Investigation into members of Cumberland County religious group accused of holding children in servitude continues

John McCollum

GODWIN, N.C (WNCN) – Following the arrests of several members of an “alternative religious group,” Cumberland County District Attorney Bill West described the case as being unlike any he’s encountered in his career.

“The safety of our children is the most important. And, probably the most troubling aspect of this case is the allegation that children were possibly the victims of some of this conduct,” said West.

CBS North Carolina learned Wednesday that deputies arrested the group’s leader, John C. McCollum, saying he forced children between the ages of nine and 17 to work more than 40 hours a week for little to no money at fish markets he ran in the region. Investigators say the children were not being educated either. Former residents of the McCollum Ranch in Godwin told investigators McCollum and others were holding the kids in involuntary servitude.

“I’ve been prosecuting almost 20 years and haven’t seen a set of facts or allegations exactly like this,” said West.

Nine other people face charges as part of the investigation. Six of them still have not been arrested.

Following the reports on this case Wednesday, CBS North Carolina spoke with a man who used to work at an assisted living facility about half a mile from the property where the group was based.

Ed Weeks said that in 2008 a young man came to Countryside Villa looking for help.

“He was 21 years old. He had some mental challenges that he was dealing with. He was very scared. I mean, shaking like a leaf,” said Weeks. “’Please help me. Please help me,’ is what he kept saying over and over.”

Weeks eventually learned the man had come to the ranch to visit his mother.

Staff members contacted the sheriff’s office, he said. As they waited, a man came to the facility claiming to be the father of the 21-year-old. Weeks said the man began to fight him, with deputies arriving at the scene not long after.

Weeks said the young man told he did not want to go back to the ranch.

“After the police discussed everything, they said, ‘Well, the mother’s outside. Technically, I think we need to release him to the mother.’ And, I started arguing the case. I said, ‘Absolutely not,’” he said. “After what I saw, and how fearful he was, there’s no way I’m going to be OK with this boy going back with this lady with how scared he is.”

Weeks said the young man was taken to a hospital. After that, he was able to get in contact with the young man’s sister back home in Pennsylvania and helped him to get a bus ride back there.

“She called me a week later and said, ‘We had been looking for him for over a month. We didn’t know where he went. We didn’t know what happened. And, I’ve been petrified thinking the worst,” he said.

Weeks said he was frustrated he didn’t hear from investigators about the situation again after that. He could not recall the precise date of the incident. CBS North Carolina has reached out to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office to try to obtain any documentation of the case.

The investigation that led to McCollum’s arrest and charges against nine others began in February of last year.

CBS North Carolina asked District Attorney West, “Did you ever hear anything about this place before that that would have caused you to look into it further?”

He said, “Not that I know of. I don’t know if law enforcement had gotten complaints before that, but I have not.”

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