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Friday, May 6, 2016

Mother says ... I want to take her home

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Mother and daughter, 1983
According to the natural order of things, age should precede youth in death.

And most of the time, this is the case.

However, there are those tragedies that creep into daily events -- things out of anyone's control -- like the death of a child.

This very thing happened to Lisa Tozer and Steve Warden seven years ago. They lost their 17-year-old daughter Tami Warden, July 5, 2000.

And though years have passed since Tami's death, the wounds are still fresh on her mother's heart, said Lisa Tozer. Steve and Lisa, who are now divorced, are in a custody battle over keeping her body where she is interred in Oxford or moving her to her home town of Beebe.

Tami was born several weeks premature and required six weeks of hospitalization before the facility released her when she reached a weight of five pounds.

Because Tami was premature, she developed slowly and had various health problems as a child. Tami required constant care that established a special bond between her and her mother. It was a bond that continued throughout her life.

"We were so close. Tami was definitely a mamma's girl," Lisa said of her daughter. "And it really hurt me to learn that Steve used Tami's death as an excuse for our divorce."

In November 1984 Lisa met Steve and just months later, on Valentine's Day 1985, the couple married.

Shortly after the two married, they began adoption proceedings for each other's children. "Steve didn't like the idea of the children having different names. He wanted to be the main caregiver," Lisa said. "In my eyes he just wanted what any decent father would."

* Tami

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Soon Steve had officially adopted 18-month-old Tami and and Lisa's 4-year-old son Nicholas. Lisa also adopted Steve's son Steven, who was just 10 days younger than his new sister. Together they were one, happy family, Lisa said.

The beginning of the end came on July 5, 2000; Lisa received the call that every parent fears.

Lisa was contacted by White River Medical Center and told her daughter had been fatally injured in a car wreck. She learned that her daughter was in the back seat riding with two friends traveling along a curvy road when their vehicle fishtailed and was hit by an oncoming vehicle.

Tami took the brunt of the hit. Her two friends in the front seat sustained only minor injuries; Tami died on impact, Lisa said.

As the family began making funeral arrangements, Steve urged his wife to bury Tami in Oxford.

According to Lisa, the family's home was in Beebe. That's where their three children attended high school and where much of their business was.

"Steve's family is from Oxford. That is his hometown, and he always talked about retiring there," Lisa said. "But Tami didn't really like it there -- her friends, her life was in Beebe."

However, Lisa said they decided to bury Tami in Oxford because Steve promised to hurry his retirement plans.

"He definitely kept that promise to me," she said. "He built a shop for us to stay in while our home was being finished in Oxford. He always was good to do what he could to make me happy, and I needed to be with her."

Lisa was quick to follow her daughter. She sold her business and the two moved to Oxford.

"I went and visited her everyday. I talked to her, and whether I pulled weeds around her grave or fluffed her flowers, I did what I could to take care of her," Lisa said. "I needed that, I?needed to still care for my daughter."

While coping with the loss of her daughter in a new place, away from her home and friends, Lisa fell into a deep depression and leaned on Steve for support.

This is, in part, why the ending of her marriage came as such a shock.

"It was completely unexpected. We had just returned from a vacation together and things seemed fine," Lisa said.

With tears in his eyes, Steve told Lisa they couldn't be married anymore. He told her she had not been the same since Tami's death, Lisa said. "He was emotional though; I know this wasn't easy for him to do," she said.

After a couple of weeks of trying to save their marriage, Lisa said she accepted that the two would not reconcile.

The couple's Oxford home was built on Steve's family's farm, so it was clear Lisa would have to leave. And though she wanted to be near her daughter, Lisa was alone in Oxford. So when her son, Nicholas, offered to help move her back to Beebe, Lisa was ready to go home, she said.

Lisa and Steve's divorce was finalized in 2006. By that time Steve had moved back to Beebe with a new family, and apparently he left behind any connection he had to Lisa and his adopted children.

Nicholas said Steve gave him an ultimatum to choose between parents. "It wasn't the exact words, 'me or your mom,' but it was clear that's the choice I had. I?loved him. He was the father that raised me, but I knew he wasn't right," Nicholas said of Steve. "And it kills me to think about it now, but had (Tami) been alive during (the divorce) she would have had to make the same decision."

Throughout her divorce Lisa underwent counseling to help cope with the loss of her daughter and husband. After "graduating therapy" Lisa was determined to bring her daughter home.

Lisa bought a burial plot for Tami and made arrangements with the Westbrook Funeral Home, which directed Tami's funeral, to have her body moved to Beebe. All Steve has to do is sign a paper and Tami can be moved, Lisa said.

Because Lisa and Steve are not on speaking terms, Lisa contacted his brother Mike sometime in February to see if he would talk to Steve about Lisa's intentions of moving Tami's body.

"(Mike) told me he thought Steve wouldn't have a problem. He understands why I want this," Lisa said. "It especially makes sense because the both of us (she and Steve) live here and could visit her everyday."

Steve did not agree; Lisa sought legal help from Tom Garner of Glencoe.

March 2 Garner filed a complaint requesting permission from the court to move Tami's body.

June 7 District Judge John Harkey ruled on Steve's behalf, declaring that Tami would stay interred in Oxford. "...under the English common law all matters pertaining to dead bodies were solely under the control of the ecclesiastical courts," Harkey said in his written decision. "At least since the early part of the 19th century, the cases are uniform that after burial, the body becomes 'part and parcel' of the ground to which it is committed."

"It was really frustrating to get this decision," Lisa said. "We think maybe since (Harkey) wasn't familiar with such a case, he judged on the side of caution."

However, according to Bobby Burns, the funeral director at Westbrook Funeral Home, moving burial sites is not all that rare. "It's definitely not something we do everyday; but it's definitely not considered uncommon," Burns said. "There are even state rules and regulations for disinterring bodies. I've been in this business for 28 years, and there's been 3-5 (requests to move bodies) a year."

Burns was clear to say that he was a public servant and was not taking sides in the matter. "At this point everything is ready, though. (Steve) just has to come and sign," Burns said. "For both of them, I?really want to see this resolved."

The day following the issuance of Harkey's decision, Garner presented additional information supporting Lisa's request and asked him to reconsider. "It seems terribly unfair to allow the person who destroyed the relationship with his wife and his son to be allowed to further cause them heartache by keeping the grave of the daughter at a distance of 2 1/2 hours from the mother's home," he said.

Since Harkey's initial ruling, Lisa hired an appellate specialist to help with the lawsuit.

Though Steve chose not to comment on the case, he did say he felt the issue was a private matter and Lisa was "just out to get people to feel sorry for her."

"I'm sick and tired of all this -- it's all out of spite," Steve said via phone. "Whether or not (Lisa) likes me isn't anyone's concern."

"This has never been about (Steve). I don't really know this new person (Steve has become); it's not the man I married, who was the father of my children," Lisa said. "I just want Tami back home. She is all this has ever been about."

Now, though Lisa, Nicholas and Steve live within just a few miles from one another, Tami remains resting in Oxford, over 100 miles from away from the family and friends she loved.

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