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Hell House Revisited

In a videotape of one interview, a copy of which was given to me by a friend of the family, he seemed extremely logy and confused as he told a detective he never left the house to play, suffered a near-permanent sentence of time-out on the stairs while the rest of the family frolicked, and was forced to cut the lawn manually with shears. He went on to say his mother frequently hit him with belts and choked him with her bare hands when he regurgitated. He acted out his mother’s choking method by placing his own hand tightly around his throat in clawlike fashion. “With her nails,” he said. “Dug it in my neck.”

The detective, Eric Wren, pressed Bruce for more details. “What was your normal meal? What would you usually eat at the Jacksons’?”

“Stuff that’s not cooked,” Bruce told him weakly. He compulsively scratched his arms in the manner of a street person, and his eyes were mostly shut.

“Stuff that’s not cooked?” Detective Wren repeated. “Is that what they would feed everybody? Or just you?”

“It’s me and my three other brothers,” Bruce answered. “Keith, Michael, and Tyrone.”

One can easily understand how police were disposed to take Bruce at his word, given the horrifying condition they found him in. They arrested Raymond and Vanessa Jackson and held them in jail until Pastor Thomas posted their bail.

The problem is, none of the other kids has corroborated the most disturbing parts of Bruce’s testimony. In fact, in their own videotaped interviews, even the three boys allegedly kept on starvation diets openly contradicted Bruce’s account. Michael told his police interviewer a regular day consisted of three meals plus two snacks; his menus included lasagne, casseroles, pancakes, and Lunchables. Keith said he usually ate three meals a day. Tyrone did say that his mother would sometimes forget to give him dinner, and also mentioned eating uncooked pancake batter, one of Bruce’s more dramatic allegations—“It’s nasty,” he said. But he perked up when asked to describe his typical lunch fare, which he said includes peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

The adopted daughters weighed in with detailed descriptions of their brothers’ propensity to vomit in ways consistent with the stories the parents told me. “Weird brothers,” a shrugging Keziah explained to the officer who questioned her. “My mom would try to get them to get strong, be like healthy and stuff—she would feed them vegetables, mashed potatoes . . . ”

If Bruce is right, if life in Collingswood was in fact Dickensian, then everybody else in the family—and everybody in the extended community of the Come Alive congregation—is simply wrong. Or else they’re in on the scam. Increasingly, that’s just what prosecutors suspect.

One law-enforcement official says a novel theory is gaining ground there to suggest the whole Come Alive community suffered from a kind of religious mania, whereby the Jacksons’ fellow parishioners unwittingly egged them on to child endangerment as a sick form of spiritual theater: “Let’s say the Jacksons kept the boys sickly so that at church they would get praise for being good Christians—for ‘taking in the ones nobody else wanted.’ When in reality they were the reasons the boys were sick in the first place.”

While the Jacksons are, by most accounts, devoted congregants at Come Alive, nothing suggests they’d be possessed by this sort of crazed spiritual one-upmanship. They attend Sunday services just 60 percent of the time, says Pastor Thomas, who reviewed attendance rolls; Raymond also attends Wednesday-night Bible-study meetings. Early news accounts made a great deal of the elder Jacksons’ rousing the children for morning prayers at 5 A.M., and wall hangings that acquired an ominous aura in the context of the breaking scandal—e.g., an admonition outside the kitchen door to “Stop and think and pray before entering.” Yet Come Alive appears to be a fairly standard-issue nondenominational suburban pastorate. Evangelical music is its main stock-in-trade—Pastor Thomas started out as a “Jesus music” D.J. in the seventies, and the music-heavy liturgy was what originally drew Raymond Jackson, who had a brief career as a gospel singer in the late seventies and early eighties, into the fold.

The only respect in which the Jacksons stood out in the congregation had little to do with their devotional intensity or their sideline in foster care: They were among the few black members in a mostly white fellowship of some 350 souls. Nevertheless, the church was the main focus of the family’s social life, and nearly everyone there vigorously disputes the prosecution claims that Raymond and Vanessa were neglecting their children, let alone starving them systematically.

“I sat three rows behind the Jacksons every Sunday,” says Frank Jacobs, a parishioner who has funded two health clinics in Haiti. “Distended stomachs? I never examined them, but no, I never saw anything like that at all . . . When you first see the Jackson kids, you could tell there was something wrong. As far as what my wife and I knew, the Jacksons would take in foster kids who were pretty bad off.” Dan Hutchins, another parishioner, dropped his own kids off at the Jacksons’ for informal day care on as many as six days a week for five years. “No way, shape, or form were my kids in harm’s way there,” he says. “My thought on it is this: If that was the case and [the Jackson boys] were starved, they would be afraid or something. There would be some fear tied into it, and [they] wouldn’t have been as open or outgoing. And none of that was ever there. They were very outgoing, never afraid, always laughing and having a good time.”

Still, the Jacksons did act in one way that placed the kids further out of the orbit of monitoring by public authorities: They homeschooled their children, once their adoptions went through, which is legal and completely unregulated in New Jersey. Though Come Alive members regularly dropped by the Jacksons’ home or visited with the children in church—or saw them dance in church special events, for which the clan was locally famous—they weren’t tracking their milestones or comparing them with other children. As a result, the boys’ failure to grow often escaped notice. Up to last fall, for instance, Keith, Tyrone, and Michael were all in the same third-to-fourth-grade Sunday-school class, even though their ages were 9, 10, and 14—correlating, respectively, to grades four, five, and nine. “I don’t know why they were in that class. I can’t answer that,” says their Sunday-school teacher, Joan Sink. “I thought they were very much younger.”

DYFS, meanwhile, continued not to notice anything amiss with the Jackson boys. Once adoptions are finalized, children move out of the agency’s jurisdiction. But because the Jacksons had a foster daughter in the home, Division of Youth and Family Services agents made regular visits there—38 times in the past three years, in fact—without growing alarmed.

As I sat across the kitchen table from Raymond and Vanessa Jackson one warm night, I found it hard to picture them as perpetrating the sort of cruel and systematic abuse they’re accused of. Mainly, they seem bewildered by the past year’s dramatic turn of events—and still dazed by the loss of their adoptive children, all of whom were sent back into foster care following the couple’s arrest. Their biological daughter LaRae struggles for the right metaphor to express the strangeness of it all: “It’s like you’re a dog and everyone’s saying you’re a cat. But you know that you’re a dog. This is weird.” For his part, Jackson won’t entertain any personal resentment, even as exasperation edges into his voice: “I know Bruce loves us, I know he does,” he says. “But sometimes I think about how my life is completely turned around. And it’s because he told a lie. He told a lie on me. He told a lie on us.”