Crawfordsville woman who survived abuse unlocks the past
The images are haunting: an emaciated two-year-old looks at the camera with fear in her eyes.
The pictures were taken at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health in 1995, days after Brandi Zachary was removed from her Crawfordsville home.
"This will never go away. This will never be right," said Dr. Roberta Hibbard, who kept the photos for 17 years. She's referring to one of the worst cases of neglect she has ever seen.
"This is a very, very serious form of maltreatment. She was very seriously malnourished and very seriously neglected," said Hibbard.
Now a young woman, Brandi Zachary is searching for the pieces that make up the timeline of her life missing for so many years. (Note: Zachary was Brandi's birth name, but she now uses a different last name.)
Eyewitness News was there when she was reunited with the physician who treated her when she was a child.
"I'm Dr. Hibbard. It's nice to meet you, sweetheart," said Hibbard, giving Brandi a hug.
She also met the Crawfordsville Police detective who took on her case,
"Brandi! How are you, kid? Look at you!" Detective Lieutenant Rick Wilson greeted her.
He remembers the case vividly because "it was an emotion-filled investigation."
For Brandi, who's now 19 years old, this is an opportunity to connect the dots of her childhood.
"I really just want to know everything I possibly can, because I really don't know much about it," she said.
The details are grim. Inside a small Crawfordsville home, along with an older brother, she was kept in a closet for at least a year. The top third of the door was sawed off for ventilation. Her parents locked the door from the outside. Inside there were two portable cribs lined with garbage bags.
Police said the space was dirty and reeked of urine and vomit.
"[The parents'] normal way of babysitting was putting Brandi…in the closet," said Det. Lt. Wilson.
Brandi's mother, Deanna Walden, then 24 years old, told police she worked nights and slept during the day. Brandi's father, William Zachary, 24 at the time, said he worked during the day and slept at night. So the children were kept in the locked closet day and night while their parents slept.
"When I read their excuses I laughed. I know that sounds strange, but I laughed because those are the worst excuses I've ever heard," said Brandi after reading the explanations in court documents submitted the day her parents were arrested.
But work schedules don't explain malnutrition.
"I can't believe that was me. I'm nothing," Brandi said, looking at those pictures at Riley Hospital of a gaunt, skinny toddler, with sunken eyes.
"You actually weighed what a four-and-a-half- or five-month-old baby should have weighed when you were two and a half," explained Dr. Hibbard to Brandi. "That's how skinny you were."
Brandi weighed just 14 pounds at 2 years, 7 months old.
"Shock, shock." That's what Det. Lt. Wilson recalls after seeing Brandi for the first time. "And a devotion to see the case to the end and to hold those responsible for what brought her to that station in life."
So Det. Lt. Wilson built a case against Brandi's parents. At two and a half, Brandi couldn't walk or talk. She hadn't seen a doctor since she was six months old and she'd been underfed for at least a year. Asked if he had ever seen a case of abuse or neglect this bad, the veteran detective said, "Not...no, no. Quite simply no. Particularly with an easier fix. Just feed the kid."
Once at Riley, under supervised medical care, Brandi gained nearly two pounds in just nine days.
While she heard about her early childhood in general terms, the details of malnutrition and neglect were all new to Brandi.
"That really shocked me," she said.
And pouring over court documents, she learned about the person who may be the reason she's alive.
Just days later, 13 Investigates reunited her with Dean Balaz, a friend and co-worker of her biological father 17 years ago.
"Hi Brandi. My name is Dean. It's been a long time. Oh, my goodness...oh my goodness," he said as the two hugged.
At the time, Dean knew his friend had children, but never saw them when he visited the house. Excuses were given that the kids were always sleeping. But after demanding to see them, eventually, Brandi was brought out.
"She was skinny. Horribly skinny, like a concentration camp skinny," he said.
So he called Child Protective Services to report the neglect.
"I don't think anybody, if they knew," said Balaz, "could not do something".
Brandi's biological father and mother were both convicted of felony neglect. William Zachary served two years of a four-year sentence. Deanna Walden served one year of a two-year sentence.
Brandi hasn't had contact with them since she was a toddler. Even after it all, their daughter harbors no anger.
"God did this for a reason," explained Brandi. "And so now I'm here to try to share my story and help other children. That's why he made sure that it happened to me. He knew I could live through it."
At more than a dozen foster homes, pictures of a healthy, smiling child show her celebrating Christmas and Easter. There were Halloween costumes, birthday parties and her first bicycle. She was adopted, gained a new last name, and positive attitude. After graduating high school with honors, she's now majoring in psychology, hoping to help children in need. Her goal is to spread the word that speaking up about abuse and neglect can make all the difference.
"I just think there needs to be more people out there like [Dean Balaz] that are willing to take that risk if they think something bad is going on," she said.
Brandi thanked Dean personally, "It means the world to meet you."
"Means a lot," Balaz said, choking up. "Same here. I'm so glad to meet you."
Brandi is not just achieving now. She's excelling. She'll finish an undergraduate degree in just two years. She's accomplishing this while being legally blind, a lingering effect of the neglect she endured.
Dr. Hibbard says her team evaluates around 2,000 cases a year of suspected maltreatment of children. She says it's important to report suspected abuse so that professionals can evaluate what's going on. Here is a list of resources:
Abuse Hotline: 1-800-800-5556