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Hell House Revisited

From top: Bruce, Keith, and Tyrone being interviewed by police.  

The reasons for Bruce’s state of arrested development were no mystery. His childhood had been hijacked by chaos and abuse. Social workers separated him from his mother when he was just 5 months old, citing her for neglect. From there, he went to live with his paternal grandmother. But before long, DYFS accused his father of abusing the infant. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Bruce Roy Sr. fled to North Carolina with his son in tow, apparently evading the DYFS charges. DYFS workers followed and returned the child to New Jersey. (Citing a court order, DYFS officials refuse to comment on Bruce’s past, but Bruce told police that his father’s abuse was sexual in nature.)

As Bruce settled into the Jackson household, his strange behavior persisted—and grew more elaborate, says Richard Josselson, the high-profile Haddonfield attorney spearheading the defense. Throughout his teen years, Josselson says, Bruce wet his bed. He was disruptive at school, where he reportedly stole other kids’ lunches, and once before ran away from the Jacksons’ home.

But most of Bruce’s odd conduct involved food. The boy would rampage through the house’s cupboards on bulimic-style binges, devouring food in such quantity that he would vomit. “He would come down, and he would eat practically everything he could eat that was edible,” Raymond Jackson says. “There it would be, all around—peanut butter and jelly and milk and cookies and bread . . . He would eat so much he threw up.” Bruce would also gorge himself on things of no nutritional value—raw rice, kibble from the guinea pig’s cage, tubs of cocoa butter, Jackson says.

Several of the Jacksons’ biological kids, who joined the interview along with their mother, Vanessa, say they noticed the same behavior. “He’d eat whole tubes of toothpaste,” says 21-year-old Verneé, a recently certified medical assistant. “We never used to keep toothpaste upstairs in our bathroom,” agrees Raymond Jr., 19, “because he would eat it. He would eat the whole tube.”

The bingeing got so out of hand, the Jacksons say, that they introduced remedial measures, including an alarm system on the kitchen door—a measure that the county prosecutor calls a lock, and points to as key evidence of the elder Jacksons’ perverse cruelty. “This was strictly for Bruce,” says Raymond Jr. “To keep him from bingeing.”

But the Jacksons say the more damaging eating disorder occurred between meals. Bruce apparently suffered from what doctors eventually diagnosed as “rumination.” Throughout the day, he would surreptitiously draw the contents of his stomach back up into his mouth, re-chew the regurgitated food, and swallow it again. “Bruce would put his hand over his mouth like this,” Raymond Jr. explained, tightly clenching his lower face with his hand. “But you could still see his cheeks expand.”

The family videotaped him doing it, hoping to shock the boy out of the behavior by showing him how awful it looked. The footage is surreal—all the more so because Bruce appears to be regurgitating his food almost unconsciously. His cheeks puff and sink as the acidic contents fill his mouth, and a look resembling satisfaction comes over his glassy eyes.

According to one of the nation’s foremost experts on infantile eating disorders, Dr. Barton J. Blinder of UC Irvine, little is known definitively about rumination. It typically occurs in children who suffered early-life traumas like abandonment, mistreatment, starvation, or lack of attachment with a parent. “There definitely is a relationship between attachment and the development of competence in feeding and appetite regulation,” he says. “In extreme cases, it can be part of a complex psycho-neuro-endocrinologic disturbance, where the child’s appetite-regulation system is not shaped up, doesn’t consolidate, because of a lack of contact.”

Standard therapy involves careful behavior modification in a hospital setting, sometimes accompanied by hypnosis, antispasmodic medication, or electroshock. If not treated early on, experts say, it can readily lead to something called “nonorganic failure to thrive,” a condition in which a child may not gain weight or height, despite ingesting normal amounts of food. If Bruce’s condition fits that general pattern, no other cause may be necessary to explain it. However, prosecutor Sarubbi has discounted all psychological or medical explanations, saying that genetic tests have ruled out such disorders—even though, in turn, medical experts maintain that eating disorders are not accompanied by any known genetic markers in the first place. In a recent telephone interview, Sarubbi expressed doubt that any of the boys had ever been officially diagnosed with any sort of eating disorder. If doctors note otherwise in the boys’ medical records, Sarubbi says, they did so at the prompting of Vanessa Jackson. When she informed them of an alleged earlier such diagnosis, they merely carried it forward, he contends.

But the record, at least in Bruce’s case, seems unequivocal. Bruce’s biological father, Bruce Roy Sr., told the Philadelphia Inquirer last year that Bruce started regurgitating as a very small child: “He wouldn’t do it when other kids were around, but he’d do it around me.” In a Newark Star-Ledger interview, he went on to claim that Bruce was hospitalized six times for food-related reasons—all before his arrival at the Jacksons’ home in 1991. According to the Jacksons’ defense team, however, the family never was certified as a special home service provider—the classification that would qualify them to foster medically unstable children. Such a classification would have triggered specialized training for the Jacksons, and an additional level of support from DYFS.

Instead, in one nine-month period in 1995, DYFS placed three other at-risk boys in the Jackson home. According to a thorough review of the boys’ medical histories compiled by the New Jersey State child advocate Kevin Ryan earlier this year, all three had early growth issues. Michael was already in one of the lowest percentiles for height before he arrived in the Jacksons’ home; DYFS noted Michael’s stature in files, calling it “genetic,” but soon a doctor would suspect the stunting effects of fetal alcohol syndrome, according to the Ryan report. This is consistent with what Vanessa and Raymond have told people about Michael.

Keith, who arrived in the household a few months later, is Michael’s biological brother, though they had been separated for some time. According to his medical records, Keith “presented with some of the stigmata of possible fetal alcohol syndrome,” and had been diagnosed with failure to thrive, eating “issues,” and small stature—all before setting foot inside the Jackson home. Finally came Tyrone. Born prematurely, he spent his first few months in a foster home for medically fragile children; there was one other placement before he was transferred to the Jacksons as a seemingly healthy and normally developing 18-month-old. However, within six months, his growth stalled, and a year later a doctor noted apparent fetal-alcohol-related symptoms and diagnosed “failure-to-thrive syndrome” three times before his adoption was finalized, in 1997.

The Jacksons claim that the three younger boys further complicated their preexisting conditions by starting to mimic Bruce’s rumination soon after they arrived on the scene. Photos seem to show them pulsing out their cheeks just as Bruce did. Eventually, their disabled biological daughter, Jeré, 22, also took up the behavior. “I know exactly what it was; I know exactly how to do it, “ she told me, holding her hands awkwardly in the air. “I asked Bruce. He said, ‘It comes up like throw-up.’ ” Verneé Jackson also admits she would ruminate on occasion.