At least 16 children, but probably many more, were subjected to slavery, educational neglect, and threats of physical violence and starvation by members of a new religious movement known as the McCollum Ranch group, run by minister John C. McCollum. The group claimed to be homeschooling the children, though no education was actually provided.
McCollum has operated the group, previously known as the Holy Tabernacle Church of Fayetteville, since the 1980s. In 1991 he pleaded guilty to child abuse after being charged “with beating children with an automotive fan belt so severely that it left scars;” the same year, two of his followers, Irish Williams and Shirley McNatt, were also convicted of abusing then-9-year-old Shirmitka McNatt. No children were apparently removed. After the group moved to Godwin in the mid-1990s, officials visited their compound to investigate child abuse claims at least four times. In 2008, a mentally disabled 21-year-old man escaped from the compound and claimed to have been kidnapped; no charges were filed.
The children in McCollum’s group were kept in involuntary servitude and forced to perform heavy labor for little to no pay for more than 40 hours per week in McCollum’s fish markets in Fayetteville. The children “often injured themselves while cutting fish for sale in the market.” If the children refused to work, McCallum “would threaten them with physical violence or take away their food.” Tobias Gardner, who lived at McCollum Ranch as a teenager from 1993 to 1997, reported that he was attending school when he first lived there but eventually stopped, instead working in the fish market. Gardner “witnessed McCollum beating children for slight infractions, which could be anything from getting up to go to the bathroom during a worship service to talking back to adults.”
Furthermore, McCallum Ranch member Brenda Joyce Hall operated a fraudulent homeschool, Halls of Knowledge Home School, which provided no education to the compound’s children: many of them “had difficulty reading and writing.” The school did, however, “create fraudulent high school transcripts so young members can get into online degree programs and apply for financial aid, which is then diverted to the group’s operations.”
The abuse finally came to light in February 2017, when a couple living at McCallum Ranch went to police with a complaint about child slavery. On March 2, 2017, a victim of the homeschool financial aid scam came forward to report it. On August 10, 2017, a 15-year-old boy who worked at the Ranch was reported missing by his mother, a member of the group. After police located the boy, he reported “how he and his 13-year-old brother were forced to work in the fish markets for more than 40 hours a week.” Social services went to the compound in October and found that many of the children had been removed to other locations to avoid investigators. On December 12, McCollum and nine of his associates–Hall, Williams, Shirley McNatt, Shirnitka McNatt, Cornelia McDonald, Pamela Puga Luna, Daffene Edge, Kassia Rogers, and Earlene Hayat–were charged with a variety of crimes including human trafficking. Investigators noted that several of those charged, including Shirnitka McNatt, had previously been victims and were now perpetrators.
Date: December 12, 2017
Location: Godwin, North Carolina