Diet From Hell

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Out of about 300 potential jurors, not "one really thin person" was chosen by trial attorneys as a juror, said panel member Vanessa May.

Juror Don Rennaker says, "I'm heavy. That doesn't have anything to do with it."

Rennaker, who turned 70 this year, says he knows obesity is harmful. After trouble with his heart in 2000, his doctor told him to shed some pounds.

He says he decided Kimu Parker's chief motive in starving the kids was "She was never going to have a fat child."

The evidence against Kimu Parker was "absolutely damning," he says. "There's no way you could get past those pictures" of the painfully skinny children.

Asked whether Kimu deserves 30 years in prison for the crime, Rennaker says, "I was hoping it would be more than that."

May, however, a 23-year-old Phoenix hairstylist with no children, says she had some regret over the verdict after finding out about the mother's mandatory sentence. May says she believes Kimu used the diet to keep the kids fit, but she should have called a doctor if she thought her kids had malabsorption syndrome.

"Just because those are your beliefs, that doesn't mean it's right," May says.

The Parkers' older children, Michaela and Caleb, mostly adhere to their parents' vegan beliefs, even though they no longer are in Kimu and Blair's custody. After the parents' arrest in April 2005, the state was careful to place the Parker children with a vegetarian foster family. Possibly, prosecutors wanted to make sure that future jurors — and the public — knew the case was about child abuse, not veganism. Prosecutor Frankie Grimsman refused to talk to New Times.

But there was also the matter of the older children's food preferences.

The three children stayed at Phoenix Children's Hospital for more than a month after they were admitted, even though one paramedic testified that the older kids didn't need hospitalization. The parents spent about two months in jail after their arrests, so the hospital stay was probably the best way to keep the kids together while an appropriate foster family was found.

Polly Thomas, a hospital social worker, said at the trial that staff went shopping for the kids to make sure they had the special grains and spices they enjoy. Thomas said Michaela would special-order vegan food from the cafeteria, with help from the PCH nutrition department, then add lots of tasty spices.

"There were always wonderful smells from that corner of the unit," Thomas said.

The food may have been similar to home-cooking for the kids, but there was more of it.

Thomas said Michaela showed her the size of the meals she would get at home, hoping to demonstrate that she and her siblings weren't deprived. But the portions looked way too small to the social worker.

After getting more substantial portions for a few weeks, the children "started to fill out — Michaela said her legs were getting fat," Thomas stated. "All the children went straight up on the growth chart during their hospital stay."

The hospital staff found the kids intelligent and personable. Caleb tore through the books on the hospital library's shelves, and workers bought him more. Michaela turned 12, and the staff threw her a birthday party — the girl said it was her first ever.

The state eventually placed the children with Paulette and Larry Russell, a psychologist and dentist with children of their own. The couple seemed perfect to CPS; they're black, vegetarian and have a close family member who's a Seventh Day Adventist.

Paulette Russell testified that her family does not eat meat but does not eschew milk, eggs or products containing such ingredients, like bread.

Though the Parker kids were getting enough to eat, finally, they must have feared that the situation could change at any moment. At the hospital and at home with the Russells, the older children hoarded food. The Russells sometimes found a box of cereal or a bag of chips hidden in the children's room.

Under the Russells' care, Michaela gained 45 pounds, Caleb gained 28 pounds and little Zion gained 38 pounds.

Showing a picture of the new Zion to Russell and the jury, the prosecutor asked whether the girl was, in fact, now chubby.

"Yes, she's chubby," Paulette Russell said, smiling.

The jury burst out in relieved laughter — Zion was one of them now.

Although the Parker children apparently are recovered, they may still have health problems later in life stemming from malnourishment.

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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.