Longform

Diet From Hell

Health food was always on the menu at the small south Scottsdale apartment where Blair and Kimu Parker lived with their three children.

The Parkers were vegan, a common but less-than-household term that sounds distinctly extraterrestrial, possibly because the star Vega has spawned numerous science-fiction aliens that bore the name Vegan. From a dietary perspective, vegans are vegetarians who shun not only meat but animal products like gelatin, eggs, cheese and milk.

The Parkers ran an austere home. The three Parker children, Michaela, 11, Caleb, 9 and Zion, 3, were home-schooled and slept together in one room. One of the apartment's rooms was the school, set up with maps and work tables.

Breakfast was like dinner for the Parkers. Fresh vegetables, especially carrots. Rice and nuts and fruit. Soy cheese, tofu-egg sandwiches. Kimu could do wonders with tofu and the right spices. Lunch was the same, but less — and sometimes they skipped lunch. Dinner was usually light. Snacks were rare, but the children were allowed healthful chips and imitation ice cream.

The Parkers believed in feeding their kids no more than just enough.

Sometimes, they would use a cooking timer to limit how long the kids could sit for a meal. When the bell rang after 20 minutes, the children were done eating.

The Parkers were extremely concerned about child obesity, one of the greatest health scares of our time. They shuddered at the thought of the saturated fat, growth hormones, sugar and toxins in typical American fare. Blair was an armchair nutritionist who felt it was his responsibility and right as a parent to feed the kids the most healthful foods possible. Kimu thought veganism prevented her and the children from asthma attacks.

And because of the good care they believed they were providing, the Parker's children were very healthy.

Except for the seizures.

All the kids had them at times. Caleb's first trip to a doctor came in 1998, when he was 2. He had to be hospitalized at Phoenix Children's Hospital for violent episodes. Doctors told the family then that the children's diet was inadequate, but the Parkers believed they knew best, thinking the real culprit was epilepsy.

Sure, their kids were small. The Parkers knew that. But they thought it was because the kids didn't ingest the steroids in cattle and other meat sources. Plus, Kimu was naturally thin, and the kids may have inherited the trait from her.

The Parkers' diagnosis: The children don't absorb nutrients well.

They used all manner of food supplements for the problem, such as Garden Of Life's Perfect Food, which is powdered vegetables, grass, seeds, seaweed and nutrients.



The Parkers fed their children carefully selected, low-calorie food that was much different from the fatty, sugar-laden fare typical American kids gorge on.

But they knew that what they were doing was extreme. Kimu, a former kindergarten and first-grade teacher, knew that she had probably taken things too far and that the kids were too skinny. She knew they might be taken from her if authorities saw them.

That's one reason why the Parkers didn't call 911 on the night of April 22, 2005, when little Zion began having terrible seizures. Instead, they called Windy Skeete, a Wisconsin woman with mail-order certifications in naturopathy and herbs.

Skeete, who runs a nutrition-oriented fundamentalist Christian ministry and food-supplement store, knew the Parkers from a church in Montana, where they had lived before moving to Scottsdale nine years earlier.

A few months earlier, the Parkers had told Skeete that Zion was losing a lot of weight and seemed to have malabsorption syndrome. Skeete would later tell a jury that she advised the Parkers to try the herbs slippery elm and bilberry.

Then came the late-night phone calls in April. When told that the 3-year-old was having seizures and was cold to the touch, Skeete asked Kimu Parker what kind of herbal medicines the girl had been given. Kimu replied that she had used an anti-spasmodic tincture of lobelia skunk cabbage about four hours earlier, Skeete later testified. Skeete told her to try it again.

Over the next hour or two, the Parkers called Skeete a few more times. At one point on the phone with Kimu, Skeete heard Blair in the background saying Zion was having a grand mal seizure. Skeete suggested a bath to warm her up.

Why she waited so long to tell the Parkers to call 911 when a child was having a serious medical problem is a mystery — she refused to talk about the issue with New Times. But Skeete finally urged the Parkers to seek outside help.

Hospital workers and police bore a heartbreaking sight when they laid eyes on Zion, who weighed 13 pounds.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.