For more than a decade, Gypsy Rose Blanchard lived in a wheelchair and suffered unnecessary medical procedures as her seemingly devoted mother, Dee Dee, received praise from doctors and family.
But authorities say the truth emerged after Gypsy had Dee Dee murdered on June 14, 2015: Though her mother said she was a terminally ill teenager, with the mental capacity of a child, Gypsy was then in fact 23 years old — and she could walk.
Experts believe she was the victim of a severe case of Munchausen by proxy, a relatively rare form of abuse in which a guardian, in this case Dee Dee, exaggerates or induces illness in a child for attention and sympathy.
The disturbing case is the subject of an upcoming HBO documentary, Mommy Dead and Dearest, airing on Monday and featured in this week’s issue of PEOPLE.
“I can’t imagine anything else apart from raising someone in a prison [where] you would be able to control somebody [more],” Gypsy’s father, Rod Blanchard, tells PEOPLE. “It was the perfect breeding ground for a controlled situation.”
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Dee Dee and Gypsy arrived in Springfield, Missouri, claiming they fled the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, in 2005. According to authorities, that provided cover for Gypsy’s lack of medical records, which Dee Dee said had been lost in the storm.
She also didn’t keep Gypsy under the care of one doctor for too long, gave her medications to mimic the symptoms of the diseases she claimed Gypsy had and shaved Gypsy’s head so she appeared to be undergoing chemotherapy.
A key motive for Dee Dee’s years-long deception, investigators believe, was money.
While living in Springfield, mother and daughter received numerous large donations, including a home from Habitat for Humanity and paid trips to Disney World.
Rod, who lives in Louisiana, divorced Dee Dee during her pregnancy with their daughter, and he says he regrets not recognizing the abuse sooner.
“I had my doubts,” he says. “But I mean, you’re staying at Ronald McDonald house, staying at this hospital for a week. … How do you question that?”
To keep up appearances, Dee Dee isolated herself and her daughter from friends and relatives. It wasn’t until after her mother’s murder that Gypsy learned her dad’s family always wanted to be a part of her life.
“She thought that we were just telling her we loved her and we missed her just for us to feel better — because that’s what her mother told her,” Rod says.
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According to Rod, Dee Dee moved Gypsy away from family in Louisiana and only let him see her briefly, arguing that he wasn’t equipped to handle her care.
When he was able to see his daughter, Rod says he had to call days in advance and Dee Dee would never leave her daughter’s side.
Experts say Dee Dee’s constant hand-holding and excessive hugs were ways she controlled Gypsy in public — until her death.
In June 2015, Dee Dee was found fatally stabbed. Gypsy was discovered a day later, in Wisconsin, at the home of Nicholas Godejohn, a man she’d met online and begun dating.
Gypsy, now 25, and Godejohn, 27, were charged with first-degree murder in connection with Dee Dee’s death.
Godejohn is awaiting trial and has pleaded not guilty. Though his attorney could not be reached for comment, Godejohn has argued he killed Dee Dee to free Gypsy. Court officials say he awaits mental evaluation.
In July, Gypsy pleaded guilty to second degree-murder and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“We’re not psychologists,” her father says now. “But we are parents, and I think the best thing we can do is give her our love [and] trust.”
Mommy Dead and Dearest airs Monday (10 p.m. ET) on HBO.