EDITOR’S NOTE: One year ago, after his 18th birthday, the Daily Register requested an interview with Andrew Garlin, who in June 2007 was the boy found in a home on Oneida Street in Portage close to death from torture and severe abuse. In September, Andrew granted the Daily Register an in-person interview accompanied by Portage Police Detective Lt. Mark Hahn and Columbia County Circuit Court Judge W. Andrew Voigt. Andrew now lives on a farm with his new family and has long since left his name as well as Portage behind him. So that he can maintain his privacy, the Daily Register will not identify the location where he lives nor reveal his new name.
Like many teenagers, Andrew wears a class ring on a necklace.
It is blue and silver. But it doesn’t belong to his girlfriend, and those aren’t the colors of his high school.
The ring is his mother’s.
“I miss her every day,” he says. When he was younger, they did everything together.
At 19, Andrew is constantly in motion. His energy is boundless and he loves being outdoors. It is difficult — if not impossible — for him to be still. The thought of working in an office sounds like prison to him.
A farm boy since 2009, he learned quickly: The work is hard.
“You’ve got to make it fun,” Andrew says. “I always have music. It gives me time to think.”
His energy helps him work on his adoptive family’s farm with his mother, father and brother, with 80 cows to milk, numerous calf pens to clean, hay bales to move.
Thin and muscular, he is strong enough to lift the calves to put them effortlessly back into their pens after they are cleaned.
He is a proud high school graduate; he wrestled and played linebacker on the football team, took his girlfriend to prom and was known for how well he could draw hearts.
His full head of thick, dark hair is kept short, easy to tuck under a riding helmet when he covers miles and miles of hilly rural roads on his bicycle each day. A dark five o’clock shadow is a constant feature along his chin and cheek.
Joking around with his brothers occasionally devolves into the play-wrestling typical of teenagers with energy.
He is the picture of a healthy American teenager who is growing into a strong and fit young man.
And strength and fitness are important to Andrew who once was too weak to stand.
“I work out a lot,” he says. “I work out every day.”
From a casual glance, you would never know that he was once a child so severely abused, so near death that some consider his survival miraculous.
A closer look at Andrew reveals hints of his past: Raised scars and discolored patches mar the smooth skin over muscular biceps. The fingertips of one hand are missing. On the rare occasions he goes barefoot, you see seven toes, not 10.
When people ask about these scars, he tells them:
“I got abducted by aliens.”
The answer is understandable, and may be not that far from the truth.
He is the man who used to be Andrew Garlin, known to the public as “the boy from Oneida Street:” The 11-year-old found clinging to life, locked inside the small closet of a Portage rental home at 304 W. Oneida St. where, on a hot day in June 2007, his mother Tammie was found buried in the back yard.
Inside that closet, Andrew was within days of death, battling sepsis, gangrene, pneumonia and regular torture of body and mind. He weighed a mere 55 pounds, and was thinner than a Holocaust victim, witnesses said. He had sores, whip marks and burn wounds over his torso; the top of his head was open to the bone from hot water scalding, and he suffered extensive burns and trauma to his feet and hands that resulted in mummification of the skin around his fingertips and toes.
A doctor — an expert in child abuse — called it “serial child torture” and said Andrew was “by far, one of the most egregiously beaten children ever seen who is still living.” Andrew was diagnosed with profound malnutrition, severe dehydration, chronic medical neglect, educational neglect, and suffering great mental harm from the adults in the house. Doctors said the burns covered 20 percent of his body and required amputation of several fingertips and toes, and that he had wounds on his back on top of previous scars from the beatings and suffered from chronic sore spots and ulcers more typical of a neglected, bed-ridden adult.
Two adults were later convicted of his mother’s murder and for his abuse and torture; they are serving sentences of 55 and 58 years in prison. A third adult, also convicted of abusing him, is serving a 37-year sentence.
Andrew doesn’t dwell on the past, but his memories remain vivid.
On June 14, 2007, amid an investigation into a child taken from her foster home in Florida by her mother, Portage police stumbled across the murder of Tammie Garlin and the incomprehensibly severe torture of her son Andrew.
Having no idea at first that the investigation would turn into the most horrific case of abuse and homicide they had yet encountered, Portage police initially took those they saw in the home — three women, a teenager and three young girls — to the police station after talking to them at the house.
Investigating the kidnapping of one of the girls, they were told by one of the adults that a boy with burns was locked in a closet of their home.
With that information, Portage Police Lt. Tom Moore and Officer Teresa Johnson, who had initiated the investigation, immediately returned to 304 W. Oneida St.
Searching the house, they opened up a small, locked closet upstairs, seeing the 11-year-old emaciated boy.
“It was a hot day,” Andrew recalled. He remembers feeling exhausted.
The officers were told the boy had been burned. After one look, they called for paramedics, still not knowing the full scope of the abuse.
Inside the closet, Andrew sat curled up, with his head down and leaning against a wall.
Moore remembers seeing something odd at the top of Andrew’s head: A severe burn from his captors had exposed a large portion of his skull. It appeared blue around the edges.
He had to be coaxed from the closet. Seeing the police and paramedics, Andrew cried, scared because of a lie.
“I always kept asking if I was going to jail, because that’s what the people told me,” Andrew said.
Unable to walk and still crouched, he moved out of the closet in small, hunched steps toward the rescuers.
They could then see the full scope of abuse: clothes were stuck to his body, his fingers and toes were mummified, he had old wounds upon new wounds from being whipped with electrical cords, and burns from boiling water poured onto him from a pan or sprayed from a shower head.
He never forgot the name of the Divine Savior EMS paramedic who coaxed him from that closet: a 6-foot-2-inch man named Ross Williams.
“Ross — he’s the one who carried me down. I just remember getting carried,” Andrew said.
It is an encounter that Williams also has never forgotten: Andrew was putting up a good fight for survival.
“I’ve never seen anyone in that serious condition,” Williams said, “and be conscious and talking.”
With Andrew now in full sight, Moore requested that the University of Wisconsin Hospital’s medical helicopter be sent to Portage.
“I just remember when I got found, (I told them) ‘I’m thirsty;’ and the police officer went and got the biggest cup and put soda in it, and it was gone in literally five seconds,” Andrew said.
Andrew recalls the helicopter ride — despite being severely sick, he managed to take a look outside as they flew.
“Those people look like ants down there,” Andrew remembered.
At the hospital, he remembers that medical personnel kept him awake, but he couldn’t sleep anyway. When he did get rest at the hospital, there were bad dreams.
At the hospital, he didn’t recognize his reflection at first.
“I looked like a clown because I had some hair right here (on the sides but not on the top),” he said.
He underwent multiple surgeries to reconstruct his scalp, treat his wounds and preserve as many fingertips and toes as possible.
“I have seven toes,” he said. He was told he has great balance, too.
Physical therapy was needed to rebuild his muscles and teach him to walk again.
The spark that kept him alive during three months of torture in the Oneida Street house surfaced at the hospital.
“In the wheelchair before I could walk, we had water gun fights,” Andrew remembered.
With permission and cooperation of the hospital staff, he planned and hosted a Fourth of July party for his hospital section.
And as he regained strength, the real Andrew began to emerge: he loved to joke around with the nurses and doctors.
“As soon as I learned how to walk again, I was just walking. And then I’d play pranks on my doctors like pretending to fall. It was funny!” he said.
Publicity about his rescue traveled around the world. Gifts began arriving for him at the hospital from as far away as Hawaii — so many, in fact, that he needed a separate room just for them, and the staff members limited the number he could open each day.
“I was spoiled in the hospital,” he said.
“I felt like a king. I got
presents every day. If you just came in my room there was nothing but stuffed animals, candy and all that good stuff,” Andrew said.
Having gifts to open each day in the hospital “was awesome.”
Once surviving on one bowl of rice a day, his appetite was encouraged: he got to order in food from outside the hospital, and once he ordered three trays of desserts.
To protect him from destructive relatives, predators and the national attention in the hospital, he had a code name: “Thomas.”
It wasn’t a code name of his choice. He would choose: “Man of Steel.”
His new family has done “everything” for him, he said. His deep love for them shows in tone of voice, and in his usual recourse to humor. He jokes around with his father and brother while milking the cows on the farm; he wrestles with his brother — all in good fun.
He will tell you that his family includes more than members of his adoptive family.
He has strong relationships with two men he met in the first days after his rescue: Portage Police Detective Lt. Mark Hahn, who headed the investigation into murder and abuse; and Columbia County Judge W. Andrew Voigt, the attorney who served as Andrew’s representative through the myriad and complex court cases.
Both served at one point as guardians during Andrew’s recovery. The relationships continue, and they are now his close confidants.
“I’m with a good family, and these two (Hahn and Voigt) – they point me to a direct path,” Andrew said.
Hahn has investigated other homicides and other child abuse cases, and Voigt, during his time as an attorney in Portage, served as court representative for dozens of other children. In no other case is their relationship ongoing. They attended Andrew’s high school football games and tried their hands at milking cows on the farm.
“I have a big family, especially with these two. (They’re) like uncles,” he said. “We talk and joke around. Sometimes I call Mark a lot if I want to talk about some stuff.”
Sitting in a room with Hahn and Voigt, the teasing between them goes effortlessly back and forth in good humor. Andrew grins when he cracks jokes with them as he’s asked about the past.
“Mark had more hair back then (in 2007),” Andrew said with a teasing grin.
When talking about a few things he’s done that were a surprise to Hahn and Voigt, Voigt teases him: “It’s a good thing we like you.”
“Who wouldn’t like me?” Andrew adds quickly, with that grin.
He plays down his affection for them — he is quick to say he doesn’t “do” hugs. But when saying goodbye, he gives them both tight hugs.
“Well, they were there from the start,” he said. “He (Hahn) was just worried and everything about me. He just wanted me to get safe.”
His past is revealed now only in bits and pieces. Once locked in a small closet, now he is constantly in motion.
“I don’t like sitting very long; I have to keep moving,” Andrew said.
Required to wear gloves on his hands for months to help heal the severe burns inflicted on him by hot water, he will not wear them for farm chores like lifting hay bales.
“I don’t wear gloves, I never have. I don’t like the feel, so I just go with my bare hands. The only time I wear gloves is when I snowmobile,” Andrew said.
Sleep for him can be elusive.
“I have to take medicine to help me sleep, because I can’t fall asleep by myself because I have post traumatic stress; I’m always on the alert,” Andrew said.
Therapy and his family and a chain of care and supporters keep his momentum going forward. He is a teenager living with more loss and pain than most adults, but he never got mired in self-pity. Instead, he found productive channels for his anger.
“Like football — you literally hit somebody hard and you won’t get in trouble for it,” Andrew said.
Keeping fit is another outlet — he uses his energy on daily workouts. He uses his bicycle as transportation, covering the hilly rural roads that surround the farm where he lives.
“I bike a lot,” Andrew said.
Creativity is another outlet.
“When I feel angry sometimes or down, I usually go to my drawing pad or I pick up a pencil and just start writing,” he said.
He’s written a book as therapy, called, “My Life.”
“It’s 25 pages long. (Starting) from when I was little. It’s something I just want to do for myself. It’s about my past,” Andrew said.
Holding up his injured hand, he says, “This past.”
All in the past
In conversation, some words have a bit of a Southern accent that hint at his childhood in Florida.
As a child, he rarely attended school. He saw his biological father just one time – but they didn’t talk.
“It was just me, my sister (Felicia) and my mom,” he said. “The reason I didn’t go to school much is because me and my mom literally did everything together, fishing, everything.”
His mother, Tammie, was killed by the group living at the Oneida Street house and buried in the backyard about a week before Andrew was found in the closet.
“I miss her every day. That’s all I have to say about that,” Andrew said.
He talks with Felicia over Skype now, and he recently visited her. Living in Tennessee, she is married with two young children.
Her youngest child, he recalls, he made “laugh up a storm” by making “monkey sounds.”
He and Felicia spoke about Portage while he was there.
“It was fine,” he said.
There are other relatives he is too angry with to want to see.
The convicted murderers and child abusers are in prison, serving long sentences.
“If they get out I’m going to be there waiting for them, but … nah, they’re going to be old when they get out anyway,” Andrew said.
He’s not a fan of bullies, and maintains his rightful claim to speak out about abuse.
For those who are bullied or teased at school, he has a message: “Yes, you’re going to have a hard time, but when people pick on you, let it go in one ear and out the other,” Andrew said. “Just keep minding yourself.”
To other children who have been abused, he has words of advice: don’t let the past pull you down or drive you to drugs or suicide.
Concentrate instead on your future, about what you want to do in life.
“You just got to live life like it is; you can’t be drawing back to the past,” Andrew said. “You’ve just got to keep moving forward.”
Someday, he’d like to get married and be a father. He continues working on the farm, joking with his brother and father, cleaning calf pens, and bicycling.
Despite everything he’s been through – to hell and back – he doesn’t want pity. Not anymore.
“I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. It’s already past. I’m capable of walking, writing. I did all the sports I wanted to do,” Andrew said. “So why do you need to be sorry for me?”