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Reformatory CP - February 2003

Jefferson City News-Tribune, Missouri, 25 February 2003

Charges dropped against Christian academy's founder, wife

The Associated Press

A northeast Missouri prosecutor on Monday cleared a Christian academy's founder and his wife of charges that they illegally took custody of an infant from a former student at their reform school, which has long been questioned over its discipline.

Shelby County Prosecutor James McConnell said he dropped the case against Heartland Christian Academy's Charles and Laurie Sharpe after the teenager who filed the original complaint repeatedly urged him in recent weeks to drop the matter.

"It's a closed case now," McConnell said. "I don't think anyone was trying to harm a child, and that's what it boiled down to in this matter. I felt this needed to be dismissed."

The Sharpes were to be tried in June on the charge that they had not applied for a custody-transferring court order when the took in the infant child of the former student, then 16. The case was filed in 2001.

Charles Sharpe said the mother asked the couple to take custody, only to decide later she wanted the baby back.

On Monday, he credited McConnell "for acting on the courage of his convictions" in dropping the charges.

Over the past two years, Charles Sharpe -- a millionaire insurance executive -- has spent more than $2 million defending Heartland against a laundry list of charges, largely over the strong forms of discipline used at the remote school for troubled youths. That discipline has included paddlings and, in one instance, forcing misbehaving youngsters to stand in piles of manure.

Charles Sharpe has said such treatment was appropriate, given his unwavering belief that America's youths are falling prey to drugs, sex and violence because public institutions are godless and parents have spared the rod of corporal punishment.

But he has strongly denied abusing any children at his 20,000-acre religious complex in rural northeast Missouri near Bethel, about 150 miles north of St. Louis. No Heartland officials have been convicted of wrongdoing.

Still, Monday's development reflected a softening stance toward Heartland by McConnell, who took office in January and said he hopes to improve dialogue and relations with the academy he deems a worthy service for troubled youths.

"We want to make certain Heartland will work with us, and we'll try to show we'll work with them," McConnell said, adding that "there are many, many successes that have occurred" at Heartland.

"Certainly Heartland has its approach, and I respect that," the prosecutor said.

Charles Sharpe, whose academy serves about 140 boys and girls on site, said "we look forward to working together" with McConnell.

"I think we are all after the same thing -- what's best for the kids," he said.


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