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Turmoil entwines a troubled life

Sunday, March 18, 2001

By Johnna A. Pro and Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

From childhood, Tammy Lynn Felbaum lived a life that flouted convention and begged for attention.

Her arrest last week on charges that she castrated and killed her sixth husband capped 25 years filled with shattered marriages, arrests and testy confrontations in five Western Pennsylvania counties.

People who know her say she is intelligent and has a quick wit, a voracious appetite for books about medicine and science, and extensive knowledge about the rare animals and plants she's raised. When it suited her, she displayed considerable charm to people she'd just met.

Yet she eventually alienated classmates, neighbors and public officials in the many communities where she's lived by behaving in ways that she knew were likely to shock.

She used her knowledge to set up home laboratories to manufacture methamphetamine and to practice surgery on some of her animals. She piled garbage in her yard, hung dead animals from trees and bragged about her drug use and sexual encounters. She cursed, threatened and fought with anyone who crossed her.

Most objectionable to many who knew her was her penchant for displaying and discussing the results of sex-change surgery she'd undergone after graduating from a Fayette County high school. She startled people by making coarse references to her body, by strolling nude outdoors and by frequently flashing her breasts or genitals in public.

Felbaum had been so graphic with so many people that, by the time she arrived at a Butler County magistrate's office in 1997 to be married for the sixth time, she was a stranger to just one person there.

As she and her bridegroom stood waiting for Slippery Rock District Justice Clifford Woessner to begin the ceremony, a young police officer approached.

"You look beautiful," the officer said to the slim blonde in the white dress.

"Thank you," the bride replied in a voice so deep and gruff that the officer was visibly startled. Later, the office staff burst out laughing when the puzzled officer said he couldn't help but wonder why the lovely bride had such a harsh voice. Although Felbaum normally spoke in a high, feminine voice, she could drop into a male-sounding voice when she wanted to.

A little more than three years later, the bride would once again appear for a proceeding before Woessner: Last week, she stood accused of killing James J. Felbaum, 40, the man she had married that day.

State police have charged her with castrating him Feb. 23 during a crude procedure in a makeshift operating room in the trailer they shared in Marion, Butler County, that was strewn with garbage and human and animal waste. He died 30 hours later.

Tammy Felbaum, 42, faces a hearing this week on charges of homicide, aggravated assault, reckless endangerment and practicing medicine without a license. Because of crowding in the Butler County Jail, she is being held in the Cambria County Jail.

From Tommy to Tammy

The boy who would become Tammy Felbaum was born in 1958 in Charleston, W.Va. He was named Thomas Vincent Wyda when he was adopted as a toddler by John and the late Dolores Wyda of South Union, Fayette County.

The family settled on a street of well-tended homes in the village of Jamison. A woman who answered the phone at the Wyda home said John Wyda was estranged from his adopted child.

Tom Wyda attended Laurel Highlands High School, where classmates said his effeminate behavior and his insistence on referring to himself as Tammy/Tommy made him the target of ridicule and fights.

They said he often skipped gym class because he considered himself to be a girl and didn't want to shower in the boys locker room. He carried literature about sex-change operations.

In his high school yearbook, he said he wanted to be a nurse, displaying an interest in medicine that remains to this day.

His nickname was "Cat" -- an apparent reference to his habit of hissing and clawing at people who teased him. Wyda graduated from Laurel Highlands in 1976 and legally changed his name in 1978 to Tammy Lynn Wyda.

Former schoolmates and neighbors said they would see Wyda in the late 1970s in a bar in Uniontown, sitting on a bench in the back and pulling up her T-shirt to bare her breasts.

On Feb. 20, 1980, Wyda underwent sex-change surgery at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

A few weeks later, she applied for a license to marry Tim C. Barner, a Hempfield truck driver.

Her attempts to obtain the license made her a legend in the Westmoreland County Courthouse. Workers in the Register of Wills office asked for proof that she was a woman after she told them of her sex change.

Deputy Register of Wills Taylor Troiano said Wyda lifted her blouse and exposed her breasts.

"She looked like a woman," he said, adding that she also offered to lift her skirt and display her genitalia. He told her that wouldn't be necessary.

Nevertheless, "We wanted proof that the operation had been performed," recalled Troiano's boss, Register of Wills Earl S. Keim II.

Wyda went to Common Pleas Judge Gilfert Mihalich and demanded a court order directing Keim to issue the license. Mihalich said Wyda had a jar containing two testicles and a penis.

"She had this jar and she kept arguing and shoving it at me," Mihalich recalled last week. "But I told her, 'I don't care what you have. I want the certification.' "

When Wyda returned to the courthouse a few weeks later, she slammed the jar on the front counter of the Register of Wills office along with a letter from a doctor who stated that she had undergone the surgery.

"The counter clerk was white as a ghost when she ran into my office to tell me about this," Keim said.

He granted the license, and Wyda and Barner were married April 18, 1980, by Greensburg District Justice Michael G. Moschetti. Barner could not be reached for comment.

In 1981, Wyda attended the five-year reunion of her high school class with a man she introduced as her husband. She wore a jumpsuit over a strapless tube top that displayed her bust line, and her long blond hair was cut in a feathered Farrah Fawcett style.

"She was really quite pretty," said a classmate. "It was startling."

By then, Felbaum was living in a trailer in Latrobe, where neighbors complained that she allowed a pet lion to roam freely in the yard. Police found a lion cub in the yard and ordered her to keep it inside or on a chain.

Also in 1981, she was charged with welfare fraud and admitted into a program for first-time offenders.

A year later, she was arrested again after, state police said, she and another woman smashed the windows of a Hempfield home.

She pleaded guilty to two counts of criminal mischief and was sentenced to four to 23 months in the Westmoreland County Prison.

She was released from jail Sept. 29, 1982, began working as an exotic dancer and became well-known to authorities.

"She was notorious in Greensburg," said retired Westmoreland County Detective Thomas Tridico. "She always liked to flaunt her breasts at people."

'She has a dark side'

Later that year, Felbaum's marriage was ending. She had met William Kuyat III, a U.S. Postal Service worker from Ross, who befriended her and, years later, would become her fourth husband.

Kuyat described Felbaum as bright, funny and a practical joker. He said she spoke often of her longing for the children she could not bear and transferred that yearning into a devotion for animals.

She also enjoyed poring over books about medicine and medical procedures. Kuyat urged her to study medicine or nursing.

"You know that book 'Gray's Anatomy'? She soaked it up like a sponge," he said. "If someone was going to operate on me and it wasn't a doctor, it would be her."

Kuyat was so taken with Felbaum that, within weeks of their meeting in a Pittsburgh bar, the two moved into a trailer in Cranberry.

"She could have been a model or in the movies. I felt sorry for her. She was like a little child in a woman's body. She has a very loving side. But she has a dark side, too," Kuyat said.

While waiting for her divorce from Barner to become final, Felbaum took a job as a waitress at a strip club in Beaver. By the time her divorce was granted in February 1983, her relationship with Kuyat also was failing.

Kuyat said they fought frequently before breaking up in August 1983. Four months later, Felbaum married Lloyd L. Conley of Rochester, a steel worker. He could not be reached. Kuyat said he believed Conley is dead.

Felbaum was arrested April 18, 1984, for indecent assault, corruption of minors and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. The victims, who were 14 and 16 at the time, were related to Conley, court records say.

Felbaum pleaded guilty to one count of corruption and was given probation.

Former Beaver County Detective Kenneth W. Finnell said she came to court for that case and others clad in skimpy clothing. She was told to leave and not return until she had dressed appropriately.

"At that time, she was real blond and she turned heads. She was attractive," Finnell said. "She was always friendly and polite with me, but she had some problems."

More marriages, arrests

In April 1985, her marriage to Conley ended. She moved to a mobile home in New Alexandria and rebuilt her friendship with Kuyat. She also struck up a relationship with Robert T. Lipnicky of Center after meeting him in a bar in Monaca.

She married Lipnicky Sept. 13, 1986, and they moved to San Antonio. They separated 18 months later, and Felbaum asked Kuyat to help her return to Pennsylvania.

Lipnicky, now of Poland, Ohio, would say only that his marriage to Felbaum had been a youthful indiscretion.

Felbaum moved to a small apartment in Bellevue and took a job answering phones for a manufacturing company while waiting for her third divorce to become final.

"That was her most tranquil time," Kuyat recalled. "She didn't get into any trouble."

She married Kuyat in March 1989, two months after her divorce from Lipnicky became final. They lived at Colonial Estates, a mobile home park in Richland.

"I was only with her a couple of weeks," said Kuyat, explaining they could not get along while living together. A few months later, they divorced but remained friends.

Felbaum kept the trailer and filled it with exotic animals. When it burned down, she took the animals to the Port-O-Call mobile home park in Penn Township, Butler County.

In 1992, Felbaum was accused of manufacturing methamphetamine in her mobile home. She pleaded no contest and was placed on probation.

In April 1993, police were called to investigate a report that she had tried to kill herself. They said she wouldn't let them into her home, so they broke in, and she threatened to throw acid at them and pointed a pellet gun at herself and an officer.

Charged with disorderly conduct and filing a false report, she was ordered to pay court costs after agreeing to a plea bargain.

That August, she married her fifth husband, Rohn P. McCall. He could not be reached for comment.

She also began attracting the attention of humane officers, who investigated reports that she was performing surgery on her animals without a license. The disposition of that investigation could not be determined.

But state police who are investigating Felbaum's death said they had dug up remains of animals outside her current residence in Marion.

'People terrified of her'

In the summer of 1994, Felbaum moved with McCall into a trailer at 318 Smith Road. Neighbors initially welcomed the couple.

Albert and Susan Badaracco, who lived next door, invited the two to a family picnic.

"She was a beautiful person. Very nice, very sweet, very pretty. She could carry on a hell of a conversation," Susan Badaracco recalled.

Soon, however, McCall moved out, and a man named Lynn moved in. Neighbors said Lynn was in the process of changing his sex.

An anonymous letter sent to the Badaraccos and other neighbors said: "Your new neighbors ... are not what they seem. Tammy has had a sex change. She used to be Tommy. Lynn will soon become Linda. They like to fool people. Beware."

That Felbaum had a sex change wasn't a surprise. She spoke freely of her surgery. What worried the neighbors was her increasingly bizarre and violent behavior.

They said she strolled up and down the road completely nude, broke their windows, ripped out gardens, screamed obscenities and threatened them. She hung dead animals from trees and threw trash in her yard.

Several neighbors erected fences. Others repeatedly called state police or township officials to complain.

"She has caused so much trouble, people are terrified of her," said Deborah Bailey, the township secretary.

In 1997, she was charged with disorderly conduct and trespassing after a neighbor said she cursed at him when he complained that her cow was loose on his property. She was convicted and ordered to pay fines and costs, but the conviction was overturned on appeal.

Township officials also filed charges against her in November 1998 for violating a recycling ordinance. Bailey said that because of Felbaum's reputation, she couldn't find anyone willing to serve the arrest warrant.

Together since they met

Felbaum married her sixth husband Nov. 11, 1997, after James Felbaum was released from one of several stints in drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation facilities, said his father, Richard Felbaum of Latrobe.

She met him through Michael Mrozenski of Latrobe, whose sister, Lisa, is married to James Felbaum's brother, Tom. Mrozenski knew Tammy Felbaum from her days as a dancer in a Greensburg bar.

When James Felbaum was released from a rehab facility in Kittanning, Mrozenski offered to pick him up. Tammy Felbaum went along and hit it off immediately with James.

"They never made it home from Kittanning," Richard Felbaum said. "They went straight to [Tammy's home] in Butler and they've been together ever since."

James Felbaum was separated from his second wife, Nadine, with whom he had two children, his father said.

"He was lonely and he took to her right away," his father said. "But the more I got to be around her, the more I disliked her. She could be very sweet and nice to your face, then turn around and stab you in the back. She was very difficult, very temperamental.

"I was asked to go to the wedding. But I told Jim that I was the best man at his last two weddings and I'd be danged if I was going to another one," he said. "He didn't think the old man knew anything."

James Felbaum worked occasionally as a laborer. Tammy raised and sold animals but did not work outside the home, Richard Felbaum said.

The marriage created a rift between James Felbaum and his father. Richard Felbaum said he hated to visit them because their mobile home was usually cluttered and filthy.

"She was raising cats and dogs and all different kinds of birds. If they knew I was coming, the trailer would be cleaned up. But if I just dropped in, you needed a bulldozer to get through the house," he said. "My son wasn't raised that way, and it made me mad."

Richard Felbaum said it also made him uncomfortable to sit by while Tammy quarreled with his son and neighbors in front of him.

"She really had a temper, but I figured my son, being 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, was big and ugly enough to take care of himself," Richard Felbaum said. "I always figured he'd get in trouble sooner or later with the lifestyle he led, between drugs and alcohol or playing around with women. I never figured it would end this way."

Tammy and James' marital problems apparently worsened when he resumed using drugs last year. Court records show that Tammy Felbaum summoned state police to their home Jan. 26, 2000, saying her husband and a friend were abusing drugs there.

James Felbaum was charged with possession of drugs and paraphernalia and was briefly jailed later in the year after he failed to appear for a court hearing.

He initially pleaded not guilty to the drug charges, but in January changed his plea and entered a rehabilitation facility in Butler County. His father said Tammy became enraged that she was not allowed to visit him and tossed his clothing and belongings out of the trailer.

"I visited him in rehab and thought he was getting straightened out," Richard Felbaum said. "When he got done there on Feb. 9, I picked him up and took him down to [a halfway house] in Pittsburgh. That was the last I saw of him."

Richard Felbaum said he didn't believe his daughter-in-law's assertion to police that his son tried to castrate himself and that she had James' permission to complete the procedure.

"I can't figure that's true, not the way he loved life and loved women," Richard Felbaum said. "I know too much what this boy was like. Even when I was driving him down to Pittsburgh, I had to take him on a side trip to see another woman on the way.

"When he came out, he told that woman he was going to Pittsburgh but he'd be back soon. He said he'd be in touch.

"Right now, this is all a little rough to believe, but I guess the Good Lord don't give you more than you can handle. I've been joking around that this all ought to be on 'Jerry Springer,' or that I should get out a tablet and pencil and start writing a best seller.

"But you've got to have a laugh over it or you'd lose your mind and have a nervous breakdown."

Staff writers Ernie Hoffman, Rachel Conway and Karen Kane contributed to this report. Research provided by Post-Gazette assistant technology systems editor Tim Rozgonyi and journalism students from Point Park College's crime-reporting class.

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