MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Text messages read in court detailed the last days of a 15-year-old who authorities say was starved and tortured to death by his mother and elder brother, with the pair talking about withholding food from the victim, force-feeding him hot sauce and throwing cold water on him.

A Muskegon County judge on Wednesday decided there is enough evidence to send Shanda Vander Ark to trial for murder and child abuse in the death of Timothy Ferguson.

“The facts of this case are appalling,” Muskegon County Judge Maria Ladas Hoopes said. “The pictures, first of all, show a young man, still a boy, 15 years old, with his ribs showing almost as if there’s no skin on them anymore.”

She said he must have been suffering and experiencing intense pain.

“She (the defendant) is watching him intently to see the suffering that he is enduring,” the judge continued. “And the more he’d suffer, the more she’d say, ‘He’s faking it.'”

Timothy died July 6, 2022, in the Norton Shores home he shared with his mother, elder brother Paul Ferguson and younger brother. Muskegon County Medical Examiner Joyce DeJong testified that she ruled the death a homicide, saying Timothy died of “dehydration and extreme emaciation due to malnutrition and starvation.” She listed hypothermia as a significant contributing factor. She said the autopsy she conducted showed Timothy weighed 69 pounds at the time of his death. An average 15-year-old weighs around 130 pounds.

BROTHER: TEEN SLEPT ON TARP IN CLOSET

During Vander Ark’s preliminary hearing Wednesday, Paul Ferguson, 20, took the stand wearing a blue jail jumpsuit and shackled hand and foot. He is charged with child abuse in connection to his brother’s death and testified against his mother as part of a plea deal with prosecutors.

Ferguson said Timothy had autism with speech and motor impairment and that he and his mother set up their work schedules so one of them was home with Timothy most of the time. He said his mother would tell him what to feed Timothy. There were locks on the refrigerator door, photos entered into evidence showed. Ferguson said they were there to keep Timothy from stealing food.

Asked what Timothy was being fed in the weeks before his death, Ferguson replied, “bread with hot sauce or rice with hot sauce.” He described the burn of the hot sauce as “severely painful.” He said Vander Ark told him to give Timothy the hot sauce as punishment for “stealing food he didn’t need.” Ferguson said he tried to “hint” to his mother that Timothy needed more nutritious food.

“He didn’t deserve this,” Paul Ferguson said of Timothy.

Paul Ferguson testifies during his mother Shanda Vander Ark's preliminary hearing in Muskegon on Jan. 4, 2022.
Paul Ferguson testifies during his mother Shanda Vander Ark’s preliminary hearing in Muskegon on Jan. 4, 2023.

Timothy came to Vander Ark’s home in Norton Shores from their father’s house in Oklahoma in May 2021. At that time, he seemed to be a healthy weight, Ferguson said. Vander Ark’s husband suffered a medical condition in January 2022 and moved out of the home as a result. Sometime after that, Ferguson said, Timothy was made to sleep in a closet under the stairs.

“Similar to what you would probably find in ‘Harry Potter’ but smaller,” he said.

There was no furniture in the closet. Ferguson said his brother slept on a tarp on the floor.

“It had an overpowering odor of urine when I opened the door,” Norton Shores Police Department Detective Sgt. Joel Hoeksema said of the closet.

Ferguson said the door of the closet was equipped with an alarm to keep Timothy inside overnight and when neither Ferguson nor Vander Ark were home. Police photographed the alarm on July 6. Hoeksema said that when police returned to the home on July 7 to seize that alarm, it was missing. Vander Ark, who had not yet been charged, stayed in the home overnight, the detective sergeant said.

Under cross-examination, Fred Johnson, the Muskegon County chief public defender, questioned why Ferguson didn’t do anything when he could see that his brother was too thin.

“Did it not occur to you that he was dying?” Johnson said.

“No. I’m no doctor,” Ferguson replied.

He said his brother never asked him for help.

Ahead of Ferguson’s testimony, Vander Ark told her attorney that she was having a panic attack. Johnson asked for a short break so she could “recover herself.” The judge was skeptical.

“She seems perfectly fine,” Judge Ladas Hoopes said. “I’m just going to go forward. If we have further trouble, we will deal with it.”

TEXT MESSAGES: ‘HE IS FAKING’

Text messages pulled from Ferguson’s phone and his testimony revealed Vander Ark was monitoring her sons via surveillance cameras in the home while she was at work and could speak to them through the cameras. The texts also included detailed instructions from Vander Ark to Paul Ferguson about the tasks and chores she wanted him and Timothy to complete.

The texts, which were read aloud by a detective, outlined a history of dumping cold water on Timothy and making him take cold showers, and feeding him only bread, rice and bread with hot sauce on it.

“I know he’s thin,” a June 29, 2022, text from Vander Ark to Ferguson read. “That being said, he told me a week and a half ago that he wanted to be thin to make me feel bad for punishing him. You don’t get to grump at him for that, though. I already lit into him plenty for it.”

The pair talked about Timothy shaking and struggling to walk, but they dismissed those symptoms as fake.

“Timothy was doing his fake stumbling and falling last night, of course, so I decided to prove once again how fake it is,” a text sent early on July 5 from Vander Ark read. “I asked him if he can stop doing that, if he can eat a whole pizza by himself and he said yes, of course. And then I told him how obvious it was that it was fake and he had just proven that yet again. And of course he just looked down and didn’t respond.”

Paul Ferguson said his brother was ‘incoherent’ on July 5, the day before his death.

“He was incapable of moving, incapable of responding. He wasn’t speaking or anything,” Paul Ferguson said.

One text from Ferguson noted Timothy’s eyes were “glazed.”

Vander Ark wrote in the texts that she was determined to “outlast” Timothy.

“Do you honestly believe we should be worried?” one text from Vander Ark read.

“IDK. I’m just tired of him being such a nuisance,” Ferguson replied in the texts.

“Maybe force his mouth open and put some hot sauce in there considering everything he’s put us through,” one text from Vander Ark said.

In the texts, Vander Ark told Ferguson to keep Timothy awake by making sure he was uncomfortable and throwing cold water on him. Ferguson testified that on July 5, he put his brother in a cold bathtub, where Timothy stayed for as long as nine and a half hours. He said he wouldn’t have done it without his mother’s instructions.

“…I ended up dragging him back into his small room because I wasn’t going to risk having him access to the tub or other things overnight,” Vander Ark wrote at 11:49 p.m. on July 5. “He’s still trying to be stupid but I will tell you more tomorrow while I take you to work, describing how many different ways I proved that he is faking. He’s still doing it, though. It’s beyond ridiculous.”

Investigators told the court that the “small room” Vander Ark was referencing was the closet under the stairs.

On July 6 at 6:09 a.m., Vander Ark texted Ferguson that it was time to get up and told him to check on Timothy. Timothy died that morning at the home.

Muskegon County Chief Trial Attorney Matt Roberts argued the texts showed “depraved indifference by a mother to her child.” He said Vander Ark, who had passed the bar and was working as a legal clerk, knew what she was doing.

“She chose, chose, to essentially torture this child to death,” Roberts said. “…And Paul Ferguson was the arm, the extension of that.”

The public defender declined to make a final statement to the judge before she decided to bind Vander Ark over to trial.

“She is intently torturing her own child by starving him, by making him sleep on the floor when all he is is bones, by letting him not have access to food in the refrigerator, by putting him in ice baths when all he is is bones,” Judge Ladas Hoopes said. “And she wants to do it more each time he expresses some kind of quote-unquote fake response that she determines is unjustifiable. Those things alone show that she knowingly and intentionally caused serious physical harm to a child.”