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Stunned Prosecutors Remember 1980s Starvation Case

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TAYLOR -- One day after a mother and two adult daughters in Lackawanna County were charged with murder in the death of a family member with Down syndrome, a relative is speaking out, and law enforcement points out similarities between this case and a starvation case that many in Lackawanna County remember from 1984.

Susan Gensiak and her daughters Joan and Rebekah are locked up at the Lackawanna County prison facing third degree murder charges.

Prosecutors said Wednesday that this was the worst case of neglect they had ever seen, but did say it was similar to case from the 1980s when a couple from Lackawanna County were convicted of starving an elderly man who was in their care.

Police say Susan Gensiak and her daughters Joan and Rebekah kept their son and brother Robert - who had Down syndrome - closed in a room at their home in Taylor.

According to court papers, the trio let Robert starve and eventually die of a severe case of scabies, a contagious skin disease.

"This family, the mother and two sisters, basically let this young man rot to death," said Lackawanna County District Attorney Andy Jarbola on Wednesday.

Jarbola signed off on third degree murder charges for Susan, Joan, and Rebekah. He said this was the worst case of neglect he'd seen in his tenure as a prosecutor.

Robert Gensiak's fate reminded police and prosecutors of Joseph Kly.  In 1984, the elderly man was found starved to death inside a care facility in Scott Township.  Walter and Helen Pestinikas were charged with Kly's murder.  In court in 1987, prosecutors said Kly was literally skin and bone when he died.

The Gensiak's are accused of doing the same thing, but to one of their own. A look back in the Newswatch 16 archives shows Susan and Joan being interviewed for the Taste Test series. Mother and daughter were out shopping at Walmart in Taylor back in March when they tried a new granola bar for our cameras. This was about two weeks before Robert Gensiak died. At this moment, police say Robert was closed in a room, covered in scabies and starving.

“Not as sweet as what you would get with another granola bar. This one, I would pick out in a heartbeat,” said Joan Gensiak.

“It was good. It was really nutty and not too sweet and I love the chocolate part,” laughed Susan Gensiak.

Susan and Joan Gensiak left Walmart with a cart of groceries while prosecutors allege their son and brother was weeks away from dying. We spoke to a relative of the Gensiaks' who lost touch with the women. She was shocked, months later, to hear how Robert died.

"When I heard that he was 69 pounds, it hurt my heart. Why didn't they feed him? Look at the size of them."

She told us about who Robert Gensiak was before he died. She said he was an innocent and loving person, and though he was an adult, acted like a 5 year old.

His mother and sisters, Susan, Joan, and Rebekah are locked up in the Lackawanna County prison on more than $250,000 bail each.

Social service agencies say help is available for family members with special needs.