WRIGHTSTOWN, Wis. — A Wisconsin couple is being held on suspicion they intentionally starved and abused their 5-year-old son, who weighed just 29 pounds when he was admitted to a hospital in April.
Bradley and Kimberly Fahrenkrug of Wrightstown were charged Monday in Brown County Circuit Court with first degree reckless injury, causing mental harm to a child, first degree recklessly endangering safety, child neglect resulting in great bodily harm and false imprisonment.
A prosecutor said the couple's abuse of the boy resulted in several visits to hospitals since October 2016 for malnutrition and “refeeding syndrome” — a condition in which the body experiences metabolic disturbances from the reintroduction of nutrients from food after previously being in starvation mode.
Brown County Sheriff's Office investigators became involved in the case after they were contacted by American Family Children's Hospital in Madison, where the boy was being treated for malnutrition.
When he was admitted to the hospital April 6, the boy weighed just 29 pounds, putting him in the 0.08 percentile on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's growth chart and at risk for heart failure.
Barbara Knox, a physician and child abuse expert at Children's Hospital, told investigators that the boy had experienced the “most egregious example of child starvation and torture” that she has seen, according to the criminal complaints.
According to the criminal complaints, the couple's other children told investigators that the parents made the boy wear a helmet, a compression vest, flippers and a backpack filled with weights, and forced him to "march" and perform other exercises, and was only allowed to have small amounts of food, mostly soup. Meanwhile his siblings could eat and do as they pleased.
The boy was also often "swaddled" in a crib, so he wouldn't be able to get out and get food, according to court documents.
The parents claimed the vest, flippers and backpack were recommended by a doctor to strengthen the boy's legs. They also said the boy had stopped eating and denied withholding food from the boy, the complaints state.
Brown County Assistant District Attorney Wendy Lemkuil called those claims "unfounded."
However, the couple told authorities and the child's doctors that the boy refused to eat and threw tantrums. The helmet was necessary because he hurt himself during his tantrums, the couple told investigators.
Staff at the hospital and the foster parents that he lived with after release from the hospital described the boy as “sweet, polite and very normal." They told investigators he never refused food.
The Fahrenkrugs' lawyer argued for a lower bond, citing the couple's lack of criminal histories and that they voluntarily brought the child to the hospital to get him help.
But the complaint states that Kimberly Fahrenkrug would get angry at hospital staff whenever they gave her son food. Staff also saw her not give the boy food and walk out of the room when he told her he was hungry.
She told hospital staff and investigators she believed her son manipulated her and others in order to get a "vacation" at the hospital, the complaint states.
If convicted of all charges, the parents each face up to 68 years in prison. Their next court appearance is July 25.