documentaries, law, money, Police, true crime, YouTube

America really ain’t so great, is it? A French documentary leads me down another path of true crime discovery…

There are so many things I could write about this morning. Like, for instance, I read that Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein’s former girlfriend and fellow sex pest, has been convicted. She was facing six charges, and was convicted of five of them, including: sex trafficking of a minor, transporting a minor with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity and three related counts of conspiracy. She now faces up to 65 years in prison. Her sentencing date has not yet been announced, and her attorneys vow to appeal. That’s what they all say, of course…

I don’t take any particular delight when anyone gets convicted of a crime and faces a long stint in prison, but I do think justice has been served in this case, just as I did when Josh Duggar was found guilty. People who endanger others, particularly when there’s violence or coercion involved, and particularly when the crimes involve preying on vulnerable people, should go to prison. They should be removed from society so that law abiding citizens are less at risk. But, of course, that’s not saying a whole lot in the United States these days.

Anyway, suffice to say, I think it’s right that Ghislaine Maxwell was found guilty. I think she should be treated humanely, as I hope all prisoners are, but I believe it’s correct to send her to prison for what she did. I hope Donald Trump is next.

MOVING ON…

Yesterday afternoon, I watched America’s Broken Dream, a 2012 French documentary that was posted on YouTube. The documentary, which was presented in English, was about homeless people in the United States as of about ten years ago. It was a bit depressing, on many levels, to watch it, especially given what has happened since 2012. Several families were interviewed– people who were homeless or “half homeless”, living in cheap motels. All of the stories were compelling, although it was the last family that really caught my attention.

This was a sad, but interesting, documentary done by the French filmmakers, Java Films. There is also a French version.

Toward the end of this documentary, a young couple with two adorable little daughters is profiled. The mom, Amber Carter, is in California with her girls, presumably because California, as a “blue” state, offers better social safety nets for poor people. Dad, Daniel Carter, is in Kentucky, working manual jobs to support his young family.

At one point, Daniel comes to California to see his wife and their little girls. I am struck by how much he seems to love the kids, and his wife. Amber is shown trying to fill out job applications, but finds it impossible because she has two tiny kids to look after. I was wondering what she would do with the girls if she did get hired. I know from my days as a MSW student that decent child care is not cheap, always available, or widely accessible to everyone.

It looked like things might be improving for the young family. I had some hope that they might recover. But then Daniel Carter is arrested in Kentucky for striking and killing his neighbor, a man named Christopher Mitchell, with a hatchet. Carter maintains that Mitchell was drunk and had attacked him. He claims that he hit the guy in the head with a hatchet in self-defense.

Carter did plead guilty to fleeing and evading the police, and resisting arrest. But somehow, there wasn’t enough evidence to try Carter for the murder of Christopher Mitchell. He was released after serving 135 days in jail, time he was already credited for when he faced the judge. Another blog, titled Liar Catchers, has this article about Daniel Carter. Christopher Mitchell’s family was “furious” that Carter got away with killing their relative, especially since it wasn’t the first time he had killed someone.

I don’t believe it was mentioned in the documentary that Daniel Carter also did some time as a juvenile in Florida for killing his Uncle Jack Carter with a knife, back in the early 00s. Carter spent 19 months locked up in jail, but was later acquitted of first degree murder charges stemming from the July 2002 stabbing death of his uncle. In that case, Carter also claimed self-defense, as his uncle reportedly had come to his home to help discipline him. Daniel Carter, who was fifteen years old at the time, claimed his uncle had gone into a rage, and he had stabbed him with a rusty knife to protect himself. Jack Carter was stabbed ten times, with one wound to the neck that proved to be fatal.

Many people found it hard to believe that Carter got off in that case, too. One witness said that she’d never seen Jack Carter behave in a violent way and people were shocked that Carter wasn’t convicted. I’m sure that prior case could not be considered when Daniel Carter fatally wounded another man in Kentucky, but it does seem eerie that he killed two men in similar ways and got away with it both times.

I found the below 2015 post on Pensacola’s Community Bulletin Board:

Public Service Announcement

This is Daniel Carter. Pensacola natives might remember him as the boy who murdered his Uncle Jack Carter back in 2002. Though he stabbed his uncle over 10 times with a machete, cutting his throat and nearly severing one of his arms in the process, he was found not guilty of the crime. Why? I’ll never know. Jack’s sister, (Daniel’s mother), had called Jack over to the house that night to help her discipline Daniel, a troubled teen, whom she was unable to control. After the brutal murder of Jack Carter, members of the community, led by his mother Cindy, rallied around Daniel, who was only 15 at the time. Community members even held a fundraiser for Daniel’s defense at Bamboo Willie’s. They got him a renowned child advocacy attorney, who went on to paint a picture of a poor, abused teen, who feared for his life when he took a machete and stabbed his uncle over 10 times that night. When Daniel was release from jail after the trial, people rejoiced that he had won his freedom back. After all, poor Daniel didn’t mean to kill his uncle when he stabbed him repeatedly.  

Let’s fast forward to 2012. Daniel now lives in Kentucky. And in Kentucky, after a dispute with his landlord, (who apparently had a pointed stick in his hand), Daniel proceeded to take a hatchet, (yes, a HATCHET) and plant in right in the center of his landlord’s forehead, killing him. Believe it or not, Daniel was released from jail. Self defense again. In any case, the reason I am posting this is because Daniel is a Pensacola native, and I have no idea where he is now, but it’s defintely possible that he could be back here. If you ever happen to see him and have a disagreement with him, I would advise you to RUN. Whatever you do, DO NOT confront this man. He obvioulsy has a temper, and his history shows he is very dangerous!  

On a side note, the last time I saw Jack was about a week before he passed away. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so we exchanged hugs, and sat down to catch up over a drink. He was beaming. Smiling ear to ear. He told me he was in love. He told me he never thought “this kind of happiness was possible”. And he told me that for the first time in a long time, he was excited about the future, not just going through the motions of the day to day routine. He was happy to be alive ❤

And a few days later, he was gone.  
Rest in Peace, Jack.  
You are not forgotten.

One woman commented that she had been married to Daniel Carter. She wrote that he had conned her and her mother, and he was a very violent person. She expressed gratitude that they didn’t manage to have children together. I guess she must have been married to him before he was married to Amber, the woman who was portrayed as his wife in the documentary, as well as the mother to his two adorable little girls. If you click on the link directly above, you can read the comments about Daniel Carter and people who know him.

I didn’t know anything at all about this couple or the true crimes that were connected with them when I was watching the documentary. From what I could see on the video, Amber Carter was a good and attentive mom, even though she and her girls were living in their old car. It’s certainly not a crime to be poor. I was also struck by Daniel. He seemed to be a friendly, charismatic person. I could see how he charmed people, as he was well-spoken and seemed to work hard, and loved his daughters very much.

It just goes to show you that friendly, charming, well-spoken people really can be hiding monstrous characteristics under the surface. In the documentary, his boss says that Daniel Carter has an “amazing work ethic” and that his little girls are all he talks about. To hear him tell it, Daniel is a fine young man and dedicated provider to his family. I truly enjoyed watching him interact with his daughters, who really seemed to love him. He seemed to love them right back. I was genuinely saddened when the announcer in the documentary talked about Daniel’s arrest. The Carters seemed like they might somehow make it– or, at least it seemed like they were trying to get out of the hole they were in.

I got curious about Amber Carter, so I looked her up. Sadly, it appears that she might also have some serious legal problems. In September 2021, a woman named Amber Carter, who roughly matches the age and description of the Amber Carter in the documentary, was wanted by the police in Jones County, Mississippi. She was accused of “giving birth to a child who tested positive for methamphetamine” and was to face one count of felony child abuse. According to this article, Amber Carter was captured about a week after the news reported about her. She is, at this writing, listed on the inmate roster in Jones County, Mississippi.

As I was searching for more information about the recent charges against Amber Carter, I also ran across another item from May 2018, which appeared to involve the same woman– again, for giving birth to a baby who tested positive for cocaine and meth. If this is the same Amber, that means she’s had at least two more children who have been born into deplorable circumstances and are likely in foster care now.

A screen shot of a news brief about Amber Carter. Sure looks like the same person.

While it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if the Amber Carter who was wanted in Mississippi is the same Amber Carter in the documentary, it does make me sad that it could be, and probably is, her. The Amber in the documentary genuinely seemed to be a good mom, although it could be she was only like that when the cameras were rolling. I suppose I can understand how a person in the situation Amber and the other people profiled in the documentary might fall into drug abuse, but it really does seem like a terrible shame.

Although there seems to be an age discrepancy between the documentary Amber and the Amber in the above mug shot, I do think they are one and the same. The documentary was released in 2012, but 2008 was when the recession was really bad. I think it’s very likely that the footage was filmed in the years prior to 2012, and if that’s the case, then the ages for Amber in the documentary and Amber in the mug shot line up perfectly. Also, there is a very strong physical resemblance.

After I finished watching the documentary, I happened across a guest opinion essay in The New York Times about a woman who had once owned a home and horses. She was raised in Palo Alto, California by successful parents, and went to college and studied journalism. Lori Teresa Yearwood once had it all– including her own business. But a series of misfortunes and subsequent mental health challenges plunged her into homelessness. She spent two years on the streets, where she was sexually assaulted multiple times.

Yearwood went to several hospitals via ambulance after the assaults. She was so traumatized that she couldn’t speak, so hospital administrators did not know she was homeless– or, so they claim. As she was getting back on her feet again, with the help of Utah-based non-profit organization, Journey of Hope and an accountant she knew from her days as a business owner, Yearwood discovered just how outrageously expensive being homeless is. People don’t realize that homeless people often incur debts because they get arrested and fined. Yearwood also had huge hospital and ambulance bills, due to visiting the facilities after she was assaulted and locked in a storage shed for two days.

Fortunately, once she was functioning again, Yearwood was able to advocate for herself. She’s now back to working as a reporter. She got the huge medical bills dismissed, after she explained to the hospital administrators that she would be reporting about how they treated her. From the opinion piece, Yearwood wrote:

A public relations official responded that while in the hospital’s care, I refused to speak, so staff members didn’t know I was homeless. I explained that I had not refused to speak; I had been traumatized and had gone essentially mute for two years. By this time in my renewed journalism career, I had obtained my medical records, so I showed the hospital administrators some of the doctors’ notes about me. The next email from the hospital was swift: “Upon reviewing your account, we have decided to honor your claim of being homeless at the time of service and wrote off the remaining balance.”

I asked the hospital administrators if they were going to respond to the harm they had caused by ruining my credit: the stress and sleepless nights, the fact that I could no longer qualify for low interest rates on mortgages. The spokesman apologized but said, “All I can do is make it right going forward.”

Lori Teresa Yearwood is one of the lucky ones. I know it’s hard to climb out of poverty. I remember when Bill and I were first married, we weren’t impoverished, but it sure felt that way. I seriously thought we’d never get out of debt. It took years to do it, but I had my eye on the prize, and we were very fortunate in many ways. Moving to Germany, for instance, was a great move for our finances. But not everyone can do what we did… and many people are burdened by having children to raise.

I look at Amber Carter and I suspect that years of living as she was depicted in the America’s Broken Dream documentary wore her down on many levels. I’m sure that using drugs and having unprotected sex were two escapes for her that made life temporarily more pleasant. But those decisions ultimately made her personal situation much worse, and they also made things worse for her innocent children. She joins so many Americans who are incarcerated, and will find it so much harder to function once they are released.

As for Yearwood, I think she makes an excellent point that Americans need to pay more attention to treating mental health issues. Yearwood was doing great until the 2008 recession hit, she had credit problems that led to foreclosure, the Oregon house she was renting burned down, her dog died, and then, in 2014, she had a mental health breakdown that made it impossible to continue operating her business. When she was slowly recovering in 2017, she was fortunate enough to run into people who coaxed her toward rejoining society. She writes:

Nonprofit employees who work with the homeless should be trained in how to interact with people who have experienced trauma. Otherwise, they may inadvertently shame their clients for being hesitant to return to an economic system that has already penalized and punished them. A classic symptom of trauma is avoiding the source of that trauma.

As I was emerging from homelessness, I trusted very few people. I needed what advocates call a soft handoff. I would never have considered going to a group trying to help me unless someone I trusted had referred me and would go with me. My initial soft handoff was arranged by Shannon Cox, a former police officer and the founder of Journey of Hope. She took me to lunch and drove me to the hospitals to pick up all the records that I had no idea I was going to need to later protect myself financially.

Now, Yearwood is able to advocate for herself and others, but if not for people who cared enough to help her, she might still be on the street. She might still be at risk of sexual assault and falling into illegal drug use to escape the despair. Maybe she might be in a position similar to Amber Carter’s, although thankfully, there probably wouldn’t be any innocent children involved.

The America’s Broken Dream documentary also profiles other families– people who had jobs and homes, and their children, who were forced to live in cheap motels and worry about being picked up by child protective services. I might have to see if any of those people managed to pull themselves out of homelessness. I know it’s hard, though, because as Yearwood points out, it’s very expensive to be poor. A lot of people have no idea. And there but by the grace of God go any of us, unfortunately.

Documentaries like America’s Broken Dream scare the hell out of me, and make me so grateful for what I have… and for Bill, who works so hard to provide for us. But, I swear, every time I read a news article about financial ruin– something that Bill has already survived when he was with his ex wife– I want to start another bank account. It really is hard getting by in America if you don’t have the right skills, enough support, and luck.

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book reviews, mental health

A belated review of The Hospital: How I survived the secret child experiments at Aston Hall…

Apologies in advance for this book review. I purchased The Hospital: How I survived the secret child experiments at Aston Hall in 2017 and read it sometime in the last couple of years. I was astonished by this book about Barbara O’Hare and ghost written by Veronica Clark. But somehow, I never got around to writing a review. I can’t believe it, actually, because this book was one that was hard to put down. I remember gliding through it with ease, which is more than I can say for a lot of the books I’ve been reading lately.

The Hospital is not a good book because it’s a happy story, although I do think it has kind of a happy ending, in that the person it’s written about managed to survive her long and arduous ordeal at Aston Hall in England. Aston Hall, thankfully, is no longer. However, this story takes place in the not to distant past, as O’Hare was a patient in the Laburnum Ward at the now defunct hospital for about eight months in the early 1970s.

From the outside, pictures of Aston Hall make the hospital look like a respectable place– solidly brick with big, white framed windows. And yet, what went on behind those imposing brick walls was truly horrifying. The hospital was led by Dr. Kenneth Milner, who, according to some of his former charges, was horrifically abusive and performed sick experiments on children. O’Hare’s account alleges that she was frequently drugged and abused by the staff at Aston Hall.

Although Aston Hall was a psychiatric facility, Barbara O’Hare was there, basically because she was abandoned by her family– first by her mother when she was a baby, and then by her father, who was a drunk and a “tinker”. Barbara’s father used to denigrate her all the time, calling her a “tinker’s daughter”. He couldn’t look after her, or her brother, Stephen, who was born to one of Barbara’s father’s many girlfriends. Barbara’s father eventually placed his daughter in foster care, where the maltreatment got even worse.

Barbara’s first foster mom was abusive and cruel, so Barbara ran away and was later put in a children’s home. She ran away from the children’s home, on a quest to find her long, lost mother, who had left her when she was eleven months old. Deemed a “difficult” child, Barbara was then put in The Cedars, which was a home for challenging or troubled foster children. While she was at The Cedars, she was visited by Dr. Kenneth Milner, who wore tweed, stroked Barbara’s hands, and asked her if she would like to come to the hospital. He had treated her with sympathy, and led her to believe that if she went into the hospital, she would be taken care of and would get “better”. That’s how, at age 12, Barbara became a pediatric mental patient at the hands of an abusive mad man.

I don’t know how or why I didn’t write about this book when I first read it (edited to add: I have since found my original review, written in January 2017– this review is not a repost, though). I do remember being blown away by Barbara O’Hare’s horrific story, which is well handled by ghost writer, Veronica Clark. I was born in 1972, which I know was a long time ago… but it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago. It’s crazy to think that someone my sister’s age was locked in a mental hospital in England, being tortured by people who were supposed to be qualified to provide medical care. Barbara had been lured into cooperating with Dr. Milner with the prospect of being a patient. She had visions of wearing slippers and comfortable nightgowns, being cosseted by nurses and comforted by a kindly physician instead of being locked up in the glorified children’s jail that was The Cedars. Instead, what she experienced at Aston Hall turned out to be way worse than the remand center.

While Barbara was at Aston Hall, she was allowed visits with her father. She tried to tell him about the abuses that were going on there, some of which were of a sexual nature. Unfortunately, Barbara’s father didn’t believe her, so the abuse continued until one day, while she was at home on a furlough, Barbara told her father’s girlfriend about what had been happening to her. The girlfriend managed to convince Barbara’s dad not to send her back to Aston Hall. But the damage was done, and Barbara was left with many lingering psychological effects of the terrifying and extreme child abuse delivered by supposed caregivers.  Barbara later went to a Catholic home, where she was subjected to more abuse, although none as bad as what she endured at Aston Hall.

Aston Hall closed in 2004, having been used as a hospital since 1926. Many people, besides Barbara O’Hare, have come forward to speak about the horrific abuses that went on in the facility at the hands of Dr. Milner, who died in 1975. It’s been alleged that Milner used barbaric methods to study his subjects, including stripping them naked, restraining them with bandages or strait jackets, and drugging them with sodium amytal, sometimes known as “truth serum”, a drug that was frequently used in World War II.  It had a sedating effect, which was augmented by Milner’s use of ether.  Aside from being drugged, Barbara was also sexually abused.

While The Hospital sounds like a lurid account, and it kind of is, the story is true and absolutely horrifying. The victims who have come forward to complain about their “treatment” at Aston Hall have received compensation, and I’m sure the money is useful to them. But I wonder if any amount of money is enough to compensate for the mental, physical, sexual, and emotional abuses these children faced in the name of “mental health” treatment. That kind of abuse doesn’t just affect people who have endured it; I’m sure that people close to Barbara O’Hare have also suffered tremendously.

I would recommend The Hospital to anyone who is curious about this story. I don’t know why it took me so long to write about it. All I can think is that I was totally shocked by this account and blown away that it was going on in the 60s and 70s. It sounds like a story from the Dark Ages. If you do decide to read this book, be prepared to be triggered. It’s not an easy story to handle, especially if you have abuse issues of your own.

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book reviews

Repost: my review of Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter

Here’s another reposted Epinions review from April 2009. This one, posted as/is, may be of special interest to anyone involved in foster care or adoption.

Recently, there’s been some buzz about 24 year old Redmond O’Neal, son of Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal, being arrested for violating his parole on drug charges. The young man is now sitting in a Los Angeles jail while his mother battles anal cancer. Redmond O’Neal is just one of many young people in America who grew up privileged and turned out troubled. Thanks to CNN and FoxNews, we can read about cases like Redmond O’Neal’s all the time; yet we don’t as often hear about people like Ashley Rhodes-Courter, author of 2008’s Three Little Words: A Memoir. That’s a pity, since Rhodes-Courter’s story is so much more inspirational and uplifting. Perhaps it’s also much rarer as well. Wouldn’t it be nice if our media focused more on the positive rather than the disappointing?

Ashley Rhodes-Courter was born in South Carolina in 1985, the daughter of a seventeen year old girl named Lorraine. Ashley never knew her biological father when she was growing up. Her earliest memories of a father figure are of her mother’s abusive husband, Dusty. Ashley’s mother went on to have two more children before she turned 20, Tommy, who died of SIDS after 48 days of life, and Luke, Dusty’s son. Ashley writes that Dusty and her mother were neglectful drug abusers who apparently didn’t know the first thing about how to take care of children. She explains that her mother would carefully strap her into her carseat, but neglect to strap the carseat into the car.

One day, Ashley’s mother decided they needed to get a fresh start in a new location. They headed for Florida, where Lorraine hoped that Dusty would be able to find work. Everything changed when Dusty was pulled over for not having a license plate. The cop then arrested him for not having a license plate or a valid driver’s license. A couple of days later, the cops showed up at the duplex Lorraine and Dusty had rented and arrested Lorraine. That was how Ashley and her brother, Luke, ended up as foster children in the state of Florida.

What follows is Ashley’s harrowing story of her life in a series of foster homes and children’s shelters. Sometimes she was allowed to stay with her brother, but more often, they were separated. All the while, she wondered what had happened to her mother and when she would get to see her again. At one point, she and Luke were sent back to live in South Carolina with Lorraine’s alcoholic father and his live in girlfriend, Adele. Adele turned out to be a wonderful mother figure, but it soon became clear that Ashley’s grandfather was an unsuitable guardian. Moreover, no one in Florida had ever given permission for Ashley and Luke to move to South Carolina. They came back to Florida, plunged back into the system after tentatively bonding with Adele.

In all, Ashley Rhodes-Courter spent nine years in fourteen different foster homes. She was unable to bond with her caregivers or learn to trust them because she was constantly being shuffled around. One foster family turned out to be shockingly abusive, while another foster dad was later revealed to be a sex offender. Through the years, Ashley saw Lorraine a handful of times and was always left with hope that someday her mother would be able to reclaim her.  Sometimes Lorraine would be scheduled for a visit and fail to show up; sometimes Lorraine would show up with gifts, which would inevitably be lost as Ashley moved from home to home.  With each move, Ashley and her brother lost track of their few possessions.  I found myself imagining what it must have felt like to be constantly moved from one place to the next, unable to form attachments.

Ashley’s saving grace was her uncommon intelligence. She did very well in school and had impressive leadership qualities. She was also lucky enough to run into Mary Miller, a woman who acted as her guardian at litem and later helped Ashley and Luke escape the foster care system. Ashley’s mother finally lost her parental rights and Ashley was eventually adopted as a twelve year old, but it took a very long time for her to gain enough trust and stability to be able to say three little words to her adoptive parents.

My thoughts

Ashley Rhodes-Courter is an incredible young woman as evidenced in her memoir, Three Little Words. This book offers a rare first person glimpse of what it’s like to be a foster child. More than that, it shows readers how much children need stability in their lives. A good portion of this book focuses on Ashley’s life after her adoption and the adjustment issues she dealt with even after she found a loving forever family.

Since I have a master’s degree in social work, I was also interested in reading about how the child welfare system served Ashley and her brother. As it turned out, the system did a very poor job looking after Ashley and others like her. Even though Ashley’s mother was irresponsible and abusive, some of Ashley’s licensed caregivers were just as bad. At best, Ashley generally spent a lot of time in overcrowded, impersonal conditions. At worst, Ashley was beaten with a slotted spoon, forced to drink hot sauce, subjected to grueling physical punishments, and exposed to pornography. It’s very clear by Ashley’s account that there are not enough caring people serving as foster parents and too many people who are in it just because the state pays them.

And yet, as someone who has been a social worker, I can also understand why these things happen. One of the reasons I don’t practice social work (besides the fact that I am now married to the military) is that it’s a thankless, low paying, stressful job. A lot of people go into social work because they want to help people. But the system makes it difficult for social workers to be as helpful as they should be and there aren’t enough families who are willing to take in foster kids. So I can see why some inappropriate couples were approved to be foster parents, even if I don’t condone it. Ashley seems to be doing her best to change the situation for foster kids.  Inspired by the film Erin Brockovich and helped by her adoptive parents, Ashley Rhodes-Courter went on to bring a class action suit against the foster parents who had abused her and so many other children.

One thing I noticed about Three Little Words is there’s a little plug for Wendy’s restaurants in it. Dave Thomas, the late founder of Wendy’s, was an adopted child and did a lot of work for the adoption cause. Ashley was also a fan of Wendy’s Jr. Bacon Cheeseburgers.

Ashley Rhodes-Courter’s story is amazing. She was able to channel her writing and public speaking talents into something very valuable for children. I am humbled by her courage and resolve to change the child welfare system.

I think Three Little Words is an excellent read for anyone who is interested in the child welfare system, as well as anyone who just likes an uplifting memoir. I was able to read this book in a matter of hours and I felt good when I finished it. I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more from Ashley Rhodes-Courter in the coming years.

For more information: http://rhodes-courter.com

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teen help, true crime

Repost: Creepy Christian caregivers from my hometown…

Yesterday, I read a news report out of the Salt Lake Tribune about the “teen help” industry, and how it’s burgeoning in Utah. One controversial facility that regularly comes up in Provo Canyon School, which Paris Hilton recently said she attended in the 1990s. I am currently reading a book by Cameron Douglas, son of actor, Michael Douglas, who also had experience with the school. Many “troubled kids” from around the country are sent to Utah to get “straightened out” by abusive schools, sometimes with disastrous results.

As I was reading, I was reminded of a “teen help” facility located very close to where I grew up. Many “troubled children” from around Virginia were sent there, and some suffered horrific abuse. I’m reposting my comments about that today, as/is. This post was originally composed October 26, 2017.

I’ve spent the past couple of hours digging up old news about churches in the county where I grew up.  Gloucester, Virginia was a pretty low key, rural kind of place back in the day, but there was the occasional scandal.  Today’s story has a long history that came to a head in the 1990s.  It’s a bit juicy and convoluted.

I moved to Gloucester County in June 1980.  I was eight years old.  That was the same year Hopesville Boys Ranch was closed, because new therapeutic methods were allowing families to keep their troubled kids at home instead of sending them to “homes” to live. 

Hopesville Boys Ranch was opened in 1967 by the late Reverend Frank Seal and his wife, Ruth.  Reverend Seal was a Methodist minister who had worked in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia for years before he and his wife purchased 30 acres of land in Dutton, right on the border between Gloucester and Mathews counties.  When the ranch closed in 1980, it was later reopened as a Christian school, Hopesville Christian Academy. 

About thirty years ago, when I was about 14 or 15, I went through a brief phase when I rode my bike from Gloucester to Mathews just for kicks.  I’d go twenty or thirty miles just because I felt like it, which seems especially weird, since I had a horse at the time and probably should have been at the barn.  I remember riding through the small, rural community of Dutton and saw the signs for Hopesville Christian Academy.

I remember wondering what went on at the school.  I knew it was really tiny.  Even back in those days, religion kind of gave me the creeps.  I knew very little about the Christian school, only that it sat kind of eerily on the side of the road.  I didn’t know anyone who went there, though, and in time forgot about it.  The school closed at the end of the 1988-89 school year.  Other Christian schools had opened in the area, diminishing the need for Hopesville Christian Academy.  I graduated from Gloucester High School in 1990 and spent the next nine years moving back and forth to Gloucester. I went to college, served in the Peace Corps, and finally, in 1999, left for graduate school.  I have not lived in Gloucester since 1999 and have not visited since 2010.

Many years after I rode past it on my bike, I suddenly remembered that Christian school and home.  I didn’t remember the name of the place, but I remembered what it looked like and where it was.  I started obsessively digging and finally found some news reports about it reopening as a children’s home back in the early 1990s.  A 1994 news article reported that the facility had been reopened as a home for abused, abandoned, and neglected boys and girls. 

Frank Seal and his wife still ran Hopesville, although they also had help from two daughters, Joyce Clarke and Sheila Boettcher, and Boettcher’s husband, Gerald.  Gerald Boettcher had been in the Coast Guard and, I gather, had ties to nearby Milford Haven, a tiny Coast Guard station in Mathews, Virginia.  In all my years living in Gloucester, I don’t think I ever visited Milford Haven.  I doubt there was much to see there, anyway.

The facility, renamed Hopesville Ministries Children’s Home, was granted an initial permit that allowed them to accept six children.  Later, they were licensed for up to 36 children, and had community support in renovating the facilities to include two cottages, a gymnasium, and an office.  Sheila Boettcher had said that residents would be referred from across the state by the Division of Social Services and privately by parents and grandparents of children in dysfunctional home environments.  Eventually, there were also plans to reopen the Christian school, although the first residents would be attending Gloucester County public schools and getting therapy from local practitioners.  It all sounded so… “hopeful”.

Just five years later, in June of 1999, the director of the home, 46 year old Gerald Boettcher, was in the news.  Mr. Boettcher, who had left the Coast Guard and was also working as a contract driver delivering mail, had attempted suicide. 

Boettcher had been accused of committing sex crimes against two girls who had been living at the home between June 1, 1995 and June of 1999.  Aware that he was being investigated, Boettcher threatened to kill himself by placing a gun in his mouth. 

Boettcher was taken to Riverside Walter Reed Hospital in Gloucester, where he was later arrested.  For some reason, he was later taken to Central State Hospital, the state run psychiatric hospital in Petersburg, which is south of Richmond.  I would have expected him to go to Eastern State Hospital, in Williamsburg.  Williamsburg is closer to Gloucester than Petersburg is, but perhaps the state divides these cases by region.  I know Gloucester is often lumped in with Richmond, even though Richmond is not closer as the crow flies.

Boettcher was accused of forcible sodomy, sexual penetration and indecent liberties with both girls and, it seemed, more charges were likely.  At the time of Boettcher’s arrest, the victims were 16 and 17 years old.  The Division of Social Services took the six children who were at the home and sent them back to their parents and/or relatives.  None of the children were from Gloucester; apparently, the local social services agency had never referred anyone to that facility. 

Interestingly enough, I was living in Gloucester at that time, but I don’t remember this story in the news.  Back then, I read the newspaper every day.

In December of 1999, Boettcher pleaded guilty to five sex charges, bringing his grand total of guilty pleas to eight.  His mother-in-law, Ruth Seal, and the rest of his family and friends reportedly “seemed stunned and angry” at the outcome of the trial.  They repeatedly said that he didn’t do it.  Ruth Seal was upset that she didn’t get to testify.  Boettcher’s wife, Sheila Boettcher, told the mother of one of the victims that she hoped she “rotted in Hell.” 

Despite his family’s outrage and horror, it does appear that the evidence against Boettcher was overwhelming.  Boettcher admitted to both a Gloucester County Sheriff’s Office investigator and a hospital crisis worker that he had been having sexual contact with the girls.  Additionally, a computer forensics analyst had hacked into Boettcher’s computer and found documents for the “Golden Hearts Club”.  One of the victims, then sixteen, also testified that Boettcher had her stand naked and recite vows to enter the Golden Hearts Club.  He had evidently told her that she “had qualities he hadn’t seen in anybody in a long time.”  The victim said she had moved to Hopesville when she was fourteen and Boettcher had started having sexual intercourse with her two months later.  The offenses took place at the home, in Boettcher’s vehicles, and at a construction site where Boettcher and his wife were building a home.

Boettcher was finally caught when another resident saw him kissing the girl intimately.  The resident told a housemother, who then contacted social services.  At that point, local law enforcement became involved.

Boettcher faced up to 45 years in prison for his crimes.  In Mach 2000, he was sentenced to 19 years, with ten suspended.  I see Boettcher was defended by Michael Soberick.  I remember in the late 1980s, Mr. Soberick ran for public office in Gloucester.  I only remember that because I was taking a high school journalism course at the time and, as part of that course, attended a question and answer session he gave.  I remember it being boring, except that there was a guy in my class there upon whom I had a massive crush.  My dad had taken me to the session, which was held at Rappahannock Community College.  My dad said my crush looked like a “wimp”.  Good thing I ended up with Bill, who did meet with my dad’s approval.     

I see Boettcher is now listed as a registered sex offender and apparently lives in Dutton.  His neighbors evidently aren’t too pleased, although he has apparently not caused any problems since he got out of prison.  I also found the Hopesville property listed for sale, although there appears to be a discrepancy in the years reported when the buildings were erected.  Frank Seal, who founded Hopesville in its many incarnations, died in 2003.

It’s amazing what a long memory, a little morbid curiosity, and a lot of nosey proclivities will get you.  Incidentally, this is certainly not the first time a trusted man from the area where I grew up turned out to be a pervert.  In 2008, there was a huge scandal in nearby Middlesex County when it turned out that the recently retired social worker, Arthur Bracke, had been molesting boys in his care for years.  I have written about Mr. Bracke, now mercifully deceased, several times.  Although I would be the first to say that men are often unfairly accused of being monsters, the evidence is clear that sometimes the ones we trust the most turn out to be total creeps.  It also drives home the fact that kids who go to foster care sometimes wind up in situations as bad or worse than the ones they’ve escaped.

I don’t know much about the late Reverend Frank Seal, but it does sound like he was probably a good man who had good intentions when he started his boys’ home and Christian school.  I’m sure this whole catastrophe was awful for him and his family.  In more than one article about his school/home, he is quoted as saying “It has been my life…  Jesus said, `Suffer the little children to come unto me.’ I’ve tried to live up to that.”  

There were even some people testifying in favor of Mr. Boettcher, who, like many sex offenders, wasn’t a complete monster.  Of course, they almost never are “complete monsters”.  If they were monsters, they would have a much harder time getting access to their victims.  But anyway, I do remember Hopesville Christian Academy and how creepy it seemed as I passed it on my bike thirty years ago.  I guess my intuition was dead on again. 

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