In New Bethany sex abuse case, incoming DA says he will review grand jury proceedings
A change of guard in the Bienville Parish district attorney’s office is fueling new hope of reviving the investigation into sexual assault allegations at a north Louisiana boarding school. A grand jurythis week declined to indict Mack W. Ford, 82, founder of the now-shuttered New Bethany Home for Girls in Arcadia, where at least four former residents have told police they were molested in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
After a year-long investigation, District Attorney Jonathan Stewart said the grand jury found the statute of limitations to be problematic to securing an indictment. But Danny Newell, who replaces Stewart on Monday, said he plans to review the file once he takes office.
Newell, formerly an assistant district attorney under Stewart, said Thursday he knows little about the New Bethany case and wasn’t aware until recently that a grand jury had convened in the matter. “Once I get in office and have had a chance to review the file, I will be happy to talk to you about it,” he said.
Stewart forced Newell to resign from his prosecutor position in Claiborne Parish in April 2013 after he indicated his intent to run for Stewart’s office, according to the Haynesville News. In 2014, both registered to run for district attorney, but Stewart soon withdrew from the race and Newell won, defeating another candidate.
The grand jury’s decision marked a clear blow to some former residents of New Bethany. In recent years, they reconnected with one another through the Internet and, in emotion-filled message boards and blogs, began reliving what many describe as painful memories of harsh punishment, brutal isolation and relentless warnings regarding God’s wrath.
The school, which billed itself as a reform school for children from troubled homes, was open from 1971 to 2001. It became known for its traveling girls’ choir, which Ford often escorted on road trips to churches in other towns and states.
While the school generated support within independent fundamentalist Baptist community and others who wanted to help troubled youth, runaways from the home often scaled the property’s barbed wire fences seeking help. Records show that over decades, they relayed stories of abuse to law enforcement and others, accounts that sparked two state raids and numerous investigations into reports of child abuse there. Still, the home was not permanently shuttered until its own board voted in 2001 to close it. No one at the girls home was ever prosecuted for abuse.
But between October and December 2014, four women traveled to Louisiana from Ohio, Nevada, Texas and Kansas to tell the grand jury about sexual abuse they say they endured under Ford’s care. Their testimony came after a landmark trip in which several women gathered to support an ailing Las Vegas woman as she sought to execute a dying wish: to tell police that she was sexually abused at the home by Ford and others during her time as a resident there, from 1988 to 1990.
News of the grand jury’s decision not to indict this week drew outcry, both from former residents and from one victims advocacy group. Some of the residents have publicly criticized Stewart’s office for its handling of the case.
Stewart was an assistant district attorney in 1988 when he successfully petitioned the court to grant authorities custody of dozens residents who, he said, “are in need of care and have been abused and/or neglected.” He argued the girls were in immediate danger, beaten by staff and directed to beat one another. He wrote that the girls lacked medical care, were isolated from the outside world, forced to work in unsanitary conditions and deprived of a proper education.
Tara Cummings, a former New Bethany resident who has advocated for those who say they were sexually abused, said she is perplexed by Stewart’s role in the case over the past three decades.
“The amount of evidence he had at the time was the exact same as now: victim testimony and first-hand verbal accounts,” she said. “If he was so moved to believe abuse occurred back then that he would forcibly remove 28 girls, then why would he not give the same weight and force of law to the victims in this case? Why was there a secret grand jury? He had intimate knowledge of egregious abuses from 1988, and reports of such kept trickling in for as long as the home was open.”
Despite Stewart’s successful court petition in 1988, Louisiana’s 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal months later ruled that while state officials had the right to enter the compound, it was not authorized to remove the students. The court’s reasoning hinged in part on the fact that child welfare officials did not see cause enough to remove all the children. They took 28, but another 19 who said they preferred to stay at the home were permitted to do so.
Cummings, who said she herself was not subjected to sexual abuse at New Bethany, lived at the home in 1982 and 1983 under what she described as emotionally and physically abusive conditions. But the Metairie woman said she thinks Stewart has been largely absent to the victims in recent years as they have rallied for justice.
“It is as though he was just introduced to all this for the first time last year,” she said. “The record shows that his knowledge of New Bethany and Mack Ford actually spans nearly 30 years, if not more,” she said.
On Tuesday, Stewart said he had been eager to bring the New Bethany case to a grand jury before leaving office. He said he thought the door had closed on the current cases under consideration, but that the next district attorney would consider any new evidence. Stewart offered to talk more about his thoughts on the history of New Bethany at a later time.
Former residents have also started publicly questioning whether Tammy Jump, the assistant district attorney who oversaw the most recent grand jury case, has improper connections to Ford. One of Ford’s grandchildren, David Johnson, states on his Facebook page that he works for Ruston Tractor, a business that records show is run by Jeremy and Heather Gantt. Jump confirmed that Jeremy Gantt is her brother.
Asked this week about any ties between her family and Ford’s, Jump said she had no knowledge of her brother’s payroll. She said she knows of Timothy Johnson, Ford’s son-in-law who is David Johnson’s father, because of his connection to the New Bethany case. But she said she never met Ford and had no clue that her brother might have employed his grandson.
Timothy Johnson was on the New Bethany board in 2001, when it voted to close the school. In a March 13, 2013, email to colleagues at Louisiana College, where he served as vice president, Timothy Johnson disclosed that in 1991 he became aware that a resident complained Ford had sexually abused her. He also wrote that his mother-in-law had been in possession of audio taped evidence of the sexual abuse.
When asked last year whether he contacted police about the sex abuse complaint, Johnson told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune he wasn’t allowed to discuss it because he might be a witness in a legal case involving Ford. News reports and interviews with former residents indicate the school closed for a period of time following the incident, but by the mid-1990s it had started enrolling youth once again.
Johnson this week did not respond to a request for an interview.
Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, outreach director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, issued a statement this week calling on legislators to remove the statute of limitations on sex crimes. She asked authorities to “launch an aggressive outreach effort to find anyone who may have seen, suspected or suffered child sex crimes” at the home.