‘Literally kidnapping’: Teens taken against their will to boarding schools across US

Julio Sandoval tells parents he wants to help their wayward sons get on the right path.

He assures them, through the website for his transport business, that he will deliver their children safely to a boarding school. So parents hire Sandoval’s company – Safe Sound Secure Youth Ministries – to remove their so-called “troubled teens” from their homes and transport them to the schools.

Sandoval also is former dean of students at Agape Boarding School and current leader of another unlicensed facility, both in Missouri. His goal with his transport company is to be “a blessing to your home,” and Sandoval shares with parents the philosophy he says he uses with his own seven children: “I don’t care if you like me, I am not raising you for YOU to like ME. I am raising YOU, for ME to like you.’”

Now, Sandoval, 41, awaits his next court appearance, arrested this week after a federal grand jury indicted him for violating a restraining order — issued at the request of a minor boy against his mother — by transporting him against his will to Agape in southwest Missouri. The jury also indicted the estranged mom of the teen, who was dropped off at Agape last summer after a 27-hour drive from California, the indictment says, his hands cuffed behind his back the entire way.

The arrests underscore concerns many have with transport companies whose agents often show up at homes in the middle of the night — with the parents’ consent — dragging scared youth out of bed, sometimes restraining them with handcuffs and threatening physical force if they don’t comply. They then cart them off to boarding schools across the country, including Missouri.

“That’s literally kidnapping,” said Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, who initiated hearings in Jefferson City on boarding schools and co-sponsored legislation that now regulates them. “I would be incredibly traumatized by being taken from my home in the middle of the night and handcuffed and threatened and all of that and then jetted states away.

“That’s absolutely crazy. That’s the stuff of movies. It’s unbelievable.”

Keri Ingle, Missouri state representative from Lee’s Summit
Keri Ingle, Missouri state representative from Lee’s Summit

Yet it’s been going on in Missouri and throughout the nation for decades, causing what students describe as extreme trauma that stays with them into adulthood.

“You’ve got the dean of students that’s running a transport service,” Aimee Groves, a former student at two unlicensed girls’ boarding schools in Missouri, told The Star last year. “These people are paid to kidnap children and traumatize them.”

Sandoval pleaded not guilty Wednesday in California federal court via video conference and was released on a personal recognizance bond. His next court date is scheduled for Oct. 5.

Agape issued a statement through its attorney, John Schultz, regarding Sandoval’s indictment.

“Agape does not own, control or operate any transport service, nor does Agape sponsor or endorse any transport service,” it said. “Agape was unaware of the California protective order but as soon as Agape learned of it discussions were had with the boy’s father to have him picked up from Agape. The boy was at Agape for 7 days and then turned over to his father when he arrived.”

Sandoval was Agape’s dean of students when he incorporated his transport company in June 2020 as a nonprofit with a Stockton, Missouri, address, state corporation documents show. Agape is located in Stockton.

On Jan. 12, Sandoval registered his company under a slightly different name — Safe Sound Secure Transport Agency — using the address of Lighthouse Christian Academy. That boarding school is in Piedmont, a town of about 1,900 in the remote Ozark foothills of southeast Missouri. Sandoval left Agape last fall and took a job as an officer at Lighthouse.

Sandoval’s company has employed two off-duty Cedar County Sheriff’s deputies to help pick up the youth from across the country. One of those deputies, Robert Graves, has worked at Agape and is the son-in-law of its late founder, James Clemensen.

Horror stories about transports surfaced several times last year in testimony that former students submitted to Missouri lawmakers as they considered measures to give the state some oversight over unlicensed boarding schools. Students represented several schools, not just in the Show-Me State.

“When I was 13 years old I was picked up out of my bed in the middle of the night by strangers who threatened me with mechanical restraints if I resisted,” Hannah Kay wrote in her February 2021 testimony. “I didn’t know why or where I was going. My parents were instructed to ignore my pleas for help.”

The California girl, then weighing just 65 pounds, was whisked away to the Florida Panhandle. She told The Star, “I honestly thought I had gotten involved with terrorists, and that’s why this was happening.”

Parents can pay hundreds and up to thousands of dollars to have their children picked up by transport companies and delivered to boarding schools.

Ingle said several former students shared with her their transport company stories and how the experiences still affect them today. She questions the legality of such methods.

“That opens things up to trafficking, false imprisonment, kidnapping, all of those things,” Ingle said. “It’s horrifying. And if these are kids with alleged behavioral problems or histories of trauma, this is just going to exacerbate that.”

Taken in the middle of the night

Niles Short was asleep in his Chicago-area bedroom in October 1999 when two men woke him up around 2 a.m.

Unbeknownst to him, his mom had secretly packed his things.

“These guys came in my room in plain clothes,” Short told The Star. “They handcuffed me with real handcuffs and threatened me with a taser. I got into survivor mode, told them I had to (go to the bathroom). They made me leave the door open and watched me.”

Soon, he was in a car and on his way to Stockton, Missouri. Short doesn’t know who the men worked for, but it wasn’t Sandoval’s company because he was transported about 10 years before Sandoval started at Agape.

“I was cornered in my bedroom — it was a shocking thing,” Short said. “I remember that day like yesterday. … My sister had warned me about it but I didn’t believe her, because Mom always threatened me with boarding school.”

Student after student recounted similar scenes in vivid detail. Middle of the night. Scared. Unsure of where they were going. Not knowing when they would be able to come home again.

During an investigation into Missouri’s unlicensed Christian boarding schools, The Star interviewed more than 70 former Agape students. At least a dozen said the transport itself left them traumatized and unable to trust people.

Five former students of boarding schools — Agape and other locations — submitted testimony to Missouri legislators that detailed their experience with transport companies.

David Patterson ended up at Agape on Father’s Day 2002.

“I was police escorted there by off duty cops,” he said in written testimony to the House Children and Families Committee last year. “Waking me up at 4:30 in the morning telling me ‘we can do this the easy way or the hard way’ while showing me a pair of handcuffs.

“They picked out my clothes and made me wear a belt backwards in case they needed to handcuff me to myself, and made me wear a ‘transport boot,’ a shoe you would get if you had a broken foot and a cast to walk in.”

The boot, he said, would keep him from running away.

“Upon arriving in Agape I was strip searched naked in a room full of grown men I’d never seen before and then I was taken to get my head shaved,” he said. “I would be restrained multiple times for not conforming and submitting to the school’s strange and oftentimes peculiar interpretations of the Bible.”

Four years later, on the day after Christmas, Colton Schrag was sent to Agape for a second time from his parents’ home in New Mexico. He was 14.

“Two dudes woke me up at like 4 in the morning,” he told The Star, “zip-tied me and escorted me out … like I was a hardened criminal.”

Colton Schrag
Colton Schrag

And Gabe Miller arrived from St. Louis, after a drive with two men from a transport company who entered the 15-year-old’s bedroom at 6 a.m on Labor Day in 2017. He quickly discovered that his grandparents had already packed his bag.

“They pulled out handcuffs and handcuffed me with my hands behind my back,” Miller told The Star. “They said, ‘If you act up, we can shackle your legs.’ I didn’t even get to say goodbye to my grandparents.”

One state takes a stand

One northwestern state decided that something had to be done.

Oregon lawmakers passed a bill that went into effect earlier this year to strictly regulate transport companies. It was the first state to adopt such legislation.

Its law requires companies that provide secure transport services for the purpose of placing a child in a residential program to be licensed as a “Child Caring Agency” in the state.

The companies also must comply with all the requirements of such an agency. That includes being incorporated and obeying the state’s restraint and seclusion policies. All prone, supine and mechanical restraints — including hoods, blindfolds and handcuffs — are prohibited. So is the “infliction of pain” and ridiculing of youth.

“The transport experience is so shocking and horrifying because it’s associated with home, your safe place,” said Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin, a Democrat who sponsored the legislation. “And so your ability to trust, like, ‘Who do I trust? How do I know that I’m safe? I can’t be safe at home. The people that are supposed to protect me are watching this happen to me.’ You can’t get over that.

“It’s trauma on so many levels.”

What Sandoval’s company is accused of doing — handcuffing the Fresno teen and driving him to Agape — “would 100 percent be illegal in Oregon for a whole bunch of reasons,” Gelser Blouin said.

“I think what’s interesting about that case, though, is the way that these places make their activities legal,” she said. “The contracts that the parents sign with the company give them the right to basically abuse their children. What made this illegal with this kid — and that’s what is frustrating — is it wasn’t really the transport, it was the restraining order.”

The mom didn’t have the authority to delegate the transport, Gelser Blouin said.

But she argues that the transport itself is wrong.

“You’re taking kids and you’re moving them involuntarily across state lines for profit,” she said. “What happened to that kid was and should be illegal. It is assault, and it is abuse, and it is imprisonment. But what’s absurd is that the only reason it was a crime was because his mom signed the papers.”

If his dad had signed transport papers, Gelser Blouin said, the exact same thing would have happened to the boy, and it wouldn’t have been a crime.

As for Agape, Gelser Blouin said she’s familiar with the school and allegations of abuse.

“I don’t know that there’s anybody that hasn’t heard about Agape,” she said. “I believe that it is a national embarrassment to the state of Missouri. There is no reason that it should be open. It is a demonstration of corrupt politics and clearly shows a disregard for the well-being of children. The evidence couldn’t be more clear.”

While working on her bill, Gelser Blouin spoke extensively to former boarding school students, including Brett Harper, an Oregon resident who attended Agape from 1999 to 2003. Last year, Harper told the Oregon Senate Committee on Human Services, Mental Health and Recovery — which Gelser Blouin chairs — about his experience being transported to the southwest Missouri boarding school.

He explained how one day his adoptive dad drove him home. His dad has just gotten off work at a parole and probation office in Oregon.

“We got inside and all of a sudden two men came out of the bathroom and showed me these badges,” Harper said. “They said they were here to take me to a boarding school and that I could go the easy way or the hard way. They informed me they were hired by my dad.”

The men told Harper that they typically didn’t allow parents to be present during the pickup but because “my dad is in law enforcement, they felt it would be OK,” Harper told the committee.

At the time, Harper said he chose the “easy way” and “allowed them to cuff me and put me in the van with my dad.”

He said his dad apologized and told him that he was going to a boarding school “that would help me get my attitude right and get right with God.”

“The transport itself, although not overly violent, is traumatic enough where I still have night terrors to this day at age 35 and this was 21 years ago,” Harper testified. “Most people who are transported to residential treatment facilities, boarding schools, wilderness camps … have night terrors, and some for the rest of their lives.

“I’ve spoken with survivors that have had night terrors about being transported 30 years later.”

Temira Lital, a mental health professional who was taken to a boarding school by transporters when she was a teen, also testified in support of the legislation.

“We’re talking about the act known as teen transport,” Lital said. “It’s not transport. It’s licensed kidnapping. I say that as a therapist and as a survivor.”

“Imagine being torn from your own bed, mostly-naked, by strangers of the opposite sex. For many years, I slept with my bed in front of my door. I slept with a knife under my pillow. I slept in my clothes, ready to run and live on the streets rather than suffer through this again. Teen transport almost destroyed my life.

“By banning it, you can protect the children of Oregon from similar experiences.”

In the end, Gelser Blouin said she hopes other states do what Oregon did and pass meaningful legislation to regulate transport companies and stop the “abuse” that youth endure.

“I think it should be illegal, period,” Gelser Blouin said. “I don’t see any world in which this is appropriate. We would not do that to adults.”