Lawsuits Describe Sex Crimes and Cover-ups at Missouri Christian Ranch for Troubled Boys

News Leader (USA Today)

“A Missouri ranch for troubled boys covered up rapes and sexual assaults committed against young boys in 2009 and 2010, according to lawsuits filed by three former residents.

Some boys fondled, molested and raped younger boys, the lawsuits say, while the ranch ignored the abuse and sometimes punished boys for reporting it.

According to the lawsuits, Lives Under Construction viewed sexual abuse as consensual acts between residents and fired an employee in retaliation for making a hotline call about it.

There was a “culture of pervasive sexual assault,” the lawsuits say.

Lives Under Construction, a Christian residential facility for troubled boys near the Arkansas border, denies these allegations.

“Some people will be able to differentiate truth from fiction, and some can’t,” ranch founder Ken Ortman said. “We invite anybody who wants to know (the truth) to eat with us, visit with us.”

The ranch has been the focus of controversy before.

It came under intense public scrutiny in 2013 when two boys ran away from the ranch to a nearby residence, where they bludgeoned and stabbed to death an elderly couple.

While the 2013 double murder was highly publicized, it is unclear if any news agency has reported on the trouble at Lives Under Construction four years earlier.

The lawsuits filed by the former residents — in addition to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed after the double murder — paint a sordid picture of the rustic ranch in Stone County.

Staff members were unqualified, the boys were too dangerous and advice from state officials was ignored, the lawsuits say.

Records of sexual abuse described in the lawsuits might exist in juvenile court records, but those records are sealed. The News-Leader has asked a judge to unseal those records.

In the meantime, internal ranch documents and criminal court records obtained by the News-Leader have opened a window into investigations conducted by state and local authorities in the fall of 2009.

That includes the full investigative records of a rape committed at the ranch.

The records say several months passed before authorities were told that a 9-year-old boy was raped by his 19-year-old roommate.

According to reports written by investigators from the Missouri Department of Social Services, staff members were aware of sexual contact between the two roommates but did not act, despite state law that requires child care workers to report possible instances of abuse.

The lawsuit said that when a ranch employee eventually made a hotline call about sexual abuse, the ranch immediately fired the staffer in retaliation. The ranch denies this.

Other ranch documents from 2009 — including emails sent by the ranch’s founder and minutes from the ranch’s board meetings — have become public through a separate lawsuit against the ranch.

Those emails show anger and frustration with law enforcement during the course of multiple investigations.

In one email, Ortman, the ranch’s founder, wrote that he believed juvenile officers had a “vendetta” against the ranch. Emails appear to say the agency intended to remove about five boys from the ranch and charge them with sexual assault.

Minutes from a 2009 board meeting appear to say a state lawmaker intervened on behalf of the ranch to quash an investigation by a state agency. According to the meeting notes, the interdiction was successful.

The News-Leader was unable to find any of this information — including the 2009 rape — ever reported by any news outlet.

Ortman said those lawsuits are only allegations, and he disputed that the rape ever took place.

Ortman said state investigators have never found a substantiated claim of neglect or abuse against Lives Under Construction. He said a 2010 substantiated claim of neglect was later overturned on appeal.

Still, Ortman said people will read these allegations and treat them as facts.

“It’s trying, because you work to do the best you can and develop a good reputation,” Ortman said.

Past News-Leader reporting shows state authorities have temporarily stopped the ranch from accepting new residents five times in the past, but Ortman said corrections were made and resident intake always resumed.

From humble beginnings to a million-dollar nonprofit

According to Ortman, 69 years old and white-haired, the boys’ ranch would not be in operation today were it not for the will of God.

Ortman was a dairy farmer three decades ago when he stood in a barn in South Dakota. He said he felt God calling him to open a ranch in southern Missouri for troubled boys.

Ortman stuck a piece of metal wire into a bale of hay, prayed and went to bed.

The next day, he said he found the wire bent at a 90-degree angle.

A miracle.

Ortman recently spoke with the News-Leader at his ranch, explaining how he and his wife moved to what was intended to be their retirement property a few miles north of the Arkansas border in Lampe.

The ranch has grown from humble beginnings to a sprawling property with barns, livestock, machine shops and a small schoolhouse.

As of October, Ortman said 18 boys were residing at the ranch, which brings in about $1 million of annual revenue. Tax records show that revenue is almost entirely made up of donations and grants.

Ortman said numerous boys have been ordered by judges to attend the ranch.

Many boys are sent by parents who no longer feel they can control their sons, Ortman said.

When other facilities would give up on some boys, Ortman said Lives Under Construction gives them a family atmosphere.

The boys attend Bible study, learn trades and shovel manure if they break the rules. When they arrive at the ranch, residents are taken off psychiatric medications.

According to Ortman, hundreds of troubled boys have been positively impacted by the ranch in Lampe.

According to criminal court records, Noel Nickel was 19 years old when his stepfather sent him to Lives Under Construction from Colorado in early 2009.

Nickel shared a bedroom with a 9-year-old boy, court records say.

The boy, who is now an adult, is one of the plaintiffs in the case against the ranch. His lawsuit alleges he was placed in the same bedroom as Nickel “on the theory that it was beneficial for the younger boys at (Lives Under Construction) to be paired with older boys/men as mentors.”

Police say one night in early 2009, Nickel pulled the 9-year-old’s clothes down and raped him.

Nickel eventually pleaded guilty to statutory sodomy and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

A resident of the ranch told investigators in 2009 he saw Nickel and the 9-year-old in bed together, court records say, and another boy described seeing Nickel molest the 9-year-old, apparently on a different occasion.

Court records say that Nickel left the camp before summer 2009, but that didn’t mean the sexual assault stopped for the 9-year-old.

The 9-year-old told investigators that after he was raped by Nickel, two other boys separately forced him to touch their genitals and that he was also pressured by three residents to perform oral sex on them, according to court records.

The 9-year-old boy allegedly said he told staff members about some of the sexual misconduct.

Court records say Nickel also told the investigator that staff was aware of sexual contact between him and the 9-year-old boy.

Nickel allegedly told investigators that staff would call him perverted or a “chomo” — a slang term for a child molester.

The investigator wrote in his report that staff “kept pressing the issue about him doing something with a little boy and he got ‘f—ing mad and he got irritated.’ Nickel stated he almost got ‘into it’ with one of the staffers, named Red.

“Nickel described Red as being big, with long red hair and a scraggly beard and tattoos,” the investigator wrote.

That staff member, Gerald “Red” Pierce, also spoke with a state investigator, according to court records.

Pierce denied knowledge of the rape, court records say, though when asked about having Nickel share a room with the 9-year-old, Pierce said it was “probably not the best idea.”

According to court documents, Pierce said he witnessed sexual contact between the 9-year-old and a different resident. Pierce said he reported it to his superiors but no one else.

The investigator told Pierce that he was a mandated reporter and should have alerted authorities to the sexual contact, court records said, but Pierce did not know he was a mandated reporter.

A mandated reporter is someone required by law to report suspected child abuse, neglect or exploitation.

“This is not a cover-up deal, we want these kids to have peace in their hearts,” Pierce told an investigator.

Pierce spoke with the News-Leader in a phone call in December. He said he worked at the ranch for more than five years.

Pierce denied ever saying that he saw sexual contact between residents and called allegations against the ranch a “witch hunt.”

When asked if he knew what a mandated reporter was, Pierce said he did not and asked a reporter to explain the term.

Pierce emphasized that he knows nothing about the rape committed by Nickel.

“The word rape was never used the entire time I was on or near the ranch,” Pierce said. “Ever.”

As a part of that 2009 rape investigation, the 9-year-old boy was interviewed by a child advocate for about 40 minutes in September 2009, records say.

Near the end of the interview, the 9-year-old asked if investigators would speak to Ortman, and, according to court records, the child advocate said yes.

“Good, I want Ken to know,” the boy allegedly said.

Ortman told the News-Leader in October that he was never interviewed by police in connection with the Nickel rape case and does not know the facts of the case very well.

Ortman suggested that the 9-year-old boy may never have been raped.

Nickel was not very smart, Ortman said, and could have been coerced into a false confession.

According to court records, a forensic examination conducted on the 9-year-old showed he had anal scarring consistent with penetration.

Reached by phone in December, Ortman said he’s not convinced the scarring came from Nickel, saying the boy had been sexually assaulted before coming to Lives Under Construction.

Still, emails sent by Ortman in the fall of 2009 to board members of the ranch appear to show he was aware of sexual contact and misconduct involving at least five boys at the ranch.

Those emails — as well as other documents produced by the ranch — have recently been made public as exhibits in a wrongful-death lawsuit over the 2013 homicides committed by two runaways.

The documents show that in November 2009, Ortman was apparently upset with Stone County authorities and wrote that juvenile officers were “bent on destroying the ranch.”

Emails from sent by Ortman in 2009 say Stone County juvenile officers intended to take three boys away that fall and charge them with sexual assault.

It’s unclear what happened to those boys, because juvenile court records are sealed in Missouri.

Mark Stephens, the judge who handles Stone County’s juvenile court, has not responded to multiple phone calls and a written request asking if he would unseal juvenile cases pertaining to Lives Under Construction.

As the Department of Social Services continued its investigation in the fall of 2009, Ortman wrote in an email that investigators told him “they are trying to prove we have sexual abuse occurring here every day with every boy… We need to decide our next steps to protect our boys and Ranch from being run over by authorities … Be praying that Satan doesn’t destroy everything that he wants to right now.”

Documents say a parent of one of the boys reached out to a state lawmaker — David Sater, then the chairman of the House appropriations committee.

Lives Under Construction board meeting minutes say Sater met with four people at the Department of Social Services and determined the state agency had overstepped its boundaries.

“At the end of the conversation all four became very cooperative and decided to stop the investigation. This was an answer to our prayer,” the secretary wrote in the meeting minutes.

Sater confirmed to the News-Leader he met with Department of Social Services officials after hearing the ranch was being “harassed,” but he did not recall encouraging anyone to stop an investigation.

A state investigator who worked on the case declined to comment. Another state investigator named in court records said he did not remember the case.

A spokeswoman for the state agency said elected officials regularly contact Department of Social Services staff on behalf of their constituents. She said she could provide few additional details.

By the end of 2009, internal records from Lives Under Construction say the investigations were over, and Ortman presented a document to board members titled: “Plan of Action when Regulatory Agencies are Attacking Us.”

Ortman told the News-Leader that Sater interceded on behalf of the ranch in 2009, but only after the state investigation was completed.

The Department of Social Services was still refusing to let the ranch accept new residents, Ortman said, and Sater helped convince them otherwise.

Ortman said Lives Under Construction does not hide anything and couldn’t if they tried. Hundreds of volunteers stop by the ranch each year to help out, Ortman said.

One year, 816 volunteers visited the ranch, he said.

“We can’t keep any secrets here,” Ortman said.

The News-Leader spoke with Cody, a 17-year-old graduate of Lives Under Construction who was visiting the ranch in October when a reporter and photographer came to meet Ortman.

Cody said he had problems with lying and stealing before coming to the ranch.

He said he spent more than three years at the ranch, developing a work ethic through raking leaves, mowing grass and taking care of animals.

Cody also praised “skills before pills” — the ranch’s practice of taking every resident off of their psychotropic medications.

Ortman, whose degree is in wildlife management, said any boy who truly needs medication would be given medication, but that’s never been necessary.

Documents from the Department of Social Services show the agency has repeatedly advised Lives Under Construction against this practice, but Cody said his life is better without medication.

Cody said he is much more social now and looking forward to going to college.

“There’s no way my life would be the way it is now without the ranch,” Cody said.

Ortman said Cody’s experience is similar to hundreds of other boys who have completed the ranch’s program.

After 2009

According to Ortman, officials from the Department of Social Services have told him that they receive a relatively small number of hotline calls about Lives Under Construction and even encouraged him to drop his ranch’s state licensing, which it did in 2015.

The state agency will still investigate hotline calls made about Lives Under Construction, but the ranch is no longer subject to twice-yearly visits by state officials.

Ortman said they will also have more leeway when it comes to screening potential residents.

The News-Leader could not confirm those claims as Rebecca Woelfel, a spokeswoman for the state agency, said records of hotline calls are not public.

Woelfel, who refused to speak with a News-Leader reporter on the phone, did not respond to a question asking why an official might suggest that Lives Under Construction drop its state license.

It’s unclear why anyone from the Department of Social Services would want the agency to have less regulatory authority over Lives Under Construction.

Since 2015, Ortman said Lives Under Construction has operated under a religious exemption in Missouri law.

While the state maintains a public list of the more than 100 licensed residential facilities, Woelfel said the Department of Social Services does not maintain a list of residential facilities that claim a religious exemption.

It is unclear how many children in Missouri are currently housed in unlicensed residential facilities like Lives Under Construction.

Randy Cowherd, a Springfield attorney, is representing the three former residents who claim they were sexually abused at the ranch. Cowherd is also representing the Brooks family, whose parents were murdered by runaways in 2013. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2016.

Cowherd told the News-Leader after a 2017 court hearing that the family wants Lives Under Construction to either be shut down or have its leadership overhauled.

The people who were on the board at the time of the 2009 rape and the 2013 murders have since resigned. They, too, are defendants in the four lawsuits facing the ranch.

One former board member, Robert McDowell, has already settled the wrongful-death lawsuit, separate from the ranch. Court records show he agreed to pay $500,000.

Jack Herschend, a former board member and a co-founder of Silver Dollar City, was among the hundreds of people who attended an open house at the ranch in October, according to the Stone County Gazette.

Herschend is among those named in the lawsuits.

He spoke positively of a tree-selling program he helped start at the ranch, the paper reported, and attendees ate barbecue, toured the ranch and watched skits performed by the boys currently living there.

Recent tax forms for the nonprofit ranch show Lives Under Construction is almost entirely funded through donations and grants, raking in more than a million dollars some years.

In 2015, the ranch raised more funds than any other nonprofit on Give Ozarks Day, an annual day of charitable giving organized by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. The News-Leader reported Lives Under Construction received 186 donations totaling $71,809.

Lives Under Construction released promotional videos on YouTube earlier this year, highlighting the ranch’s Christian teachings and its independence from the government.

In one video, a staff member praised the ranch’s commitment to its residents.

“(Lives Under Construction) is a place that’s never gonna give up on a boy and they’re never gonna kick a boy out,” he says. “We tell our guys that this is a safe place to make mistakes.””

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