Jacob* dressed himself in a camouflage jacket and a matching beanie on the summer morning he ran away into the West Virginia hills. At 14 years old, he was one of the youngest, smallest, and longest-attending students at Blue Creek Academy, a religious reform school for boys from which he was desperate to escape.
Blue Creek Academy was made up of an old schoolhouse and several cabins situated on a remote campground in central West Virginia. A mission of the nearby Independent Fundamental Baptist church, pastor James Waldeck advertised Blue Creek as an “alternative to today's degenerate, secular culture and education methods,” and took in boys who had been in trouble at home—both locally and from as far away as Texas—to be reformed. Its principal, 35-year-old JR Thompson, had reopened the church’s campgrounds in 2010, renamed it Blue Creek Academy, and marketed the boarding school, which he ran with his wife, Hannah, as a godly answer for “at-risk” teens with emotional and behavioral disabilities and Christian parents with $1,000 a month to spend on their salvation.
“We can’t wait to watch God move as he helps us snatch troubled souls out of Satan’s hand,” Thompson wrote on the school’s now-defunct website.
What the boys found when they got to Blue Creek Academy was something else entirely—an all-too-common story for victims of Lester Roloff-inspired homes, which thrive as part of the unregulated religious teen reform industry.
Along with a strict Bible-based curriculum, boys at Blue Creek Academy were allegedly subject to isolation, physical beatings and mistreatment, and at least two students reported sexual abuse by another student, according to court documents from a pending civil case brought against the school by one boy’s guardian; complaints and reports from West Virginia's Department of Health and Human Resources obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by The Daily Beast; and interviews—with a lawyer representing three Blue Creek Academy students, three other former students, one parent, and the Kanawha County Sheriff's Office.
Once at Blue Creek, the boys were cut off completely from the outside world, former students and their representatives claim. Bunkered in dilapidated quarters that were infested with rats and mice, the boys weren’t permitted to speak in public unless it was to sing hymns for local churches and the elderly. They weren’t taken to the doctor, and their calls home were monitored to intercept any unhappy tidings. When the boys weren’t going to church, doing manual labor, or memorizing Bible verses, they were in a kind of school—seated in desks facing the wall, completing Bible-based academic workbooks for hours.
Staff at Blue Creek Academy educated children using the Accelerated Christian Education (A.C.E.) curriculum, from a homeschooling supply company whose workbooks promote the Bible as a literal history book and stress Creationism as science. (At one time the company even used the Loch Ness Monster to “disprove” Darwin’s theory of evolution.) Following A.C.E. guidelines, desks faced the wall, and were usually surrounded by dividers to block out any distractions.
“They basically handed you a book and said, ‘Learn,’” one former student, who asked not to be named, told The Daily Beast.
In lieu of teachers, ACE only requires “facilitators” to check students work and record grades, but even that was neglected at Blue Creek, according to several students who told The Daily Beast their time at Thompson’s school had to be made up once they returned to public school because none of their work “counted.”
Even the director’s adopted son, 19-year-old Justin Thompson, who lived at Blue Creek starting in 2010, told The Daily Beast over Facebook chat, “I passed high school but [JR Thompson] never kept a lot on record, so I have no proof.”
But the educational neglect was nothing compared to the punishments given by Thompson, former students allege.
Boys who acted out, or refused to obey, might have their heads shaved like Jacob. Attempts to run away were allegedly penalized with food: an all-bean or asparagus diet or being made to chug water then denied use of the bathroom. They were all allegedly beaten—with bare hands, paddles, and boards. Jacob—whose new guardian is now suing Thompson and Waldeck for the maltreatment the boy allegedly endured there— said he was thrown into a wall when he wouldn’t confess to breaking a bench.
“Mr. Thompson was very aggressive when it came to paddlings,” said one former student, reached through Facebook, who says he was sent to Blue Creek Academy for drinking and smoking pot. The boy, who asked not to be named because of his remaining ties to Blue Creek staff, said that he was hit nearly every day with Thompson's bare hands or a two-inch thick wood plank with holes they called “The Hillbilly Hot Seat” for lying, or cursing, even singing a secular song in the shower.
“It was hell,” he said. “They forced unwanted religion on us, made us do labor that we hated, and made us run up and down the driveway. They used a board to hit us if we didn't do what we were asked,” he said.
At least two of the boys there were the victims of sexual abuse. As detailed on an intake form from the division of Child Protective Services, obtained by a FOIA request from The Daily Beast, a 17-year-old boy—who was sent to Blue Creek from another teen reform school in Wisconsin where he had been originally placed and subsequently booted for molesting boys—was sexually abusing two of the younger students in 2012. Thompson—whom two former Blue Creek families fault with failing to supervise a known abuser—did report the older boy to police. When questioned, the older boy admitted to Thompson and police that he had raped one boy and molested another; he was arrested and sent to a juvenile detention center, where he was charged with four counts of 3rd degree sexual assault and three counts of 1st degree sexual abuse.
A separate allegation of sexual assault by a different boy at Blue Creek Academy is still currently under investigation, according to Sgt. Brian Humphreys, the public information officer for the Kanawha Sheriff's Office.
Blue Creek administrators had their own personal history with CPS: one had been investigated for the alleged sexual abuse of his biological children, while another had been reported for unspecified allegations against his adopted son. Both investigations were closed as “incomplete.”
On the intake form, the CPS investigator noted there was not enough supervision at the school and took issue with the policy of corporal punishment, but neither concern was enough to remove the children. Besides, where would they go? “The parents of all the boys do not seem interested in coming to get any of them,” the worker wrote.
But Jacob wanted out. So he waited until the morning of June, 10, 2014 when Thompson would be off campus. As the other boys gathered for prayers and school, Jacob went back to his cabin, telling them he had forgotten to brush his teeth. Then he made a run for it.
When the staff at BCA realized Jacob had run, they called Thompson back to look for him. After hours of fruitless searching, Thompson called local law enforcement, who helped him search the surrounding woods—but Jacob was gone.
The next evening, a man found Jacob begging for change at a neighboring county supermarket 10 miles from Blue Creek and called Clay County Child Protective Services. Jacob smelled foul and the soles of his shoes had been worn bare from running. He was hungry, dirty, and scared, according to the CPS intake form.
Jacob begged the sheriff not to send him back.
Kanawha County Child Protective Services went out to investigate Jacob’s abuse allegations and interview the boys at Blue Creek. When they got past Thompson, who initially refused to let them in the door, they found seven boys who all disclosed allegations of abuse and neglect by Thompson. The caseworker wrote that, in her interviews, the children told her Thompson had left marks from beatings and his poor supervision allowed for the molestation of several children; guns, drugs, and alcohol were also being brought on campgrounds. The official finding was maltreatment.
“There was a lack of oversight,” said Troy Giatras, the attorney litigating a case for Jacob’s guardian against Thompson, Waldeck, and Blue Creek Academy. “The corporal punishment, the manual labor, the isolation, and the allegations of abuse that were never investigated? Other kids have reached out to us, so I know this isn’t an isolated incident.”
“You have a place that is operating without a good charter and not well supervised by the Department of Health and Human Resources, and parents with troubled kids who are expecting a religious school to help.”
No one from Blue Creek chose to comment for this story. Calls to Wadeck and Bible Baptist Church, and calls and emails sent to JR Thompson, his wife Hannah, and two other couples who worked at the camp during the time of alleged abuse were also not returned. In answers to a number of pending lawsuits, however, including one on behalf of Jacob, Waldeck and Thompson deny all charges of neglect or mistreatment of the boys at Blue Creek Academy.
After her interviews, with the help of the Kanawha County Sheriff, the Child Protective Services caseworker brought the kids to a pizza parlor while they organized a return to their homes.
While the children could be removed—because Blue Creek was unlicensed as a residential home—the Department of Children and Families had no power to shut the boarding school down. Like thousands of other religious private schools around the country—many of which become havens for abuse—Blue Creek Academy operated unlicensed, unregulated, and wholly unmonitored by the state. The only avenue for closure rested with the Board of Education, an entity that until then, had also had minimal interaction with the school.
As in many other states, religious private schools in West Virginia aren’t held to the same standards as their nonreligious counterparts. Though the ways in which they are exempt varies from state to state, for many schools that operate with a religious mission—80 percent of private schools nationwide—accreditation or licensing, the hiring of certified teachers or the approval of curriculum, or even simply notifying the state as to its existence is completely voluntary.
“It’s a little scary when you think about it,” Betty Jordan, executive assistant to West Virginia’s Education Superintendent told The Daily Beast, explaining Blue Creek’s “Exemption K status,” a category that simply requires any religious school to send a letter to the state of its intent to operate and file annual test scores.
“There is very very limited oversight. Actually there is no oversight. So basically if I wanted to tomorrow, I could write a letter to the state saying I want to open a school and I could open a school.”
There are 130 such schools in West Virginia. Jordan said the exemptions are “hardly ever” revoked.
State superintendent Michael Martirano did initiate Blue Creek’s closure, by revoking Blue Creek’s exemption status shortly after the children were removed. And in his September 2014 revocation letter, Martirano ostensibly put an end to any ideas of Blue Creek reopening. He wrote: “Due to the egregious nature of the non-compliance, children's health, safety and welfare, any future attempts by the school to seek reinstatement of the exemption status will be denied by this office.”
Notably, the superintendent had shuttered another school 75 miles south of Blue Creek Academy the month before, after 26 years of operation. Martirano forced Miracle Meadows, a Seventh Day Adventist boarding school for “at risk” boys and girls from 6 to 17 years old, to close after a DHHR investigation found that school officials had failed to report an instance of sexual abuse of one student by another and that a school janitor had restrained students in handcuffs until their wrists bled and choked others who misbehaved.
The Department of Health and Human Resources had received 13 formal complaints about the school since 2009, four of which alleged sexual misconduct, according to an Associated Press report on records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
Miracle Meadows’ former director Susan Gayle Clark, 69, pled guilty this year to three misdemeanors counts of child neglect creating a substantial risk of injury, failure to report by a mandated reporter, and obstructing a law enforcement officer. She was sentenced to six months and 30 days in prison.
Abuse at religious schools like Blue Creek Academy and Miracle Meadows is underreported and frighteningly prevalent, according to Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University and author of God vs the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty.
“These small institutions can be very dangerous to kids because they are isolated and fly under the radar,” Hamilton told The Daily Beast. Because some fundamentalist parents agree with physical abuse as discipline and sexual abuse is often dealt with internally or covered up, Hamilton said, it can be “easy for these groups to get away with it for quite a while, while endangering a series of children.”
“This is a common problem, which calls for a National Commission on child sex abuse and for states to work more cooperatively on tracking entities that permit and foment child sex abuse and neglect.”
Indeed, a lack of cooperation by states is the very thing that allows abusive Christian teen reform homes closed by authorities in one state to be reopened in another, sometimes using the same name, and frequently run by the same operators.
After Olin King pled “no contest” to charges in South Carolina stemming from the isolation, imprisonment, and beatings of children in his care at The New Bethany Baptist School for Boys in 1984, he packed up and moved, opening the aptly-named Second Chance Ranch in Danbury, North Carolina. A state bill that would have licensed such boarding schools proposed in response to New Bethany’s closing was protested by local pastors who called it an “intrusion into freedom of the church’s rights.” Today South Carolina is one of the states that exempts religious schools from licensing rules that govern other residential youth homes.
In 2009, a Lester Roloff disciple, Pastor Jack Patterson, was forced to close his tough-love boarding school, Reclamation Ranch in Alabama, after allegations of torture and a police raid that turned up guns and shackles. As part of a plea deal, Patterson traded in a felony aggravated child abuse for a verbal harassment misdemeanor and a $500 fine. Though he did close Reclamation Ranch, Patterson opened a home for adult men in its place, maintained his school for girls nearby, and told a Mother Jones reporter in 2011, he planned to open more homes in Ohio, Florida, and Michigan.
In 2012, Alexandra Zayas, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her reporting on religious boarding schools in the state, wrote that Florida preacher Clayton "Buddy" Maynard was housing five children when, just two years earlier his isolated Heritage Boys Academy had been closed after a state investigation found that boys had been abused there, including one boy who was whipped 1,330 times. “None of the state agencies that oversee such facilities were aware the church was caring for children,” Zayas wrote.
And Florida pastor Russ Cookston’s Lighthouse ministries school was closed in 2013 after being plagued with allegations of physical and sexual abuse and solitary confinement. According to his Facebook and LinkedIn pages, though, one month after he closed up his shop in the small town of Jay, he was working as an associate pastor at a Master’s Ranch, a home for troubled boys in Missouri, a state with notoriously lax child welfare laws.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Master’s Ranch administrator David Bosley confirmed Cookston’s position as a senior staff member, praising him as “almost too gentle for this job,” “extremely kind,” and “extremely patient.”
“I do know when you get in this business—and I've been working with kids for almost 30 years—that you will always be accused of abuse by someone,” Bosley said. “I firmly believe every student should be heard and every allegation thoroughly investigated for the safety of all kids, but you're always going to have one or two disgruntled kids or parents who are trying to find a way out of the program or who just hate you for trying to help him.”
The Government Accountability Office found thousands of allegations of abuse at teen reform homes and camps from 1990 to 2007, some of which involved the death of a young person. The 2007 report was unable to provide a specific number however, as “it could not locate a single Web site, federal agency, or other entity that collects comprehensive nationwide data.” In fact, the only tracking of these types of homes and the abuse that often occurs in them, comes from bloggers and advocacy groups.
Angela Smith, 42, runs HEAL, one of the most prominent organizations working to expose and ultimately close abusive youth facilities. Blue Creek Academy is one of some 500 past and present residential programs in the U.S. that currently make up HEAL’s watch-list of fraudulent and abusive programs in the U.S.
“Abuse is rampant because many of these facilities operate with little or no oversight and accountability,” Smith said. Even in the states with licensing boards like Montana and Utah, she said, ”the people who own and operate these youth programs are the ones doing the oversight.”
“The fox is watching the hen-house so to speak.”
Nobody seems to be watching JR Thompson.
By the time the Department of Education mailed the revocation letter to Blue Creek Academy, principal Thompson had moved to Montana, to a three-bedroom single family house on 11 acres in De Borgia, a six-mile-wide town near the Idaho border that, as of the last census count, was home to 78 people. Within a year, and with the blessing of his “sending church” in West Virginia, Thompson had registered his new home as Canaan’s Land Baptist Church with the Secretary of State. By August 2015, the Canaan’s Land Boy’s Ranch, a non-public secondary school, was registered as a business.
“Even though our name is Canaan’s Land Boys Ranch, we are not currently in a ranch setting,” Thompson says in a video advertisement for the $900-a-month boarding school running out of his new home. “We do plan to expand and move to a location where we will be able to acquire animals for the boys to work with.”
There is space for eight children, according the Canaan’s Land Boys Ranch website, and so far, two boys, ages 14 and 15, currently live, go to church with, and are educated by the Thompsons. The minors both appear in promotional videos for Canaan’s Land Boys Ranch, where they decry their past lives of “doing the wrong things,” and being disrespectful to their parents. They’re wearing bowties in Facebook photos as they sing hymns with the Thompsons for a church audience.
The existence of Thompson’s new endeavor came as a surprise to Montana school officials.
“This is the first I’ve heard anything about Canaan's Land Boys Ranch,” said Mineral County Superintendent of Schools Mary Yarnall, who explained Thompson has yet to fill out the minimal paperwork the state requires from the operator of a boarding school.
“I will try figure out an address and send him a packet. If he doesn’t acknowledge that, I can send the sheriff to at least make him sign, but in Montana there isn’t a whole lot of consequence for not registering.”
Montana’s negligible yet unenforceable education requirements for religious private schools no doubt appeal to Thompson, who according to his pseudonymous activism on social media, seems particularly keen on separating himself and his boys’ home from any more government meddling.
Thompson blogs under the the alias Nehemiah Flynt, “a Christian author determined to expose the evils of Child Protective Services,” according to his Facebook page, which he made private following a request for comment for this story. In a YouTube video reading from his book, “Legal Discrimination,” Thompson—speaking as Flynt, with his face blurred, but with his characteristic southern drawl intact—does speak to the controversy at Blue Creek saying, “Flynt took charge of a successful Christian-based facility for at-risk youths. He soon, learned, however, that the government of the United States is so narrow-minded that they would stop at nothing to close any facility operating under moral or religious principles differing from their own devilish agendas. ”
“One allegation from a non-credible source changed everything," he says in the video.
Now, attorney Troy Giatras says he’s representing at least three former students and their parents, who are hoping someone at Thompson’s former boarding school will have to answer for what went on there.
Since being reunited with her son after the raid at Blue Creek, one of Giatras’ clients, Carolyn*, 32, from Evansville, Indiana, has written and called every local, state, and federal law enforcement office and lawmaker that she knows, looking for someone who will hold the operators of Blue Creek Academy accountable for the abuse she says her son withstood there for 17 months, and to make sure it doesn’t happen to other children.
“They dodged my calls,” she said. “They told me that me and my son should be lucky, that I got him back and they don’t have time to do anything else, that their work is for active cases.”
As for her son’s well-being, she said, “It’s a process. The damage is overwhelming. He’s been in counseling ever since he left.”
Meanwhile, Thompson is being careful with his new school. The website for Canaan's Land Boys Ranch used to have his and his wife’s names on it, but they’ve since been scrubbed clean and a warning for prospective parents has been added: “Our Ranch Isn't For Everyone!” it says, along with the caveat that boys with a history of “sexual acting out (molestations, rapes, etc)” and “students who come from families who would not be supportive of the day to day operations of Canaan's Land Boys Ranch” will not be admitted.
*Names of children and parents have been omitted or changed to protect child victims of sexual abuse.