Grand jury declines to indict Mack W. Ford, founder of New Bethany Home for Girls, following allegations of sexual abuse
A grand jury has declined to indict a man accused of raping girls who were under his care at a notorious religious boarding school in north Louisiana decades earlier.
Mack W. Ford, 82, of Arcadia, was the target of what law enforcement officials describe as a year-long investigation into reports he molested young residents at his now-shuttered New Bethany Home for Girls.
A written statement released Tuesday (Jan. 6) by Bienville Parish District Attorney Jonathan Stewart, said “the grand jury was given research and information regarding the statute of limitations with regard to each alleged act and, after deliberation, returned a no true bill.” A no true bill represents a grand jury’s decision not to indict.
Three women who lived at the home in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s traveled from three states to testify before a grand jury Dec. 18 about their experiences with Ford. Other witnesses testified Oct. 15 and Dec. 29, according to state officials.
The women said their grand jury testimony was the closest they felt they had come to achieving justice for the crimes they said were committed against them as young girls in the place Ford once described as “a mission project to the incorrigible, unwanted rejects.” But after a Louisiana State Police investigator notified them by phone Monday evening that Ford would not face charges, the former residents sounded variously dazed, outraged and despondent.
“If he had been indicted for just one thing, it would have been justice for so many people,” said Simone Jones, a 47-year-old police dispatcher in Kansas who told police that Ford raped her in 1982 or 1983. “Why does this man continue to walk free?”
The grand jury convened almost exactly a year after Jones and other former residents journeyed to Bienville Parish to support Jennifer Halter, an ailing woman from Las Vegas, as she fulfilled a dying wish to report Ford, who she said began molesting her shortly after she arrived at the school in 1988 until her 1990 departure. Their trip wasdocumented in an April NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune series that chronicled decades of abuse allegations at the home for which no one was ever prosecuted.
Ford, who still resides at the former New Bethany compound at 120 Hiser Road, has declined to comment about the allegations against him. He could not be reached by phone Tuesday morning, nor could Jesse Lewis Knighten, a nephew who court records show assumed power of attorney for Ford in January 2013.
Halter and Jones said that Mike Epps, an investigator with Louisiana State Police, told them Monday evening that the grand jury decided that the crimes they described were not prosecutable under current law.
“The reason given in the short-term was not that the grand jury didn’t believe us. It was because of the statutes,” Jones said.
Jones told police she was 14 when Ford approached her while she was doing chores, asked her if she was “a pure lady,” unbuttoned his overalls and then forced her to perform oral sex.
Jones said that Epps explained to her Monday that though current law considers oral sexual intercourse to rise to the level of “forcible rape” in some circumstances, at the time she said she was victimized in the early 1980s, the law only considered it “oral sexual battery.” Forcible rape has no statute of limitations, while sexual battery does.
“They let us down again,” Halter said. “I can’t understand why it’s OK for these people to do what they do and walk away like nothing was done wrong. It’s like laughing in our face all over again. What is justice? When is enough enough?”
Halter told police that Ford was chief among her abusers during her time at the home. In interviews with NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, she described repeated abuse, including frequent sexual contact by Ford during choir trips he chaperoned to churches in nearby towns and states — information she said she also reported to police in 2013.
Louisiana State Police Capt. Doug Cain said Epps would not be able to discuss the investigation or the grand jury’s decision. “We have to respect the court’s decision,” Cain said.
Former residents who were aware of the latest police investigation, recalled decades of abuse allegations recorded by state social workers and local police that never materialized in criminal charges.
“This has gone on for years,” said Tara Cummings, a resident at the home from 1982 to 1983. She said that if the statute of limitations was an issue, the state attorney should not have convened a grand jury to begin with.
“The particulars for the statutes of limitations for these crimes was always accessible to the DA’s office,” she said. “They are the party who needs to understand and be clear about what is and what is not possible under the statutes.”
Stewart said in an interview Tuesday afternoon that recent case law makes it somewhat unclear whether current prescriptive periods for sexual assaults are retroactive. He said that while his office understood what the women had already reported to police in terms of dates and timelines, he felt it was important to let them speak directly to a grand jury. That’s partly because it’s common for victims of childhood sexual abuse to re-remember their trauma in piecemeal fashion, over time, he said.
“Until you get the evidence before the grand jury and hear directly from the alleged victims, you don’t know exactly what a victim is going to say has happened of a sexual nature,” he said. “You don’t know it until you say it. And you don’t know the dates or dates when it may have happened, which triggers the prescriptive period.”
Cummings, formerly of Metairie, and Teresa Frye, a North Carolina woman who resided at the home in 1982, were among those who accompanied Halter when she made her report to Bienville Parish Sherriff’s Office in late 2013, though neither of them say they were victims of sexual abuse at the home.
Both raised questions regarding the way the investigation and grand jury proceedings were handled, including how diligently investigators sought witnesses and how faithfully prosecutors pursued charges.
Halter says Assistant District Attorney Tammy Jump scolded her three times during her grand jury testimony, saying that she was lying regarding a memory involving her encounter with a law enforcement officer. Halter also said she shared with investigators the contact information of witnesses from New Bethany who could corroborate her testimony, but they were never contacted.
Jump referred questions about the case to Stewart. The outgoing district attorney said he felt the case was handled professionally — both by the Louisiana State Police and Jump. He chuckled when he was asked about the Halter’s account that Jump accused her of lying.
“Oh Lord,” Stewart said. “I can just tell you that I doubt very seriously that that happened. And it certainly never happened when I was in there.”
Stewart said he wanted to bring this case to conclusion before his term ends Jan. 11. “As far as these cases go, I think the book is probably closed. But if there is credible evidence of any other cases that are viable, I am sure the DA’s office will listen to them and endeavor to do the right thing.”
Katherine Strong, 42, of Bushnell, Fla., said she was a witness to some of the things that Halter said happened to her at New Bethany. She said that she contacted Epps twice this year offering to give him her statement, but he never followed through. When Strong learned Halter was headed to Louisiana to speak in a court proceeding, she said, she reached out to Epps a third time and was told that prosecutors did not need her testimony.
Strong resided at the home in 1988 and 1989. She said that she remembers Ford regularly pulling Halter away from other people, asking her to do housework and other chores in his private quarters. Strong said she clearly remembers being on a choir trip, seeing Ford escort Halter to the bathroom and then seeing Halter tearful and distressed afterward. Strong said Halter ended up confiding in her about her sexual abuse while they were still at the home.
“He’s been getting away with it for better than 30 years and I don’t have any faith in anyone doing anything,” Strong said.
Ford created New Bethany Home for Girls 44 years ago on a plot of land 50 miles east of Shreveport, on more than six acres he bought for $30,000 from a 60-year-old widow, according to court records. The site had served as a penal farm and later a nursing home before he turned it into a home for what he called “wayward” girls.
New Bethany was affiliated with the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church. Residents were subject to strict rules, harsh punishment and maintained restricted access to the outside world, according to interviews, news reports and legal documents.
“We are reaching out as a mission project to the incorrigible, unwanted rejects,” Ford told attorneys in a 1997 court deposition. “Destitute, lonely, prostitutes, drug addicts … These kids haven’t been loved and they haven’t had a chance in life.”
Ford was a high school dropout-turned-tire-salesman who said he was inspired to open the school during a retreat in Arkansas. There, he once said in a court deposition, he met two little blonde 12-year-old girls who had been impregnated by their father and was inspired to help such troubled children.
Until its closure in 2001, the school took in hundreds of children and young women from across the state and country.
To some who heard of New Bethany’s mission and others who encountered the school through its traveling girls’ choir it appeared a worthy charitable cause. But records, interviews, news reports and other documents show residents also went to extraordinary lengths to escape the home.
Stories of physical and mental abuse plagued New Bethany for almost as long as it was open, documents and news stories show. Girls who ran away from the school described brutal paddlings and harsh physical punishment. They were rarely allowed to call home and when they did, their calls were monitored, according to accounts.
Runaways often scaled the tall chain-link fence, crawling over the inward facing barbed wire at the top, and ran through dense woods to find someone who might believe them.
State and local officials escorted girls from the property during several raids. But the home was repeatedly allowed to reopen and reenroll children.
Ford became known for his resistance to outside interference. He filed federal civil rights lawsuits twice after state officials from child protective services and the state fire marshal sought to inspect the facility or question children and staff about their complaints of abuse. A federal judge in 1992 dismissed a lawsuit in which Ford asked the government to keep officials from interfering in New Bethany operations. Seven years later, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision determining there was no evidence that state officials were plotting to shut down New Bethany, as Ford complained.
When New Bethany’s board of directors, led by Ford’s son-in-law, Timothy Johnson, decided to close the school in 2001, it cited financial difficulties stemming from the school’s ongoing legal battles.
Joanna Wright, 54, of Houston, sounded tired when she spoke about the grand jury decision this week.
Wright, a preacher’s daughter, arrived at the home in the mid-1970s at age 14, excited for an experience outside what she describes as her insular, fundamentalist upbringing. But she said Ford soon began molesting her and, in 1977, forcibly raped her on the New Bethany compound.
Wright said news of the non-indictment left her feeling numb. She said she had told authorities about what happened to her on several occasions — she said she told a social worker about it in 1993 and spoke to a district attorney in 1998 — and nothing ever came of it.
But in July 2013, haunted and frustrated by her experience and the experiences of those she knows, Wright reached out to Jump, the assistant district attorney in Bienville Parish, and told her she was ready to make a police report in person.
On July 11, 2013, Jump wrote back:
“We are a long way from being able to arrest him. I have to sift through this stuff and talk to someone who was raped at the home and is willing to testify to that fact. And then determine if I can win the case. I don’t think it would be good for anyone [sic] of the victims to go through with what it would take to convict him if we can’t convict him. I will do my best and anything within my power to see that justice is done. But unfortunately justice for some of the victims will not be served on this earth. He will have to answer to God.”