PISMO BEACH, Calif. (CN) – Tyler Jarvis knows he could eat himself to death, yet his uncontrollable hunger overrides his fear of dying – so much so that he faces felony burglary charges for a plot to get food.
His mother keeps two padlocks on their refrigerator and barricades her son inside their home at night. But in his endless quest for food, the 20-year-old man with a 10-year-old’s IQ has managed to break free on numerous occasions.
“He would leave my house and go to my neighbor’s and eat their food because he knows they don’t lock it up,” said his mother, Michelle Christian, of Pismo Beach.
In desperation last November, Jarvis broke into a stranger’s place farther from home, and the startled resident chased him off with a shovel. Now Jarvis faces three felony burglary charges.
While the prosecution says his actions pose a risk to himself and others, his mother thinks her son would be better off in a secure group home for people like him.
“This is life-long,” she said of her son’s condition. “You don’t fix it.”
Jarvis has a rare medical condition called Prader-Willi syndrome. A chromosomal disorder, it causes him to never feel satiated. In what seems like a cruel twist, his slow metabolism requires fewer calories – 1,400 a day compared with 2,400 for most adult men.
Unregulated, people with Prader-Willi can die a slow death from morbid obesity, or die suddenly from binge eating that can rupture their stomachs.
“Their brain is constantly and consistently consumed with how to get food,” said Lisa Graziano, executive director of the Prader-Willi California Foundation.
People with Prader-Willi will eat food out of dumpsters, food that is rotten or items that merely look like food, Graziano said. It’s not uncommon for them to resort to stealing food, she added, since their caregivers normally lock it up.
Eight thousand Americans are known to have the disorder, Graziano said, though many more are likely undiagnosed.
Jarvis was diagnosed at 6 weeks old.
“In the beginning, it’s failure to thrive,” said Christian, a single mother and hairdresser. “I had to set an alarm to feed him. He wouldn’t cry to eat.”
By preschool, his desire had become insatiable, causing Christian to lock up her food for her son’s health. And not just food in the fridge.
“Dog food, cat food, trash food,” she said.
The kitchen cabinets in Christian’s home are empty – dry foods are stored outside in a locked pantry. The doors to the house lock from both sides, and a 2-by-4 blocks a second-floor window near the kitchen.
Jarvis once escaped through that window, said his sister, 22-year-old Chelsea Jarvis, who lives with her brother and mother.
“He tried to Spider-Man out,” she said. “Tried to tie ropes, shoestrings, belts.”
While people with Prader-Willi syndrome have the mental capacity of elementary schoolchildren, Graziano said, they often are savant-like in their ability to get food.
In September 2014, Jarvis broke into two nearby homes and stole food, including frozen burritos and vanilla ice cream, according to a motion filed in San Luis Obispo Superior Court by his attorney, Raymond Allen. Police were called, but no charges were filed then.
While at a county-owned psychiatric facility later, another patient told Jarvis he could have all the food he wanted if he became homeless. So in November, Jarvis broke into another home, in the neighboring town Arroyo Grande, and stole items he figured he’d need to be homeless, including clothing, a sleeping bag, a backpack, $144 in cash and video games.
Jarvis spent six days in jail and was charged with three felony counts of residential burglary. If those felonies were alleged as “strike” offenses, he would get significant prison time should he re-offend: something his attorney says is almost inevitable without intervention.
“He is always in pursuit of food,” Allen said at the preliminary hearing, according to court transcripts. “He simply gets fixated in his head about food, and he does ridiculously immature things.”
His mother had been trying to find a group home for Jarvis, but since the disorder is so rare, finding a home that specializes in Prader-Willi has been difficult. Even psychiatric facilities don’t know how to handle people with the disorder, as she found out shortly after dropping her son off at a UCLA psychiatric ward.
“I fainted while there, and my mom was halfway home, and they called her and said I was passed out because I ate too much,” said Jarvis, whose demeanor is similar to a person with Down syndrome.
With the help of the Prader-Willi California Foundation, Christian did find a home specializing in Prader-Willi, in Riverside, but the home would not admit him with a criminal case pending.
“I think he’d be happy to live with other people with the same syndrome,” his mother said.
The county probation department agreed, writing in one court document, “Little is going to aid him aside from 24 hours supervision in a specialized program.”
But the prosecution has continued to pursue the case, expressing concerns over his repeated crimes and lack of remorse.
“The real fear for the People is that if this behavior continues, many more people are going to be victimized,” deputy district attorney Caryn Michaels argued at the preliminary hearing. “He’s entering homes in which people reside and, you know, no one knows what can happen if somebody’s in the house when he breaks in. It’s very dangerous behavior.”
Carolyn Murphy, a forensic psychologist hired by the defense, testified that Jarvis’s latest burglary represented a “childlike fantasy” to eat whatever he wanted.
As she interviewed Jarvis on the balcony of his home, he began to cry, she testified, because he could smell food that he wasn’t able to get to.
While Jarvis described his time in jail as “horrible,” incarceration might not be a deterrent, testified Kevin Perry, a forensic psychologist hired by the prosecution.
“He was frustrated about not having access to food, and he said he would do whatever he could, essentially (to) get more food, and he didn’t care if he had to go to jail again,” said Perry, who had interviewed Jarvis.
Despite the compulsion, Perry said, Jarvis had intent to commit crimes, which is problematic for the defense.
While the prosecution did not plan to pursue jail time, Christian doesn’t want her son to take a felony plea. But Lee Cunningham, assistant district attorney, said felony probation could require Jarvis stay in a group home. Otherwise, the stay could be voluntary, and the court could not compel him to remain.
Talks continue, however, and Christian hopes the prosecution will offer a misdemeanor plea by the time her son returns to court, Nov. 10.
A story about the case in the San Luis Obispo Tribune attracted the attention of the syndicated TV show “The Doctors,” which is planning to film a segment on Jarvis. And last weekend, Jarvis was allowed to do a trial run at the group home, which was successful, Christian said.
“He loved it,” she wrote in an email.
There were only two other Prader-Willi residents at the home, but over Halloween weekend residents from another Prader-Willi home visited, for a dance.
The house manager has experience with Prader-Willi, Christian said. The exits are protected by electronic keypads, and windows are rigged with alarms.
Her son could be moved into the home by Dec. 1, she said.
But she doesn’t want him going in as a felon.
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