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Reformatory CP - March 1996

Corpun file 07810


St Louis Post-Dispatch, Missouri, 31 March 1996

Insiders Tell Of Boarding School, Past And Present

Slaying In Missouri Follows Some Troubles In Mississippi

By Kim Bell And Tim O'Neil
Of The Post-Dispatch Staff


Parents from both coasts, with money and troubled children, descend on this town surrounded by rugged hills. Some arrive in private planes. A few rent Cadillacs and drive from Lambert Field in St. Louis. They drop off their children at Mountain Park Baptist Boarding Academy, a strict religious school that claims an 85 percent success rate in turning around unruly youths. It has about 200 boys and girls on its campus.

Even the killing of a student last Monday didn't stop Vern Carson, of Castro Valley, Calif. He arrived Tuesday to drop off his granddaughter for a year's stay. Despite the slaying, Carson said he left her in good hands. "They were very upfront about what had happened," Carson said of the killing. "Education standards are so loose in the public schools in California. I'm hoping she gets good Christian training."

Carson said he heard about the school from a friend who sent two daughters, one of whom was suicidal when she arrived. Carson said she now wants to stay and graduate. He said the $750-a-month fee includes food, board and schooling. "The whole package seemed very good," he said.

On Monday, William Andrew Futrelle II, 16, of Boca Raton, Fla., was found slain outside the boys' dormitory, his throat slashed and his head beaten. A Highway Patrol investigator said Futrelle was killed by three students who feared that Futrelle wouldn't go along with their plans to take over the academy and get on network television. Anthony G. Rutherford, 18, of Siloam Springs, Ark., was being held in the Wayne County Jail on charges of first-degree murder and armed criminal action. Two 15-year-olds from California also were being held, in Poplar Bluff, 35 miles to the south, and may face similar charges. The first court appearances are scheduled for Thursday.

Futrelle was buried Friday in Wilmington, N.C. The Rev. Wilbur C. Teachey, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church, said Futrelle -- three days before he was killed -- wrote a letter to his parents and told them that he had affirmed his faith in God.

Mountain Park Academy is about 110 miles south of St. Louis and 12 miles east of Piedmont. It is on 165 acres near the St. Francis River, south of Sam A. Baker State Park. Although the school has been in Wayne County since 1987, local authorities don't know much about it. The sheriff's office says it only has had reports of a few runaways and stolen vehicles. Mountain Park is run by the Rev. Bobby R. Wills, 60, and his wife, Betty, 58. They ran a similar school in Mississippi until they lost a three-year battle with that state in 1986 over juvenile court efforts to monitor the school. The Willses have declined to make any comment.

Mississippi Days

Their previous school was the Bethesda Home for Girls, later known as the Christian Life Academy, near Hattiesburg, Miss. Lawyers there said Wills closed it and moved to Missouri after the Youth Court in Forrest County, Miss., took control of its 117 resident students. Opponents and defenders of Wills in Mississippi say his school confined students to the school, paddled them and relied heavily upon Bible studies.

In February 1987, after the Mississippi school effectively was closed, he settled a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of three former students by signing a consent decree that, among other things, was to end paddling of pregnant students and defined when other students could be spanked. He began buying property in Wayne County in August 1987.

Interviews with families of former students of Mountain Park Academy, former or current employees and a few county officials suggest that Wills' methods haven't changed much. The Bethesda school was surrounded by a high fence. At least part of the Mountain Park campus is surrounded by high chain-link fences topped with barbed wire, said Wayne County Assessor Don Kemp.

Inside, students in their late teens who are considered trustworthy are taught to be mentors. No student can wander the hallways without one of these escorts. The mentors patrol the dorms at night with pass keys, locking the doors as they go so no students can escape. Students are supposed to call the Willses "Mama" and "Papa." Staff members strictly limit the students' contact with their families and screen all mail. In one case, the school returned a photograph that a Florida woman had sent to her son because it showed her wearing blue jeans, which the school dress code doesn't allow.

The school owns several coach-type buses and takes some of the students to area churches for services or to sing. On occasion, it takes some of them to Cape Girardeau, Mo., for dinner. Sometimes it phones ahead to J.R.'s restaurant in Piedmont and orders identical meals for 25 -- a hamburger, shake and fries for each student. The school's enrollment is about 170 girls and 30 boys. Almost all of them are from outside Missouri, and many of them are from California. Lawyers in Mississippi said it recruits from within a loose network of independent Baptist churches, other fundamentalist congregations and even some juvenile court officers.


A 14-year-old girl from Piedmont attended Mountain Park for one year after she ran away from home. She said the only physical discipline she saw was spanking. Tom Moore, her father, said the school limits parent-child visits to a three-day visit after the first six months, and a two-week vacation after that.

Not everyone likes the school. "It is a horror chamber," said Patty Milbrandt of Springfield, Mo., who said her granddaughter was in Mountain Park for four months until April 1995. "She lost 40 pounds in there. When I was allowed my first visit after four months, she was crying. I took her out of there."

The 15-year-old granddaughter said she still has nightmares about her time in Mountain Park. "They made me feel like I was part of the devil and that I was evil," she said by telephone Friday. "Once I marked my answers on a school paper with an X instead of a circle. They suspended me from school for three days and said I'd be spanked if I did it again. "We wore nothing but dresses. They said that if your knee shows, you're naked." The girl said she never was paddled but knew of girls who were -- for such things as glancing away from one's Bible while waiting for dinner. "Mrs. Wills' philosophy for straightening out girls is to beat us, to paddle us," she said. The school declined to comment on the Milbrandts' complaints.

Wills opened Bethesda, 10 miles south of Hattiesburg, in 1972. His troubles there began in 1982, when the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a suit that led to the decree on paddling and other activities. In 1984, the Forrest County Youth Court, after observing high fences and locked doors, declared the school a detention center subject to Mississippi law. Wills fought back. In September 1986, the court ordered the state welfare department to take over the school. One month later, the court convicted Wills of civil contempt for refusing to abide by orders seeking the names of students and other information. Mississippi said that only it could detain children, and then only after a hearing. Wills countered that he was doing the Lord's work, protected by the First Amendment freedom of religion.

The lawyers who battled Wills are scathing in their criticism. Eric Lowery of Hattiesburg, who filed suits to get children released from the school, said Wills "basically ran a prison down there, with the fence and locked doors. Most of the children I dealt with had been spanked with paddles." Morris Dees of Montgomery, Ala., a longtime Ku Klux Klan fighter who leads the Southern Poverty center, called the school's methods "awful." And Daniel Wise, a Hattiesburg lawyer who once oversaw Bethesda as a special judge, said that Missouri "should be ashamed of itself for allowing a person like this to operate. Anyone like those who gets caught goes up to Missouri to start up again." Missouri agencies do not monitor private or religious schools.

'Very Secretive'

Eugene Fair, a Hattiesburg lawyer who served as guardian for 108 of the students after the shutdown in 1986, called Wills "a very secretive sort of fellow. As with many fanatics, I thought he was sincere, his position honestly taken from conviction. But that's not a heck of an excuse. To me, a fanatic is someone willing to break the law for something like this."

But T. Jack Riley of Hattiesburg, who represented Wills in his battles with Mississippi courts, called Wills "very dedicated to his work and a good Christian man." Riley said sometimes he wished his client wouldn't have fought the courts so often.

The Rev. Charles Williams, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, praised Wills and his teachings. Central worked closely with Bethesda. It also is an independent Baptist church, as is Victory Baptist Temple in Piedmont, which now serves as Mountain Park Academy's semi-official link to the Wayne County community. Williams said Wills' methods include corporal punishment "as a corrective discipline, in the way the Bible teaches. "Brother Wills is a superb leader and educator in his ministry to troubled young people," Williams said Friday. "The discipline that he applies is the sort that I received as a kid. It put a fear into my heart, a fear of respect and awe of authority. I think that's a big thing missing in our country today."

blob More on Mountain Park Academy:

17 November 2002 - Reform Schools Find A Haven Here
18 November 2002 - Acting On Faith - Reform Schools In Retrospect

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