Missouri AG recommends charges in reform school case. But it’s up to local prosecutor

·6 min read

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office has recommended charges in the months-long investigation into abuse allegations against Agape Boarding School, The Star has learned.

But the Cedar County prosecuting attorney has final say on whether to move ahead in filing those charges. That decision could take weeks, the prosecutor told The Star on Friday, because he has yet to review all the evidence.

The AG’s office was called in to help the southwest Missouri prosecutor with the case but has yet to hear from him on what he plans to do next.

“We’ve presented our recommendations, including specific charges and have not received written confirmation either way,” said Chris Nuelle, a spokesman with the AG’s office. “The Attorney General’s Office is prepared to go forward with charges, but we’re awaiting word from the Cedar County Prosecutor’s Office.”

Cedar County Prosecuting Attorney Ty Gaither told The Star Friday morning that he received the final investigative report from the Missouri Highway Patrol this week. But he said it will take time to complete his review of the information.

“We are in the process of reviewing the audio interviews and written summaries to determine if any charges are warranted,” Gaither said in an email. “At our request the Office of the Attorney General has assisted in the investigation of this matter. I have a meeting scheduled in late August with the Assistant Attorney Generals and the Lead Investigator from the Highway Patrol. I plan to have my review completed before then.“

Former students and child advocates are anxious to see if charges will be filed. Many men who attended Agape in their youth told The Star they were subjected to physical restraints, extreme workouts, long days of manual labor, and food and water withheld as punishment. And, they said, former students endured constant berating and mind games and some were sexually abused by staff and other youth.

The Missouri Highway Patrol confirmed earlier this week that it had completed its investigation. Capt. John Hotz, a patrol spokesman, said “the investigation has been presented to the Cedar County Prosecutor’s Office and the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.”

Hotz said any other details would have to come from those two departments.

Agape officials have not responded to questions from The Star for any of the multiple stories it has published. Last fall, the school posted a lengthy letter on its website that was directed at parents in response to The Star’s Nov. 8 report on the facility that detailed some of the alleged abuse. Leaders denied the allegations of former students and defended their program and employees.

“We on staff at Agape aren’t perfect, nor are the staff of any such program — sometimes we make mistakes, but our hearts are in the right place,” the response said. “We desperately want to help these boys, and we do for most boys who come here. Most boys flourish here and go on to a great future, while a small number of other boys are just not the right fit and get bitter for being brought here.”

Located just outside Stockton, Agape is the second unlicensed Christian boarding school in the state to be investigated in recent months for allegations of abuse.

The Missouri Highway Patrol began conducting a criminal investigation in late February. On March 22, Gov. Mike Parson approved a request from Gaither to appoint the Attorney General’s Office to assist him in the Agape investigation.

The week before the Attorney General’s Office became involved in the case, the Highway Patrol executed a search warrant at Agape. An employee had called authorities and said staff members were destroying records that would document the abuse of students, according to a warrant request obtained by The Star.

Circle of Hope Girls Ranch near Humansville — also in Cedar County — was closed last year after authorities removed about two dozen students during an investigation into abuse and neglect allegations.

In March, the attorney general charged owners Boyd and Stephanie Householder, and now the couple awaits trial on 100 criminal counts — all but one are felonies — including statutory rape, sodomy and physical abuse and neglect. Both have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bond.

For the Circle of Hope case, Gaither said he told the AG’s office it could take the lead on “charges, trial and disposition.”

“They have done an excellent job on Circle of Hope and will be of invaluable assistance if charges are brought on the Agape investigation,” Gaither said in an email to The Star.

Agape, where Boyd Householder worked for several years before opening Circle of Hope, is one of more than a dozen reform schools that operate in Missouri, where there has been no state oversight because of a nearly 40-year-old law that exempts faith-based facilities. The Star has been investigating the schools since last summer.

News that the Attorney General’s Office is recommending charges comes a week after Parson signed into law a measure that will — for the first time — give the state some oversight over such boarding schools. The proposal received overwhelming support in the legislature this session.

Agape opened in Missouri in 1996 after leaving two other states where it was scrutinized or investigated, The Star revealed. Former students said the owners were attracted to Missouri because of its lack of oversight and viewed the state as “The Promised Land.”

Many also said they tried to get local authorities’ attention over the years to alert them to the abuse they said was taking place at Agape. Some said they ran away to seek help from the sheriff’s department, only to be driven right back to the school.

The Star found close ties between Agape and law enforcement in Cedar County. At least two county deputies, including former Agape student Robert Graves — son-in-law of Agape owner James Clemensen — have worked at the school. The deputy also is listed in current state corporation documents as a board member of Agape Baptist Church, which oversees the school.

Other part-time and full-time sheriff’s employees have connections to Agape as well, The Star found. They include Agape’s dean of students Julio Sandoval, who Sheriff James McCrary said had occasionally worked shifts at the county jail. Sandoval also owns Safe, Sound Secure Youth Ministries, a company that parents can hire to transport their troubled teens to the school. Graves and another deputy work off-duty for that transport company, the sheriff said last fall.

McCrary told The Star last fall that he was aware of the connections his employees had to Agape but said that hadn’t influenced the department’s investigations. He said if a potential conflict arose, he would pass the case to another agency to follow up.

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