From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
FOR TAJ, TARYLL AND T.J. JACKSON, childhood didn't play itself out like a scene from Valley of the Hollywood Brats. Far from it. Tito Jackson's sons, whose circle of famed relatives includes Uncle Michael and Aunt Janet, say they enjoyed a downright normal upbringing. "Our parents were strict when they needed to be, and they trusted us," Taj (born Tariano) says of Tito and Delores Martes Jackson, who divorced in 1993 after 21 years of marriage. "My mom made sure that we had a real childhood, with birthday parties, baseball, family outings, all that stuff."

Thus grounded, the "three T's," as their mother fondly called her sons, were preparing to launch their own singing group, 3T, last year when their family was struck by tragedy. On Aug. 27, 1994, between recording sessions for their debut album, Brotherhood, Taj, now 22, Taryll, 20, and TJ. (Tito Joseph), 17, received a predawn phone call from the daughter of their mother's boyfriend who said Delores had been in an accident. Hoping she wasn't seriously injured, the boys arrived at the Daniel Freeman Memorial Hospital in Inglewood, Calif., and asked her doctor how she was doing. "She's dead," he replied tersely.

Shocked and grief-stricken, the brothers at first did not contest preliminary findings that their mother's death was accidental. The boyfriend, L.A. businessman Donald Bohana, 59, told police that he and Delores, 39, had been swimming that night at his house in Ladera Heights. After going into the house briefly, Bohana told investigators, he returned to find Delores's body at the bottom of the pool. But three months later her sons' growing suspicions about the circumstances of her death—their mother, they knew, could not swim—were confirmed when the L.A. County district attorney's office reopened the case following a coroner's report that numerous contusions, lacerations and abrasions found on her body suggested she was the victim of a "non-accidental...assisted drowning."

Frustrated because the district attorney's office has yet to prosecute the case, the Jackson family filed a wrongful death suit against Bohana in August, a year after Delores's death. "It's plain to see that it was more than a simple drowning," says Tito of the suit, which details 58 injuries suffered by Delores, including fingernail gouges found on her breasts. "My sons came to me and said, 'Dad, don't let him get away with this.' "

In the suit the Jacksons hypothesize that Bohana, a Denny's restaurant franchise-holder who had filed for Chapter 13 in April, beat and then drowned Dolores, whom he'd been dating for nine months, when she refused to help him out of his financial difficulties. Bohana's attorney Nelson Atkins says his client denies the Jacksons' allegations, maintaining that Delores suffered her injuries as Bohana pulled her from the pool while trying to rescue her. For the sons, filing the suit (the case is expected to go to court in about two years) has helped them cope with their loss. "We want to make sure justice is done," says Taj. "Our mother was everything to us."

Born in New York City to Dominican parents who split when she was a baby, Delores met Tito when the two were Fairfax High School sophomores in L.A., where Delores had moved with her mother and three sisters in 1968. The couple married in 1972, when the Jackson 5 was at the height of its success. She insisted that her sons receive a well-rounded education—all three attended L.A.'s exclusive Buckley School, where they excelled in sports and made the National Honor Society. And she restrained their early enthusiasm for pursuing music careers. "She saw what the Jacksons had to endure to be successful," says Tito. "She knew how dedicated the boys would have to become."

The family business nonetheless held a strong allure for the brothers. "My dad has footage of us as little kids singing to the music of the Jackson 5," says Taj. "T.J. was still in diapers, holding a microphone, trying to dance and sing, and he couldn't even talk yet." The boys' uncle Michael also exerted a strong influence. "He's been here for us since day one, whether helping with school or problems with friends," says Taryll. "He's like a third parent to us."

As the boys got older, they accompanied their famous aunt and uncle on tour and accepted generous helpings of career advice. Besieged by fans after one concert, Michael turned to his nephews and said, "Are you sure you want to do this?" Says Taj: "In the end, it inspired us."

Despite their musical ambitions, the brothers are determined to continue their education. Taryll, the first member of the Jackson family to attend college, and Taj both go to L.A.'s Loyola Marymount University, while T.J., now a senior at Buckley, maintains a 3.5 grade-point average. Between studies, they began work on their debut album, only to be interrupted by their mother's tragic death. Says Taj: "We didn't have any incentive to sing anymore. Our mom was the fourth T. She was our inspiration, and she was gone."

After living with their mother in Sherman Oaks following their parents' divorce, the brothers moved into Tito's Hidden Hills home after her death. "It was tough for them, especially at first," says T.J.'s Buckley classmate Anthony Schiller (son of producer Lawrence Schiller, who collaborated on O.J. Simpson's I Want to Tell You). "I'd look over at T.J., and his eyes would just tear up. Everything changed for him."

T.J. found comfort in his relationship with girlfriend Kim Kardashian, the 15-year-old daughter of O.J. Simpson's lawyer Robert Kardashian and his former wife Kris Jenner. "We became extra close when my mom passed away," T.J. says. "She dropped everything to be with me." At the same time, Taryll and Taj took off a semester from Loyola and gradually came to the conclusion that rather than abandon the career that their mother, who acted as 3T's manager, had encouraged, they should carry on.

Last year the brothers returned to the studio to continue working on Brotherhood, which they completed last July and dedicated to their mother. The album's first single, "Anything," a Billboard Top 40 pop hit, was described by one reviewer as "reminiscent of the Jackson 5"—no shocker given that three of the cuts were produced by Michael and the title song includes harmonies by uncles Marlon, Jackie and Jermaine, as well as Tito. "Our mom loved Brotherhood," says Taj of the song about filial loyalty they were recording when she died. "We realized she would have wanted us to finish it. And we realized we could do it for her."

STEVE DOUGHERTY
LORENZO BENET in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Lorenzo Benet.