Out of the Box

Her parents kept her prisoner in a storage unit, but words set Jodi Jill free.

In the winter, the children shoveled snow at the storage yard, clearing the entrances to hundreds of units. Again, they worked at night. "Our parents didn't want anyone to see us," she recalls, "because they told the owner they'd do the work."

No matter how bad things got, though, Jodi and her siblings never considered going for help.

"In some aspects, it was normal," she says. "We didn't know any different. We didn't have anything to compare it to. We didn't have anyone to tell. We had nowhere to go. We were afraid."

John Johnston
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.
John Johnston
Reading is fundamental: Jodi Jill with one of her sculptures.

Years later, after they'd left the shed, Jodi and a brother compiled a list of people who should have known something about their plight. One of the owners of Loveland Self Storage, who took his sons to Unit 151 for babysitting. The security guards, who stopped by for barbecues. The owners of a fireworks business that rented storage units a few yards away. The Burger King employees.

"If you have children who look like hell, smell like hell, and come in almost every afternoon, there's no way you can walk by and not suspect that something is wrong," Jodi says. "But no one did anything. No one said a word."

Bob Paul, a former manager at Loveland Self Storage, confirms that Jodi's family stayed in Unit 151 but says he didn't know anything about the living conditions. "They did spend some time out there. That's a true statement," he acknowledges. "I don't know the details. I was just the manager. I never went out back. I just collected the rent and took it to the bank, basically. I didn't get involved in what happened out back."

Nor did the business's owners.

"We had our suspicions, but we were never able to prove anything," says Jean Davis, whose husband is a partner in Loveland Self Storage. "They were in and out and in and out. But we never went down there at night. They rented it as a storage unit. If we'd been able to prove they lived there, they would have been evicted."

But neither she nor her husband ever opened Unit 151 to see for themselves. "You just can't go in there," she says. "When someone rents a unit, you can't go in there without due cause."

Toni Petersen, who rents space at Loveland Self Storage for a silk-screening business, remembers hearing rumors about the family. "I used to see a brown station wagon with all the kids inside, but I didn't know if they were renting or running a business or what," she says. "When I heard they were living there, I said, 'Aw, come on.' But it was possible. Very possible."

Joyce Snyder, who managed the Burger King they used to visit, remembers Jodi and her family.

"I knew who they were," she says. "They came in all the time. But they never talked about their personal life. The kids were quiet and well behaved. They seemed content. They were not as clean as other people, not as well kept, but they were nice people."

Ron Denton ran an automative service center next to Loveland Self Storage. He says he remembers Jodi's family "big time"; he even let them use land behind his shop for a small garden filled with tomatoes, squash and pumpkins. Often the parents would stop by to chat.

"They were extremely poor," he recalls. "As a family, they absolutely had no friends. I probably came as close to being a friend as anyone. I'd lend them money periodically. I guess they were kind of radical. Their beliefs and what they thought of society were pretty stretched. They were always complaining about what was happening with the government. I don't know if capitalism was a thing they believed in. I am almost totally positive there was never drugs or alcohol. It was just a strange way that they lived their lives."

Even though he knew that the family lived in the storage shed, Denton didn't consider reporting Jodi's parents to the authorities.

"I didn't go back there or nose around or anything," he says. "The kids never asked for help. They were very timid. I've always been one to let people do what they do. To each his own."

One day Jodi discovered a puppy outside of their shed, tied to the door handle of the station wagon. Beside the dog was a 25-pound bag of Alpo. Someone had left a gift for the grubby children. Jodi named the multicolored mutt Jingle, after "Jingle Bells."

The dog barked frequently, and the children had to fight to keep her. Remarkably, their parents relented, and Jingle became a rare bright spot in a bleak life. Jingle and Jodi were inseparable. They took walks, played ball, even shared dog biscuits.

"She was always there for me," Jodi says. "She was never angry. She always listened when life became overwhelming. When I gave her a kiss, I taught her to lick me back. And she always did. That meant a lot. She loved me."

Christmas was another exception to their daily pattern. The family decorated a sixteen-inch plastic tree and exchanged gifts -- usually socks, underwear and peanut brittle. Every so often, their grandparents sent toys and games, once even a thirteen-inch color TV. But if the gifts were expensive -- like the TV -- their parents would drive to Fort Collins and exchange them for cash.

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