was obviously saddened by the loss of the young girl. ... Any time a kid gets killed, it's tough. They have so much of their life ahead of them, and it just gets snuffed out."
Tami, who walked closest to the curb and doesn't remember the crash, was thrown into the nearby ditch.
Paramedics arrived five minutes after the crash and found Tami face-down in the grass, according to an ambulance service report. Blood seeped from her mouth and head.
The paramedics suctioned blood from her throat on the way to St. Anthony Regional Hospital. Her heart raced faster and faster as her blood pressure dropped.
She was flown by medical helicopter to an Omaha hospital, where doctors and nurses treated her for nine days for a severe brain injury, a bruised lung, and a broken jaw and hip, according to medical records she provided to the Daily Times Herald.
The crash had long-lasting effects on Tami, who now gets a $710 disability check from Social Security each month and suffers debilitating migraine headaches that sometimes force her to lie in bed for an entire day.
She often has nightmares of the crash and her friend, Ellen.
"I still haven't been able to visit her grave," Tami said.
And it made her angry, her dad, John DeVore, said.
"Before, you could get along with her, you could reason with her," DeVore said of his daughter. "Since that wreck, you cannot reason with her."
'OUT OF THE TRAILER'
The DeVores had little money when Tami was young.
They lived in Omaha, where John DeVore was a maintenance worker at Henry Doorly Zoo and often took Tami there. The young girl loved the boa constrictors, the big cats and other animals.
The family of five split when John and Tami's mother, Geraldine, divorced.
Tami was 8. She moved with her mom to Chicago, where Geraldine was a stripper, Tami and John DeVore said. Geraldine - who died in 2011 - sometimes took Tami to the nightclub where she danced without clothes.
They moved to Carroll when Tami was 13. She didn't have a curfew and came and went as she pleased from her mom's mobile home on Carroll's east side.
She was out late again with a friend on that June 1980 night when one car narrowly missed the girls in the roadway, and then, one didn't.
Tami was released from an Omaha hospital about nine days after the crash. Her jaw was wired shut to heal, and she limped on tiptoes with her left foot when she tried to walk.
She fell behind in school as she anguished over her injuries and her friend's death, John DeVore said, and later dropped out of high school after her junior year.
She moved to Council Bluffs and worked as a stripper at a club that has since closed. Tami claims she made up to $3,000 for a night's work, and that the men who came to watch lavished her with gifts.
She gave birth to three children from different men before she was 25. She got pregnant with another man - Douglas Barlow, whom she had met through a friend - and he was different and dependable. Together, they thought they could make a better life for themselves and the children.
"He was supposed to get me out of the trailer," Tami said in a recent interview.
WAR, THEN TRAGEDY
Barlow saw Tami's wild side, but mostly ignored it because she adored him, Barlow recalled in a recent interview in his Council Bluffs home.
Tami abused illicit drugs, including methamphetamine, that were common at the strip club, Tami said. She picked fights and hoped that Barlow - an Iowa Army National Guard veteran - would back her up. He hated that.
Barlow worked several jobs to help support the patchwork family. He said he tried to give Tami's two out-of-control young boys a stable life as Tami's belly swelled with his own son.
"We were just two poor people trying to survive," Barlow said.
To make some extra money, Barlow enlisted with the U.S. Army Reserves. He expected to train one weekend each month and have ample time for family and other work.
Not long after he enlisted, the U.S. military invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and Barlow learned he would be deployed four days later to train for combat in the First Gulf War.
"We got married that day," Barlow said. "If anything happened to me, I wanted to be sure that the kids would be taken care of" by military benefits.
Barlow moved his new wife and Tami's two youngest boys into an apartment complex on the northwest side of Council Bluffs, tucked away near Interstate Highway 29.
And then he left for training in Wisconsin, and later for convoy duty in Saudi Arabia.
Tami and her boys - Wesley, 4, and Charlie, 2 - celebrated Christmas without their new dad, and in January, Tami gave birth to Douglas Jr.
The boys begged Tami to keep the Christmas tree and its decorations in the apartment to welcome Barlow back from war. They weren't sure when he would return.
By February, the tree was dry and brittle. Needles fell if someone brushed past.
Tami left the kids alone in the apartment while she chatted with friends in a nearby parking lot. They had planned to do laundry together.
But then they saw and smelled the rising smoke from Tami's apartment.
Tami ran back, yelling her boys' names. She threw open the front door and looked to the couch, where she had left little Douglas in his car seat.
All she saw was a wall of flame.