Son of a Kearney couple seeks treatment, then wanders into tragedy

Four years after Brandon’s death, Kim and Ted Jacques have left his room in their home intact.
Four years after Brandon’s death, Kim and Ted Jacques have left his room in their home intact. The Kansas City Star

Several months after Ted and Kim Jacques buried their son, the phone rang.

A California newspaper reporter told the Kearney couple that Brandon, 20, before his death had been shipped around to detox centers that routinely lied about their treatment programs and profited from the transfers.

“Our son was bought and sold like a piece of meat,” Kim Jacques said.

The couple sued two of those places and in February won a $10.25 million award in a wrongful-death lawsuit. Brandon’s story has since been used as a case study by a California Senate committee.

A suit against a third center in Arizona is pending.

Ted and Kim last week shared their ordeal while sitting at an oak table in their breakfast nook — the same setting where four years earlier the family had its “hallelujah moment.”

That’s what Ted Jacques called it, and what a great morning that was. He and Kim had lived a two-year nightmare watching Brandon’s binging and purging from an eating disorder. Then, to mask the bulimia, the teenager started drinking. Vodka, mostly.

“When I drink, I don’t eat,” Brandon told his parents.

He wrecked his truck. His parents couldn’t keep food in the house. He started college, and quit. He got sicker. He was arrested for drunken driving. His parents watched — and listened — daily for two years as their handsome, outgoing, smart, sweet boy self-destructed.

Then came Feb. 12, 2011. When Ted came downstairs that morning, he found Brandon waiting with his laptop.

“Can you watch this?” Brandon asked his dad.

The video showed a drug and alcohol treatment center in Arizona. Kim soon joined them at the table in the nook. After a while, she asked Brandon if that was something he would do.

Brandon looked at both of them and nodded.

Hallelujah. The horror finally was going to end. Some 48 hours later, Ted and Kim sat in a car in a parking lot and cried after leaving Brandon at the Arizona facility.

That was the best day of their lives. Until it became their worst.

Six weeks later, Brandon was dead.

Ask Ted and Kim about their son’s bulimia and they shake their heads. They don’t know.

Brandon was a little overweight when he was younger, but he grew out of that and got into bodybuilding and wrestling. He came up with workout routines for friends. He loved the outdoors — hunting, sports and riding dirt bikes.

Brandon and his dad, with help from Ted’s carpenter friend, built a cabin on a 160-acre farm the family owned.

Could he have been teased in grade school about being chubby?

“I never thought so,” Kim said. “But now, looking back, I don’t know.”

No one knows for sure the causes of eating disorders. A bulimia patient is defined as someone who is “intensely afraid of gaining weight and exhibits persistent dissatisfaction with his body and appearance, as well as a significant distortion in the perception of the size or shape of his body.”

Eating disorders are primarily associated with females, but millions of men and boys also suffer, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

Rebecca McConville, a registered dietitian who consults on eating disorders at the University of Kansas Medical Center, said she sees maybe one male to as many as 15 females.

“Because boys are overlooked, it is longer before they get treatment,” McConville said.

She never treated Brandon, but in other cases she has seen, people start drinking when the effects of bulimia wear off — to numb the loss of the euphoria of purging, they drink.

Brandon’s condition worsened after he graduated from Kearney High School in 2009. His parents regularly heard his self-induced vomiting in the bathroom after meals. He drank more.

“You can take alcohol out of the house, but you can’t take the food,” Kim said.

But they did, sort of.

“We shopped daily,” Ted said.

At one point, Brandon went to a detox center in Missouri, but he had to leave because he was eating other people’s food.

“It was terrible,” Ted said. “We were watching him go off the edge.

“There were a lot of worst days.”

Brandon’s older sister, Heather Jacques Buckman, an elementary school teacher in Liberty, knows how hard it was for her parents.

“We kind of grew up in this bubble — this perfect childhood,” she said. “And when this happened to Brandon, nobody knew how to help him. But I saw my parents try so hard.”

Ted and Kim never considered kicking Brandon out of the house.

“I knew how bad he was,” Kim said. “I couldn’t let him die on the street.”

Ted was the kind of dad who liked to jump onto his kids’ beds and hug them. He remembers the last time he did that to Brandon. The next day was Feb. 12, 2011, the morning Brandon got up before Ted.

“And nobody gets up before me,” said Ted, who runs a construction company.

After watching the video, they all studied the website of A Sober Way Home, the treatment center in Prescott, Ariz.

They called and were asked when could they be there.

“We can fly out tomorrow,” Ted answered.

Brandon entered the facility on Feb. 14, 2011. Valentine’s Day. His parents paid the place $14,500 for a 30-day stay.

In letters and phone calls home, Brandon sounded as if things were going well. Heather, his sister, remembered one letter in which Brandon thanked his parents for all they had done. He talked about how so many people at the center had lost their families because of addictions.

“This was hope,” Heather said. “He’d crossed a threshold and things were getting better. He talked about coming home. He wanted his family.”

But after 30 days, the center recommended that Brandon be sent to another place called Morningside Recovery, in California. Ted and Kim agreed and paid $25,000. Brandon, however, was only at Morningside 17 days before being sent to yet another place called First House.

He died April 2, 2011, two days after his arrival. He’d gone into cardiac arrest after doing 30 pushups. Tests showed an electrolyte imbalance from unabated binging and purging.

Ted and Kim had not been told about the transfer to First House, which was literally that, a house. A ranch.

They would learn a lot more after the reporter’s phone call. And even more after they hired two Kansas City attorneys to represent them in a lawsuit: David Skeens of Walters Bender Strohbehn & Vaughan and Shawn Foster of Davis, Bethune & Jones.

The investigation revealed that neither Morningside nor First Watch was licensed as a medical facility, contrary to their advertising claims. The practice is widespread in the state, according to the California Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes.

The result of the deception is that families seeking medical care send loved ones to centers that are not regulated as medical facilities.

Missouri is different. Many of the state’s drug and alcohol centers have nurses and they contract with physicians to provide medication-assisted treatment, according to Debra Walker, spokeswoman for the Department of Mental Health.

They are not licensed as medical facilities but are nationally accredited with the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities.

Carol Sloan, spokeswoman for the California Department of Health Care Services, said she could not comment because questions about Brandon’s case “address changes in currently proposed legislation.”

Testimony at the trial showed that Morningside, after being paid $25,000 to care for Brandon, paid First House $249 a day to house him. Attorneys for the Jacques family argued that First House “cut a discount deal with Morningside to handle Morningside’s overflow.”

“First House was basically a roof,” Foster said. “They weren’t treating him for anything.”

The Jacques family sued both Morningside and First House. Morningside settled. First House went to trial.

Brandon’s father, mother and sister all testified at the trial, which began Feb. 5 in Orange County Circuit Court. The defense tried to blame Brandon for what had happened to him.

The jury, charged with assigning fault, put 80 percent with First House, 20 percent with Morningside and none on Brandon. The unanimous verdict on Feb. 25 came after two hours of deliberation.

Foster said the jury read internal emails in which the facilities admitted they were buying and selling kids. The jury, he said, also learned that the businesses “put profit ahead of safety and preyed on families when they were most vulnerable.”

Skeens said the verdict came down to Brandon’s wonderful family, the centers’ terrible behavior and the operators showing no remorse.

Morningside Recovery remains open. A spokesperson there declined to comment on the case.

First House has closed.

Brandon’s parents now have a lawsuit pending against A Sober Way Home. The center was not included in the first suit because it’s in a different state. The new lawsuit alleges that the center’s recommendation to Brandon’s parents that Morningside was an expert at treating eating disorders “was false and made recklessly and without regard for its truth.”

A woman who identified herself on the phone Friday as the owner of A Sober Way Home said she could not comment because of litigation and quickly hung up.

A ball bat leans in a corner in Brandon’s bedroom.

The bed is made. A Tom Clancy novel sits on a desk. Two ball caps rest on a nightstand.

“Closet’s just the same,” Ted said, opening the door to a full rod of neatly hanging T-shirts.

Tucker, Brandon’s little dog, runs around.

Everything is the same. Nearly four years and everything’s just the same. Kim, as if responding to a question not asked, volunteered: “I’m not ready yet.”

She sometimes comes up and lies on her only son’s bed.

She did so on Christmas Eve.

She and Ted tried so hard to save their son. They look back and wonder whether Brandon would be alive if they had done things differently.

“We’ve gone over it a million times, and I guess if we did anything wrong, it was to trust people,” Ted said.

They hope Brandon’s story can help other parents — maybe even save a kid’s life. Do research, they say, start early, talk to people, check places out beyond their websites.

Heather, five years older than Brandon, said her parents should bear no guilt.

“I know hindsight is 20/20, but I watched them put in countless hours of research,” she said. “I know they did what they thought was right, and they hurt so much. We all do.

“I will miss him for all my life. It makes me mad about the awful care he received, and it makes me sad that he will never see my children.

“I wonder sometimes if the roles had been reversed — and I know he would have been so strong.

“He would have fought to the end for me. That was my brother.”

Ted and Kim sold the farm up north. Ted and Brandon had spent a lot of time there. They hunted, rode bikes and built that cabin. They talked.

“I went up there a few times after Brandon died,” Ted said. Then he shook his head. “It wasn’t the same.”

When the new buyers ran into some difficulty coming up with the down payment, Ted told them he would work with them.

It was a father and his son.

“I wanted them to have it,” Ted said.

To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.