FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Four people have been charged after former members of a North Carolina-based religious group complained that a minister forced children to work in his fish markets for little or no money, authorities said.
John McCollum, 67, and three women who worked for him were arrested in December, The Fayetteville Observer reported. Six others were being sought.
McCollum faces charges including involuntary servitude of children, the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office said. Arrest warrants list 16 children and young adults as victims. The sheriff’s office said it believes more were involved.
Investigators say McCollum threatened the children with violence or loss of their food if they refused to work.
McCollum, who is jailed on a $1.1 million bond, told authorities he doesn’t think he committed any crimes.
The sheriff’s office also accused McCollum and others of fabricating high school transcripts to enroll the youths into various institutions.
Although a few of the youths and young adults did enroll in online college classes, sheriff’s office spokesman Lt. Sean Swain said the U.S. Department of Education estimates that McCollum’s organization received $500,000 in financial aid over the years.
McCollum moved his organization from a house in Fayetteville to isolated land near the small town of Godwin. The property includes several buildings, huts and vehicles, and is visible from Interstate 95 and accessible by a road called McCollum Lane. A sign at the entrance proclaims it as McCollum Ranch.
The newspaper reported that the man who went to authorities in February with a complaint about the compound had lived there for some time, said sheriff’s Sgt. Christy Booyer, lead investigator in the case. He was with a woman who had been there about six months. Their complaint was bolstered by a 15-year-old boy who had run away from the compound, Booyer said.
She said the boy told investigators about how he and his 13-year-old brother were forced to work in the fish markets for more than 40 hours a week. Children, at least one as young as 9, were made to cut, clean and ice the fish, Booyer said, adding that they lifted 50-pound boxes of fish and often cut themselves with the filet knives.