‘Organized crime against children.’ Top Missouri lawmaker asks feds to shut down Agape

Agape Boarding School is a faith-based boarding school in Cedar County in southwest Missouri. (Jill Toyoshiba/jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com)

The speaker of the Missouri House has asked the U.S. Attorney to “act immediately” to shut down Agape Boarding School, saying it has been engaged in “organized crime against children.”

Speaker Rob Vescovo, a Republican, wrote U.S. Attorney Teresa Moore of the Western District of Missouri last week insisting that federal intervention may be the only way to protect the students at the school now.

In his letter, Vescovo praised the efforts of Attorney General Eric Schmitt and state lawmakers but said local authorities in Cedar County — including Judge David Munton, who has delayed the case in recent days — have made closing the school seem like an “an unobtainable goal.”

“The efforts of the legislature, the state, and the news media helped to shine some light on this dark web of deception that has covered up the physical and even sexual abuse of young people (at) Agape Boarding School,” Vescovo wrote in the letter dated Sept. 21, the day of the last hearing in Cedar County on the attorney general’s efforts to close the school.

“However, as we have continued to seek justice in this case, it has become apparent that this problem is more far-reaching and contains more deeply-rooted corruption than we are able to address solely at the state level,” the speaker said.

Vescovo blasted Cedar County prosecuting attorney Ty Gaither as “one more in a long line of local officials who have either turned a blind eye to, or helped to cover up, the criminal actions of the staff at Agape.”

Gaither did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney said as a matter of policy, “we don’t comment on investigations, or even confirm or deny the existence of investigations, until charges are publicly filed.”

Agape’s attorney, John Schultz, called Vescovo’s letter, which the Missouri Independent first obtained, defamatory.

“The reckless assertions in that letter are 100% false, as proven by the Attorney General’s lack of evidence in the injunction lawsuit,” Schultz told The Star on Monday.

Since Sept. 7, the Attorney General’s Office and the Department of Social Services have tried to shut down the embattled southwest Missouri school. That day, they filed a motion for “injunctive relief” saying the safety of students inside the school was in jeopardy. DSS officials had learned that a current staffer had just been placed on the Central Registry for child abuse and neglect, and state law doesn’t allow anyone with a substantiated report to work at a residential facility.

Within hours, Munton signed an order calling for the immediate closure of Agape.

But the next morning, as the AG’s Office and DSS were prepared to execute the order, Munton put it on hold, saying he wanted to confirm that the staffer was still at the school near Stockton. Munton sent Cedar County Sheriff James “Jimbob” McCrary to the school to find out, and Clemensen told McCrary that he had fired that staffer on Sept. 7 and the worker no longer lived on the school’s property.

Two hearings have been held since then and the AG’s office has had testimony prepared and recent students ready to take the stand to describe the abuse that boys at the school have endured. Munton refused to let those students testify and delayed action at both hearings.

Workers with the state’s Children’s Division have been at the school since Sept. 8 monitoring the students, which Munton ordered and has continued.

Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, said the school should have been shut down weeks ago and the fact that it hasn’t “spits in the face of all laws that protect children.”

“I fully believe that DSS and the AG’s office have proven that there is a significant pattern of abuse ... that there is imminent harm to the children of this facility,” said Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, who co-sponsored the legislation in 2021 that has been the impetus for state officials to ask the school to be shut down. “I believe that both the AG’s Office and DSS are working within the law that we crafted to try to keep children safe.

“And now the judicial system — everyone from law enforcement, from the local sheriff’s office, to the local prosecutor, to now this judge — are the impediments to keeping these kids safe. … At this point, it’s, I believe, evidence of corruption. It’s a conspiracy now.”

In his letter, Vescovo mentioned a recent federal investigation where a minor was transported across state lines to Agape against his will. He was transported by a “company that employs Cedar County Sheriff’s deputies.

“The ties that law enforcement officers have to the school have made it clear the best interests of these young people are not a priority,” Vescovo wrote, “while keeping this hub for children trafficking open for business clearly is.”

The Star has investigated the close ties between the Cedar County Sheriff’s Office and Agape, which include a former deputy who is the son-in-law of the school’s founder and also worked at the school for years.

The AG’s Office filed a motion Friday afternoon seeking a delay in a hearing scheduled for Monday morning. The judge granted that delay.

The reason for the delay was new information that the Department of Social Services received regarding Agape’s plan to disband the boarding school and open multiple group homes on the property under the name Stone of Help. A state worker, who was inside the school based on a court order allowing Children’s Division employees to be stationed at Agape to monitor students, learned the information on Thursday after a conversation with school director Bryan Clemensen.

“Agape’s director reported that the program is changing away from a boarding school-type facility,” the AG’s motion said. “Starting Tuesday, September 27, 2022, the boys will be in five group homes on the property with an intention of nine boys per home.”

The two staffers — Jennifer and Jason Derksen — filed the paperwork with the Missouri Secretary of State on Sept. 15 describing their new nonprofit, Stone of Help, as a “Home for Troubled Youth.” The address for Stone of Help and the Derksens is on the Agape property and next to the current unlicensed boarding school.

“The State will not allow Agape to escape accountability or continue to present an immediate health and safety concern to children through corporate shell games,” the AG’s motion said, “while employing the same people and methods that originally led the State to bring this action to protect children.”

The Star’s Kacen Bayless contributed to this report from Jefferson City.