August 23, 1999 12:00 PM

By the time David Bruce was a toddler, his parents, Margaret and David Sr., knew something was awry. Unusually precocious—he spoke in sentences at 9 months—David refused to eat more than a few Cheerios a day. His pediatrician brushed it off, saying David was merely slow to mature. But when he was 2½, in 1995, he told his mother that “a scary man under my hair” had forbidden him to eat. “I was petrified,” recalls Margaret, now 36. “I thought, ‘My God, what is he going through?’ ”

A few nights later, while watching ABC’s 20/20, Bruce saw a segment on a woman who seemed to know. With no medical training, Peggy Claude-Pierre had developed an almost messianic reputation among eating-disorder sufferers (including Princess Diana, who talked about her bulimia with Claude-Pierre in a 1995 meeting) since curing her two daughters of anorexia and founding the Montreux Clinic in Victoria, B.C., in 1993. “It was like [Peggy] was talking about my own son,” says Bruce, a paint-company clerk from New York City. “I needed to look no further.”

After 14 months of round-the-clock care at Montreux, David was eating normally, says his mother—and continues to do so today. But his treatment is now at the center of an investigation tarnishing the reputation of the woman Oprah Winfrey once called “an angel on Earth,” one that could force the closure of her world-renowned clinic. In an emotional 26-day hearing in Victoria last month, licensing investigators accused Claude-Pierre of a laundry list of violations, among them keeping David at a facility licensed only for adults, placing him in the care of a suicidal fellow patient and misdiagnosing him. (Experts testified that in fact he had a form of autism; David, now 6, attends a regular school and, in his mother’s opinion, seems fine.)

Even as grateful parents and patients testified in support of Claude-Pierre, former caseworkers denounced Montreux as a “secretive” environment in which their charismatic boss at times force-fed and yelled at patients and risked lives by employing untrained staff, including her daughters. Licensing lawyer Guy McDannold also alleged that Claude-Pierre and her managers lied to cover up their offenses and intimidated one witness with a visit from a burly P.I. “Quite simply,” McDannold said, “they can’t be trusted.”

For her part, a tearful Claude-Pierre denied any deceit or abuse but begged presiding medical officer Dr. Richard Stanwick, who is expected to render a judgment in the case next month, for another chance. “I am terribly guilty of trying to fix too many kids too fast,” she said. “I probably should have done things differently to make things safer.”

The third of six children born to a Swiss hotelier and a Canadian schoolteacher, Claude-Pierre married a local building contractor in 1968, giving birth to Kirsten the following year and Nicole in 1971. For years, the family lived contentedly. But in 1983, Peggy and her spouse’s differences over how to rear the girls led to their divorce. She moved to Victoria to pursue a psychology degree, taking Nicole with her, while Kirsten, then 15, stayed with Claude-Pierre’s parents to complete the school year. By the time she joined her mother three months later, the 5’8″ teen appeared to be in the grip of anorexia, eventually wasting away to 84 lbs. “I was terrified,” Claude-Pierre told PEOPLE in 1997. “But I always do well under fire.” Frustrated by the failure of doctors and psychiatrists to help, she took matters into her own hands and meal by meal, morsel by morsel, gently coaxed Kirsten to eat. Within six months, the girl had returned to a healthy weight. But three months later, to Claude-Pierre’s horror, Nicole, a perfectionist like her sister, also became anorectic, eventually dwindling to 68 lbs. Quitting her studies and her part-time waitressing job, Claude-Pierre again effected a cure. Healing her daughters “opened a new vision,” she said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I have something here.’ ”

Others thought so too. In 1988, the year she married violinist David Harris, now general manager of Montreux, Claude-Pierre opened a practice in downtown Victoria. Five years later, she established a nine-bed clinic for patients who required acute full-time care. After 20/20 aired the first of several interviews in 1994, Montreux was transformed into a kind of anorectics’ Lourdes, with families from as far away as Australia, Japan and Israel turning up with their ailing children. “Suddenly,” says Claude-Pierre, “we were put in the position of playing God.”

Which is precisely what some allege Claude-Pierre to have done. “This woman was so caught up in her fame that she forgot about her patients,” says former Montreux employee Gay Pankhurst, 47, who says she saw workers “jamming food” into the mouths of patients who had just vomited and also failing to keep track of medication, which once led to an attempted overdose. With only three doctors on call, she says, “there were a lot of safety issues.”

Yet few of them were raised by patients or their parents, for whom Claude-Pierre sometimes waived her fee of up to $925 a day. Karin Siemens, 35, testified of her first encounter with Claude-Pierre, “When she took me in her arms, that was the first time the voices in my head were quiet.” Dr. Edward Feller, a medical professor at Brown University, testified that his daughter Sophie, 20, now recovered and studying in France, had passed through 22 U.S. hospitals and “would be dead” if not for her treatment at Montreux.

Should Stanwick allow the clinic to stay open, he is likely to impose stringent conditions, including the hiring of more medical staff. A solution? Perhaps, but there are those who believe the move may backfire. “You’ve got a bunch of kids who resent the medical model,” says Montreux lawyer Dennis Murray. “They will reject it, and there will be nowhere for them to go.”

Anne-Marie O’Neill

Nancy Matsumoto and Barbara McLintock in Victoria and Gail Cameron Wescott in Atlanta

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