‘Just terrified.’ Another MO boarding school under fire after boys run, allege abuse

Cierra Osborn was driving home from the store in southeast Missouri late last month when two boys jumped out from behind a tree, waving her down.

“They were screaming, hands up in the air, trying to get me to stop,” Osborn said.

When she did, the older boy had one request: “Ma’am, we just need you to call 911.”

Osborn, 20, knew little about ABM Ministries, also called Lighthouse Christian Academy. In fact, she hadn’t heard about the boarding school near her home until a couple weeks before, when she learned that another kid had run away in frigid temperatures.

Now, she stood before two more runaways, ages 12 and 14, who had walked miles without coats in temperatures hovering between the high 30s and low 40s. Osborn said they told her that staff would often berate them and hit them for things like not getting their chores done fast enough.

“They were just terrified, they were shaking,” Osborn said. “I don’t know if it’s just because they were that cold or what.”

ABM Ministries, which runs Lighthouse Christian Academy for boys 10 and older, is the latest unlicensed boarding school in Missouri to face scrutiny amid allegations of abuse. Since September 2020, The Star has investigated several schools, and the lack of regulations for them in the state, and has spoken to more than 80 students who attended facilities in southwest Missouri.

This private, faith-based school south of Piedmont — a town of about 1,900 in the remote Ozark foothills in the southeast corner of the state — is bringing renewed attention to the issue.

In the past five weeks, the Missouri Highway Patrol assisted Wayne County authorities after runaways from ABM Ministries were reported, said Highway Patrol Sgt. Clark Parrott. Late at night on Jan. 13, when temperatures had dipped into the teens, the patrol used its helicopter to search for a boy who fled the boarding school.

At 3:13 a.m. on Jan. 14, the patrol was notified the boy was located in nearby Mill Spring. The patrol was called again to help when the two boys ran away later that month, Parrott said.

“I don’t remember seeing this many runaways (from ABM Ministries) so close together,” said Parrott, public information officer for the patrol in that area since 2011.

Multiple calls to ABM Ministries and the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department seeking comment were not returned. A spokeswoman with the Missouri Department of Social Services said state law prohibits the agency from releasing information about specific cases.

‘People seem outraged’

What makes this situation involving ABM Ministries unique, besides the encounters with the boys after they ran away from the school, is how the community surrounding it has gotten involved. Residents have posted on social media sites urging authorities to do something.

They’ve called the state child abuse and neglect hotline to report the situation at the school. And they’re reaching out to state lawmakers in their area.

“The boys don’t have a voice,” said Courtney Hall, who lives about 2 miles from the boarding school. “They don’t have a way to be heard.

“So the only people they can rely on are the few that actually know what’s going on. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here and not do (anything) about it.”

Community members have also been in contact with several former students, who say they were mentally, physically and sexually abused during their time at ABM Ministries in the past two decades.

Aralysa Baker, who attended ABM Ministries from 2005 to 2007 when the school also housed girls, told The Star that she and other former students have tried for years to spread the word about how they were treated. Baker, of Oklahoma, said that included physical abuse, not being allowed to make eye contact with fellow students, standing for hours at a time looking at the wall when you were in trouble and being forced to do manual labor to benefit the school.

She said students also were made to memorize Bible verses and punished if they didn’t recite them correctly.

When Baker wouldn’t eat in her first 24 hours at ABM Ministries, she said a top staff member put her in a chokehold and she passed out. When she came to, she said she was force-fed toast.

Former students posted testimonials over the years, but nothing came from them. Baker said that’s why they grew hopeful when reading about how community members helped the two boys and posted online about it.

“People seem outraged,” Baker said. “And we’re like, ‘OK, this is our shot to get it out there that this was a bad place.’”

Making hotline calls

Osborn took the two boys to her home on Jan. 28 and fed them hot dogs, and neighbors helped her warm the boys with blankets. She said she called the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department and soon the state child abuse and neglect hotline — as several neighbors also reportedly did.

Within about 15 minutes of her calling the sheriff’s department, she said deputies showed up.

“They literally just walked up, grabbed the boys and told (them) to get in separate police vehicles, and they just left,” said Osborn. “They never even took my statement.”

She said a deputy later contacted her on Facebook and apologized for not getting her information. He told her that they were still searching for a third boy who had run off, too, Osborn said. That student was later found.

In the days after Osborn tried to help the two boys, she would learn that kids have run from the boarding school for years — including one boy who was hospitalized in 2014 with extreme frostbite.

She and others in the area found stories written by The Star about the director at ABM Ministries, Julio Sandoval, who came from Agape Boarding School, another facility across the state in Cedar County where abuse was alleged.

Hall said Missouri’s child abuse and neglect hotline was flooded with calls about the school on the day the two boys were found. She discovered that when she called to make a report herself.

She said the man who answered the hotline “goes ‘Ma’am, we have taken in so many reports today’” about ABM Ministries. “He’s like, ‘There is no need for me to even take your report. We got all the information we need.’”

Hall said he assured her that he would make a note that she called.

When she called the hotline again the next day, she said another dispatcher told her that “they looked over it,” and there “was not enough evidence to start an investigation.”

Osborn, the woman who spotted the two boys on her way home from the store, said she was told the same thing.

Baylee Watts, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Social Services, said that except in “very limited circumstances,” information related to specific child abuse and neglect investigations is closed and confidential under Missouri law. She did not answer specific questions about the runaways and whether the allegations about the school are being investigated.

“Under Missouri law, the Department of Social Services must contact appropriate law enforcement agencies when it receives a report that merits investigation,” Watts said. “Law enforcement agencies may co-investigate or provide other assistance.”

Rep. Keri Ingle, a Lee’s Summit Democrat who co-sponsored a bill that became law in 2021, implementing some regulations on unlicensed boarding schools in the state, said she will inquire about the situation going on near Piedmont in Wayne County.

“If kids are running away, we need to be investigating that,” said Ingle, a licensed social worker and former Jackson County Children’s Division employee. “Seldom do kids disclose abuse, so when they do, that needs to be investigated.”

‘Tempered with love’

Lighthouse Christian Academy’s 25,000-square-foot campus is “tucked away near the Ozarks on 250 acres with rolling hills, a spring-fed pond, and fenced pasture with animals,” its website says.

The school, operated by ABM Ministries, has an average of 40 students and, like many religious boarding schools, uses a teaching curriculum called Accelerated Christian Learning, where students learn at their own pace.

Lighthouse is “dedicated to the training of children in a program of study, activity, and living that is Bible-centered,” according to its parents manual. Discipline at the school “is firm, consistent, fair, and tempered with love,” the manual says.

Court records show that ABM Ministries’ operators, Larry and Carmen Musgrave, and school principal Craig W. Smith Jr. were the subjects of a 2009 civil lawsuit in federal court. It alleged that Smith groomed a female student after she enrolled in 2005, then “committed multiple acts of sexual bodily contact” with her — including intercourse — from September 2007 until June 2008.

The lawsuit says the girl’s parents notified the Musgraves in late 2007 that they were concerned about the degree of Smith’s personal relationship with their daughter, but nothing was done to prevent further contact between them. The lawsuit was settled in 2010, court records show, with a $100,000 judgment entered against Smith and a $750,000 judgment against ABM Ministries and the Musgraves.

ABM Ministries’ current director, according to state documents, is Julio Sandoval. The Star reported in February 2022 that he had moved to southeast Missouri.

Sandoval was dean of students at Agape Boarding School in February 2021 when the Missouri Highway Patrol launched an investigation into abuse of students at the Cedar County school in Stockton. In September 2021, the Cedar County prosecuting attorney charged five staff members with 13 counts of third-degree assault. Sandoval, who had been at Agape about 10 years, left to go to work for ABM Ministries soon after that.

In September 2022, The Star reported that Missouri’s child welfare agency had substantiated 10 reports of physical abuse at Agape. Those dispositions were final.

Multiple sources at the time told The Star several staffers appealed their findings. They said Sandoval was among them.

According to Missouri’s online court database, he still has a case pending against the Department of Social Services. His next hearing is scheduled for Feb. 26. State law allows staffers to still work with children while their case is under appeal.

Rep. Ingle has voiced concern that people with substantiated findings of abuse or neglect are allowed to work around children during the appeals process.

“He should not be having access to children while he’s under investigation,” she said of Sandoval.

Soon after Sandoval arrived at Lighthouse Christian Academy, The Star called the school and he answered the phone. Before key questions could be asked he hung up.

Earlier this month, a reporter called the school multiple times trying to reach Sandoval and no one answered. And no one responded to voicemails and requests for comment.

Sandoval also ran a transport company that parents hired to take their children from their homes — sometimes in handcuffs in the middle of the night, former students told The Star — and deliver them to boarding schools. His company, Safe Sound Secure Youth Ministries, had employed two off-duty Cedar County sheriff’s deputies to help pick up so-called troubled teens from across the country. (One of those deputies is the son-in-law of Agape’s late founder.)

In August 2022, a federal grand jury in California indicted Sandoval, accusing his transport company of violating a court order by taking a California teen to Agape in handcuffs against his will. Sandoval has pleaded not guilty, and according to court records, a jury trial is scheduled for October. He could receive up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.

Agape closed in January 2023 “due to the lack of financial resources to continue caring for the boys,” its director said.

‘I could barely even go to sleep over this’

After she tried to help the two runaways, Osborn posted about the experience on Facebook.

“(The boys) said multiple times they needed help but didn’t want to go back to the boys home,” Osborn wrote. “I understand these boys are troubled boys and they can make up stuff but this is the third time hearing these things about this boys’ home and no child should have to go through this.

Is there anything I can do to draw attention to this?” she wrote. “I just believe they should be investigated or something!!!”

That first post would be shared more than two dozen times.

The first two nights that this had happened,” Osborn told The Star, “I could barely even go to sleep over this. I kind of felt guilty for letting them go back with the police.”

All she wanted “out of this in the beginning was to at least get that building, you know, investigated,” Osborn said. “I witnessed them and how scared they were, you know, and I feel like if I was a kid, and had just ran away, I wouldn’t be asking for 911.”

Aralysa Baker emailed Osborn after reading her post.

“The compassion you showed the boys gave me hope that there are other people who genuinely care,” Baker wrote. “Myself and all other survivors in the troubled teen industry dreamed of having someone, anyone, show us such compassion. Thank you for being their champion.”

News of runaways at Lighthouse brought back memories for former students at other boarding schools. In the past three years, they’ve shared similar stories of what they call mistreatment and abuse and some ran for help like the boys in Wayne County.

Colton Schrag said when he was 15 and a student at Agape, he jumped out of a window and ran, hoping authorities would pick him up. When they did, he said he told them about the abuse students were enduring at the school.

“It fell on deaf ears,” Schrag said. “No report was filed, nothing was done. I was handcuffed, stuck in the back of the squad car and brought right back to Agape. Never saw the police station, nothing.”

Schrag, who testified before Missouri lawmakers in 2021 and urged them to take action to make the schools more accountable, said it was infuriating to hear about the boys who ran away from Lighthouse.

“Local law enforcement needs to take these abuse allegations seriously when it comes to kids and teens, whether they are in public schools or private children’s homes,” he said. “Missouri should know this by now, with the history of Circle of Hope and Agape Boarding School.

“Troubled teens’ lives matter the same as any other kids in a public school. Do better, Missouri.”