I'm looking for advice from some senior members on what to do here
After much troubleshooting & updates I was able to reproduce the problem entirely on a fresh new database. It truly was a bug/error, nothing was wrong on my end.
Since it is a bug, I realize now that the question will never have an answer unless the bug is fixed.
I don't want to delete it though, in case anyone else runs into same issue. In fact, while doing more research I continually saw my own question here on SharePoint Stack Exchange come up in the top search results.
Is it okay to leave a question unanswered? If this will affect the Question:Answer ratio here at SP.SE I'd be happy to delete the question. I have a blog I could post my findings at, so they would not be lost.