“Four of six suspects wanted in a Cumberland County child slavery ring have surrendered to authorities, officials said Friday.
All of the suspects were part of what authorities have described as an “alternative religious group” that forced children as young as 9 years old to work for little or no money in the fish markets and grills they use to finance their operations.
The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office identified the four as Irish Williams, Kassia Rogers and Shirnitka and Shirley McNatt. They have been charged with operating a continuing criminal enterprise, involuntary servitude of a minor, obtaining property by false pretense and conspiracy.
The group lives in a collection of mobile homes and buildings off U.S. Highway 301 in Godwin known locally as McCollum Ranch. Authorities said they have documented that about 125 people have lived there over the years, but they were unclear how many of that number were children.
“We do have allegations where people who are charged now were actually victims many years ago, back in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West said.
John McCollum, the leader of the group, pleaded guilty in 1990 to misdemeanor child abuse for beating a child so hard with a belt it left scars.
“I think, many times, whether it’s drugs, whether it’s sex trafficking, whether it’s labor trafficking, people get in those lifestyles, and it’s hard to break the cycle. It’s hard to get out,” West said.
The McCollum Ranch case even got the attention of state Attorney General Josh Stein, who on Thursday announced an expanded effort to fight human trafficking in North Carolina.
“What’s going on in Cumberland County – obviously, it’s just charges at this point and allegations, they sound horrendous – young people, even pre-teens, being forced to labor 40 hours a week, taken out of school, it shocks the conscience,” Stein said.
The group operates at least three John C’s Fish Markets and mobile grills in Fayetteville and one in Lumberton, authorities said. Several former residents told authorities that children of members have to work full time in the fish markets with little to no compensation, lifting heavy boxes, keeping fish iced, cutting fish and cleaning, as well as performing construction and maintenance on the mobile grills after hours.
Authorities also say that an 11-month investigation found that a bogus homeschool operates on the compound. Halls of Knowledge Home School provides no schooling, they said, but the group uses it to 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.
McCollum, Brenda Joyce Hall, who runs the homeschool, Cornelia McDonald and Pamela Puga Luna were arrested in December on charges of operating a continuing criminal enterprise, involuntary servitude of a minor, obtaining property by false pretense and conspiracy. Arrest warrants on the same charges have been issued for Daffene Edge and Earlene Hayat.
Anthony McKoy, who isn’t a church member, said he has known McCollum for 25 years and called the allegations “hogwash.” McCollum would never do anything to hurt anyone, especially children, he said.
“I’ve known some of the kids that’s been there since they were young that are grown now, that are productive citizens here in Fayetteville,” McKoy said. “Some of the best people you ever want to meet.”
West said investigators have had a hard time building a case against McCollum and the others because many of the alleged victims won’t talk. They got a break in August when they found a 15-year-old who had run away from the compound, and they used statements from four children to file charges in the case.
The Cumberland County Department of Social Services has those children in protective custody.
“We’ve got to have evidence of what was going on, evidence that there is criminal activity to be able to prove it in a court of law,” West said.
Few people were at McCollum Ranch on Thursday. One man who identified himself only as “John” disputed the allegations against his fellow members and said attorneys representing the church are looking forward to their day in court.
McCollum is being held at Central Prison under a $1.1 million bond. He was moved there from the Cumberland County jail after complaining of his health. All of the others remain in the Cumberland County jail under the following bonds: Hall, $325,000; McDonald, $250,000; Luna, $527,000; Williams, $325,000; Rogers, $325,000; Shirley McNatt, $350,000; and Shirnitka McNatt, $70,000.”