The school nurse sent Jessie home sick from Lockport High School on Friday, March 1. By the following Monday, the 19-year-old special education student was dead on the floor of his bedroom.
When police arrived at the home to investigate, they noticed troubling signs right away. They saw a dead bolt on the door leading to the upstairs bedrooms. The locks on the bedroom doors had been reversed so that they were on the outside.
Inside the bedrooms were portable commodes and rolls of toilet paper. Yet down the hall was a fully functioning bathroom.
Jessie was so weak from repeated bouts of diarrhea, he had to rely on his two developmentally disabled brothers to clean him up.
Throughout the four days, Jessie languished, drinking water, not eating and slowly dying. Police were upset to learn none of the three adults in the house, including his adoptive parents who had taken him in a decade earlier, had sought medical attention for him.
What happened inside the Cape Cod house on Lincoln Avenue in Lockport?
Four investigations are now under way to determine how Jessie died.
At the same time, a custody battle for Jessie’s two surviving adopted brothers, who like him are developmentally disabled, is making its way through a Lockport courtroom where their fate will be decided in the coming months.
“The only thing I can confirm is that there is a police investigation in conjunction with investigations by Niagara County Social Services’ adult protective division, the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office, and New York State,” Lockport Detective Capt. Richard Podgers said.
And as these agencies scrutinize the adoptive parents, Joy and John Dziomba, along with their older daughter, Corinna Lambert, their attorney says they are cooperating.
“I can tell you that they have always wanted what is best for their boys, and I believe we have cooperated with the authorities since Jessie’s death,” attorney Thomas J. Caserta said.
The Dziombas did not comment for this story, despite repeated efforts to reach them at their residence, a white house with blue shutters and a glider swing on the front lawn.
On one visit by The Buffalo News, Lambert answered the door but refused to answer questions on why medical help was not obtained for Jessie.
Caserta added that the parents are “distraught” over mischaracterizations of them.
“Their plan was to take him to the doctor on Monday morning if he was not better,” he said. “Clearly this is a tragic incident with my clients losing their beloved son.”
In piecing together what happened to Jessie and how he and his brothers ended up a family broken apart, The News interviewed 10 individuals involved in adult and child protective services, law enforcement, school officials and neighbors of the Dziombas, and obtained a copy of a state report on Jessie’s death assembled by an investigator trained to look into alleged misdeeds against the developmentally disabled.
A safe haven
Jessie and his brother Joshua had a difficult early life. As a toddler, Jessie witnessed his father die of a heart attack in 1998. He and Joshua were removed the same year from their mother’s home after child protective services determined the boys were being neglected. They then moved from one foster home to another and, at one point, were even separated.
The brothers were classified as developmentally impaired. Joshua lacked the ability to read and Jessie struggled with neurological disabilities brought on by his exposure to lead paint.
In April 2007, the Dziombas adopted them, after having first taken them in as foster children. The Dziombas also took in another developmentally disabled boy, Elijah, and he, too, was later adopted by them. A celebration to mark the adoption of Jessie, 13 at the time, and Joshua, 17, was held at the Lockport site of Hillside Family of Agencies, the nonprofit organization that had arranged the permanent placement.
Joy Dziomba told the hometown newspaper covering the party that her maternal instincts had gotten her into foster care more than a decade earlier. She spoke of her heart wanting to give these children a chance in life, noting many come from abused and neglected backgrounds.
She also spoke of how Joshua, the older of the two brothers, was starting to show improvement in his school work. He was in high school and could spell his name.
Corinna Lambert, who had followed in her parents’ footsteps of caring for children in need of a home, spoke of experiencing fulfillment by becoming a foster mom and adopting three children.
Hillside officials, who at the gathering were promoting their new facilities on Stevens Street, said children from troubled backgrounds stood to benefit when placed in homes that provided a sense of permanency. To help the youngsters, often with emotional and behavioral issues, succeed, Hillside provided a range of support services, from parenting classes to counseling.
An effort to seek justice for what had caused Jessie’s developmental disabilities, exposure to lead paint, also proved successful. A few years ago, the lawsuit ended in a structured settlement award of about $200,000.
Soon after the first payment was made, the Dziombas in November 2011 purchased a house at 170 Lincoln Ave. in Lockport, making a down payment of $41,000 and taking out a mortgage for $144,000 on the $185,000 home, according to real estate records. In May 2012, they sold their Saybrook Avenue house in North Tonawanda for $124,700.
Now that Jessie has died, what will become of the balance from that $200,000?
Caserta says his clients will wait and see what happens in court “to determine how to claim and divide the proceeds.”
Lambert, 46, moved into the Lincoln Avenue home last year to help her parents, Joy, 65, and John, 66, who both had medical problems. Meanwhile, Lambert’s three adopted children were placed in residential treatment facilities, though they were allowed to visit and stay overnight at the home, authorities said.
Lambert also was in the process of adopting a fourth child, a 3-year-old boy, and opened her parents’ home to him, his infant sister and the children’s biological mother, according to a statement she gave to state and Niagara County investigators.
Joshua, who had completed schooling, was in charge of sweeping the floors, emptying the dishwasher, taking out the garbage and caring for the family’s two dogs, “Pierre” and “Maggie.” He also assisted in watching the infant.
Jessie and Elijah probably could have walked a few minutes to neighboring Lockport High School, several hundred feet away from their new home, but instead they often took a school bus. Because of their status as special education students, they qualified for the transportation, a school official said.
But because they were the last stop on the bus route in the late afternoon following participation in after-school programs, the youngsters often did not return home until well past 5 p.m., said another official looking into the treatment of the brothers.
Gnawing hunger and incarceration
In the home, the Dziombas forbade their three adopted sons – Jessie, Joshua and Elijah – from opening the refrigerator and helping themselves to food, investigators learned.
Elijah, 17, was sometimes so hungry he would climb out a bedroom window using tied sheets and sneak off to a nearby store and steal food, sometimes with Jessie, the investigators also learned.
When Lambert’s adopted son Tyler visited, he too slipped out the window with Elijah.
But when Lambert found out about the shoplifting raids for food, she glued shut the bedroom window, authorities said.
Authorities remain puzzled why the boys were so hungry.
It wasn’t as if the Dziombas were poor or on a tight budget.
The couple, over the years, received Niagara County stipends that amounted to more than $40,000 annually for foster and adoptive care. Niagara County pays $42 per day, per child for special needs youngsters in Jessie and Elijah’s age range. The rate for children in the same age range without special needs is $25. The county stopped its payments for Joshua two years ago when he turned 21.
After the two surviving sons were removed from the Lincoln Avenue house following Jessie’s death, their new foster care home guardians told officials the boys were “eating machines for the first two weeks.”
Joshua and Elijah “were gaunt, but now they are thriving,” one official told The News.
But it wasn’t just concerns over whether adequate nourishment was provided that led to the removal of the surviving brothers. It was the locks on the doors and conflicting explanations.
Lambert told police that when her parents purchased the house, the locks were on backwards and that they never locked the brothers in their rooms.
Yet Joshua told investigators Lambert was the one who changed the position of the locks.
Police refuse to comment, calling the death of Jessie an active criminal investigation. But The News confirmed that detectives checked with the former owner of the Lincoln Avenue house, who denied ever switching the position of door locks or installing the dead bolt on the door leading up to the second floor.
Lack of ready access to bathrooms also played into the decision to remove the brothers.
Only Lambert was allowed to use the second floor bathroom, and her parents used the one on the first floor, although the three boys were permitted to shower in it, authorities said.
And, they were allowed to use a bathroom in an attached garage, authorities said.
Authorities would later come to the conclusion that the brothers were locked in their rooms at times and that was why portable commodes were placed in them.
“It was like these brothers were in prison cells for God’s sakes. They couldn’t get out to the bathroom. That’s why they had those commodes,” said an official, who has personal knowledge of the four different investigations into the March 4 death of Jessie.
Jessie’s final day
Lockport High School principal Frank Movalli knew Jessie and Elijah, and he is disturbed by what happened.
“It’s a disheartening story,” Movalli said. “On one of the last few days before Jessie died, I saw him bounding through the cafeteria with his brother Elijah on their way to breakfast. I told him to stop running. He was energized and fun loving and yet shy.”
The day Jessie left school sick, he did not take the bus, authorities said. A member of the family was called and went to the high school and brought him home.
Jessie had told his special education teacher he was not feeling well. When it was suggested that he go to the school nurse, he resisted.
“He was asked why, and Jessie said because his parents told him he was not allowed to go to the nurse. But procedures were followed, and he was taken to the nurse’s office,” said a social worker involved in the case.
An investigative report compiled after Jessie’s death by the state’s Office for People With Developmental Disabilities stated:
“Either dad or sister picked Jessie up from school the day he came home sick. Jessie said he felt bad, went up to his bedroom.”
Lambert and Joshua, the report added, provided Jessie with cups of water throughout the weekend.
“Jessie did not ask for anything besides the water. Jessie stayed in the bedroom all weekend. He had diarrhea down his legs, toes and the cot. He was sick. Jessie did not take a shower. Corinna told him [Josh] and Eli to clean it up because if she did, she would puke. Mom and dad did not go upstairs when Jessie was sick. Jessie stayed in his bedroom the whole time,” the report stated in quoting Joshua.
The report also noted that no one checked to see if Jessie had a fever. Why?
The family did not own a thermometer.
On Monday, March 4, Lambert entered Jessie’s room and found him dead on the floor. She went downstairs and alerted her mother who “ran up the stairs,” the report stated.
An autopsy determined Jessie had wasted away from the flu and a bacterial infection. He had also suffered repeated attacks of diarrhea over the four days he spent incapacitated in his bedroom, authorities said.
Of Jessie’s illness, the report determined:
“The evidence gathered thus far indicates his condition did not improve and his family did not seek medical attention. The allegation of neglect appears to be substantiated. …”
Officials at Hillside in Lockport declined to discuss the Dziombas or Jessie’s death, though a spokesman said, “We believe that the safety and security of our clients and staff is our most important priority.” Federal and state confidentiality laws barred them from speaking about this specific case, the spokesman said.
Battling for custody
If county and state officials have their way, Joshua and Elijah will not be going back to Joy and John Dziomba.
They have filed petitions asking State Supreme Court Judge Richard C. Kloch Sr. to appoint legal guardians to watch over Elijah and determine whether Joshua can live on his own.
Caserta, the Dziombas’ lawyer, is fighting to return the brothers to his clients and says that all three brothers received “wonderful care.” He provided this contrasting account to what authorities have so far determined:
“While it is true that Jessie did come home sick early from school on March 1, he was cared for by his mom on that day. She determined that he seemed to have the flu, but he was not in distress. She fed him and placed him in bed checking on him all evening.
“On Saturday, they had planned to celebrate their anniversary by a day out. She determined he was still sick but still not in distress and continued with their planned day. They came home that evening instead of staying in Buffalo and spoke with Corinna who related the events of the day. Jessie seemed ill but still not in distress.”