A Pismo Beach man, whose rare genetic disorder compelled him to commit burglaries for food out of uncontrollable hunger, avoided a felony conviction Tuesday after accepting a plea deal from the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office.
Tyler Jarvis, 20, pleaded no contest to five misdemeanors, including counts of petty theft, aggravated trespass and attempted trespass. Under the conditions of his plea, he will receive no jail time and three years of probation if he enrolls in a group home for people with his disorder, which he is expected to do some time after Nov. 21.
Jarvis has a rare chromosomal disorder called Prader-Willi syndrome. Because of the disorder, Jarvis has a constant sensation of hunger, a life-threatening medical condition that compels him to constantly seek food.
Although his mother locks up their edibles to prevent Jarvis from eating himself to death, his insatiable appetite drove him to seek food elsewhere, his defense attorney said.
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Last fall, Jarvis entered three different homes, stealing food and items he would need to live on his own, including a sleeping bag, a backpack and cash. Jarvis, who has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old, said he believed he could eat as much as he wanted if he were homeless.
His mother, Michelle Christian, had been seeking a group home for her son for the past four years, she said. But because the disorder is so rare, finding one that specialized in Prader-Willi syndrome was difficult. And once she did find one, the pending criminal case interfered with her efforts.
Although she hoped the case would be dropped, the District Attorney’s Office expressed concern that Jarvis would commit more burglaries, endangering himself and the victims. He initially faced three felonies for residential burglaries.
In court, before he formally entered his plea, Jarvis grew impatient — and hungry.
“I want this to be done, so I can get home for a snack,” he told his mother.
When the hearing began, Deputy District Attorney Caryn Michaels said the plea was a “fair and responsible disposition for all parties involved.”
Christian had hoped for a deal with no probation — fearing her son could end up in jail if he commits another food-related crime — but defense attorney Raymond Allen said he was pleased with the outcome.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s not a tragedy either,” Allen said.
Christian said she fears her son would die in jail, where staff would not know how to respond to his disorder.
After The Tribune featured Jarvis’ case in October, plea negotiations intensified. The prosecution, which initially insisted on a felony conviction, eventually restructured the charges to allow Jarvis to plead to misdemeanors.
In a news release issued after the hearing, District Attorney Dan Dow said the probation time will ensure that Jarvis does not leave his group home early.
“Here, we were very concerned with both the safety of the community from the crime of residential burglary, as well as finding an appropriate resolution that takes into account Mr. Jarvis’ genetic disorder that directly contributed to his criminal conduct,” Dow said. “This is an extremely rare fact pattern, and I am pleased that we were able to achieve an opportunity for Mr. Jarvis to enter a group home.”
Prader-Willi syndrome was discovered by researchers at a Swiss hospital in 1956. Only about 8,000 Americans are known to have it and those with the disorder typically have low muscle tone, short stature, low IQ and obsessive thinking. They have a low threshold for pain, body temperature abnormalities and a permanent sensation of hunger.
Jarvis stayed in the group home on a trial basis Halloween weekend. He attended a dance there, dressed as a “Ghostbusters” character and met others with his syndrome, he said. Christian said there will eventually be four residents in the Riverside home, including her son, and three staffers at all times. The kitchen to the home is locked, Christian said. Meanwhile, doors and windows are connected to alarms that will sound if a resident attempts to sneak out.
Christian, who has spent much of the past 20 years regulating her son’s diet and preventing him from escaping, said she is relieved he will have help from professionals.
“He’s going to be safe and, I think, happier there,” she said. “It’s too much for one person to do on their own.”
Jarvis said he’s excited to be with people he can relate to.
“I’m gonna do great there,” he said after the hearing. “I already know.”
Christian said the criminal case did help raise awareness of Prader-Willi syndrome.
She said, “People don’t understand the syndrome.”