Missouri AG wants off Agape abuse case, says prosecutor doesn’t ‘intend to seek justice’

Former students have alleged being restrained and beaten, sexually abused and used as manual labor at Agape Boarding School

By: - September 24, 2021 12:53 pm

Missouri Attorney General Schmitt testifying to a Missouri House committee (photo by Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications).

In a sign of frustration with a county prosecutor’s decision to pursue less than a quarter of recommended charges against a boarding school accused of abuse, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has formally requested that the governor remove his office from the case.

In a letter sent Thursday, Schmitt said that Cedar County Prosecuting Attorney Ty Gaither’s decision to only pursue charges against seven of the 22 suspects the attorney general’s office identified and “a relatively small number of minor felony offenses reveals that he has no real need of the expertise and resources of the Attorney General’s Office.”

Furthermore, Gaither’s decision “indicated that he does not intend to seek justice for all of the thirty-six children who were allegedly victimized by twenty-two members of the Agape Boarding School staff,” Schmitt went on to write in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Independent.

The letter to Gov. Mike Parson came after the attorney general’s office filed a motion on Sept. 1 with the Cedar County Circuit Court asking a judge to empanel a special grand jury to hear evidence regarding the abuse children experienced “at the hands of the 22 identified suspects and to sign any resulting indictments.”  That motion was later denied Sept. 17, according to Schmitt’s letter. A copy of the motion was not public as of Friday.

A spokeswoman for Parson did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

In March, Parson directed the attorney general’s office to assist Gaither in an investigation into the abuse allegations at Agape Boarding School in Stockton in southwest Missouri.

“As a single prosecutor office, I cannot devote the hundreds of hours necessary to review, prepare and prosecute a case involving multiple victims, witnesses, and defendants,” Gaither wrote in a March 18 letter to Parson requesting assistance, Schmitt’s letter recounted.

Former students have alleged being restrained and beaten, sexually abused and used as manual labor during their time at the school. Agape received renewed scrutiny following an investigation by The Kansas City Star last year in which dozens of former students described enduring abuse and close connections between the school and local law enforcement.

Agape Boarding School is the second Christian reform school the Cedar County prosecutor’s office has asked for the state’s assistance with investigating in recent months. But unlike the case against Circle of Hope Girls Ranch in southwest Missouri, Gaither has retained authority on whether to issue charges related to Agape.

Earlier this month, Gaither told The Star he planned to file about 14 charges against seven individuals. The attorney general’s office recommended 65 criminal counts against 22 codefendants. Those charges involved 36 victims.

In a Sept. 13 letter to Circuit Judge David Munton, Gaither wrote that all matters in the Agape investigation must come from his office and requires his signature, according to Schmitt’s Friday letter. Gaither wrote his office was preparing “what we consider to be the proper charges” with the highest expected to be assault in the third degree — a class E felony, the lowest felony classification.

Meanwhile, the attorney general’s office recommended class B and class D felony child abuse charges, in addition to class D felony charges of tampering with a victim and class A misdemeanors of endangering the welfare of a child, failure to report child abuse and assault in the fourth degree, according to Schmitt’s letter.

Gaither’s decision has led to immense frustration from former students of the school who have advocated for change and testified before lawmakers to share their story. This week, at least two former students have gone as far as reaching out to the FBI in an effort to see further action be taken.

“Them stepping in and taking more action would be helpful, because there’s corruption in the justice system. And that shouldn’t be allowed. Everyone should be held accountable for what they did to the kids,” said a former student who asked to be identified by the alias used in his lawsuit against the school, John Doe II. “If someone like Ty Gaither is not going to be holding someone accountable like that, then someone should hold him accountable.”

Dixon Land, a spokesman for the FBI, said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation.

Gaither declined to answer questions related to students’ frustrations Friday, but said a press release would be issued with the names of those charged. Agape did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Students’ frustrations

Two former students of Agape said they’ve spoken with FBI agents this week, including from the FBI’s Springfield and Kansas City offices. Both said they reached out to the FBI, who have since asked for additional information.

A former student of Agape, who asked he be identified by his initials R.B. and has an ongoing lawsuit against the school, said he’s spoken with agents multiple times, who even asked for Gaither’s phone number.

R.B. said he spoke with Gaither Thursday, and says he was told that charges would be filed by Monday at the latest. Gaither did not respond to a request for comment confirming when charges would be filed.

“I hope that the FBI does more,” R.B. said.

John Doe II also said he spoke with the FBI about his experiences at the school and what he witnessed. He said he would like to see the FBI step in and take more action, noting that some of the charges Gaither said he would file would be misdemeanors.

“There’s nothing misdemeanor about child abuse,” John Doe II said. “And there’s nothing misdemeanor with anything that goes on at that school. It should be with the highest felonies as they can charge with what’s going on.”

Two additional former Agape students interviewed this week by The Independent said they had not reached out to or spoken with the FBI. But each shared the concern about Gaither’s decision to file fewer charges than recommended by the attorney general’s office.

Colton Schrag, who testified before lawmakers in February about the abuse he endured while at Agape, said he would ultimately like to see the school closed and criminal charges against everyone recommended by the attorney general’s office.

“He needs to listen to the people he asked for help,” Schrag said of Gaither. “He asked for help for a reason.”

James Griffey, who attended the school as a student from 1998 to 2001 and left in 2002 after working on staff, said he was ecstatic when he first heard about the charges the attorney general had filed. 

But Griffey said in conversations he had with the attorney general’s office he felt their frustration. And when he learned that the decision to pursue charges is ultimately in Gaither’s hands, Griffey said it almost felt like he was once again back at Agape.

“You have no power. You have no authority. You have nothing. Like your voice doesn’t matter,” Griffey said. “It almost felt just like that again. It was like, he doesn’t care.”

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.