November 23, 2009 12:00 PM

Late one fall night more than six years ago, trucker Mike Byrd was lying on his couch watching TV when he heard a sound, peeked out his window and saw someone picking trash from his overturned garbage can. Suddenly, a child emerged from the shadows, so Byrd walked outside to investigate. “He told me he was 19 years old and he was hungry,” Byrd recalled. “I thought it was a little kid making a lie up.” It was no lie. The boy, later identified as Bruce Jackson, was in fact 19, but he weighed a mere 45 lbs. and was just under four feet tall–the result, Byrd would learn, of being virtually starved by his adoptive parents for 15 years. “You could see all the bones in his face,” says Byrd. “He looked like the Cryptkeeper.”

Byrd’s description wasn’t far off. Bruce and his equally skeletal adoptive brothers Keith, Tyrone and Michael had been fed uncooked food and an occasional sandwich for years (see box). Their adoptive parents, Vanessa and Raymond Jackson, insisted that the four boys suffered from eating disorders. But authorities searching their home in Collingswood, N.J., found teeth marks on windowsills and walls–evidence, they said, that the boys had gnawed on insulation and drywall to ease their constant hunger pains. Adding to the cruelty: The Jacksons’ four biological children and three adopted foster girls were fed normally.

On Oct. 24, 2003, the Jacksons were arrested and charged with multiple counts of child endangerment. Raymond died before trial but Vanessa pled guilty to one count of child endangerment in March 2006 and is now nearly four years into a seven-year prison term. Nine New Jersey social workers were also fired for failing to notice the boys were being starved, and lawyers for the four boys filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the state that was settled out of court. Eric Wren, who investigated the case for the prosecutor’s office, says medical experts said Bruce was “very close to death” when they found him. “I thought I’d seen the worst things you could do to another human being,” he says. “And then this. It is the worst physical abuse case I’ve ever seen. Mainly because it went on for so many years.”

The boys had been starved for love as well as food, so it’s no surprise they’ve flourished since leaving the Jackson home and finding better caretakers. Bruce, who could not be reached for comment but lives in a state-run group home in New Jersey, had gained 95 lbs. and grown 15 inches by the time of Vanessa Jackson’s sentencing. Keith, now 20, has grown 16 inches and gained 125 lbs.; Tyrone sprouted 16 inches and put on 92 lbs., and Michael, who was 7 and wearing clothes for a 24-month-old when he was rescued, has gained more than 100 lbs. (Michael and Keith are half brothers.)

But that’s not all that’s changed. Keith, Tyrone and Michael are once again living under the same roof, but this time they have warm and loving parents, James and Amber Parrish. They live with the couple and their biological son, C.J., 9, in Millville, N.J. The boys first met James, 36, when New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services paired them with him as a paid mentor (that’s still his job) in the aftermath of the Jackson fiasco. One by one they urged James and Amber to adopt them. “They’d say, ‘Would you be our dad?’ to James,” recalls Amber, 31. “‘And Amber, would you be our mom?'” She, in turn, fell for them, touched by their tiny size and their burning need for human comfort. “They didn’t do much talking but they were clingy,” she says. “They wanted to hug you, latch onto you. They needed somebody to love them, somebody to show them there are good parents out there.” She was also struck by the intensity with which they ate when they first arrived. “The Jacksons said they couldn’t hold down food, but Michael could eat at least 12 chicken wings by himself and Keith would put at least 18 to 20 pieces down,” she says. Not much has changed since then, she laughs. “Our grocery bill is off the charts,” she says. “We spend at least $1,300-$1,400 a month on food.”

The boys are thriving in other ways as well. Keith graduated from high school in June and made honor roll the last semester. He is now a freshman at Cumberland County Community College in Vineland, N.J. (His parents are enrolled there as well because Amber got laid off in March and neither has a college degree.) Tyrone and Michael are both honor students at their schools, and they all play sports. To further distance themselves from their past, Tyrone, 16, and Keith changed their names. Keith is now Tre’Shawn and Tyrone is Terrell. Says Terrell: “My old name brought back too many bad memories.” Amber is also teaching all three boys to cook, although the lessons sometimes stir up the boys’ memories of how the Jacksons fed them uncooked food. When that happens, says Amber, “I disappear because I don’t want them to see me cry.”

The only person missing in their new life is Bruce. Tre’Shawn said all four boys share a deep bond after spending all those years together, sharing a ramshackle attic bedroom where they talked about food constantly. All the boys are grateful to him for escaping that night and freeing them from their hellish ordeal. Although they spoke to him on the phone in June, the last time they saw him was when he came to one of their football games three years ago. Tre’Shawn says Bruce is happy in his group home, but James adds that there is still some pain in Bruce’s life: “He’s also a little angry. He feels as though if it weren’t for him, nobody would have gotten moved. He always wanted to be adopted too. He always wants to know why everyone else has a mom and dad except him.” He’s not forgotten, though–not by the boys and certainly not by Mike Byrd, who found him picking through his trash. Says Byrd: “I figured if I didn’t find him, in a month or two one of those kids would have been dead, the way they were going.”

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