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Reformatory CP - November 1998

Rocky Mountain News, Denver, Colorado, 1 November 1998

Fighting to free a grandson

Western Slope family campaigns for release of 14-year-old boy from Louisiana preacher's harsh detention compound

By Lou Kilzer
News Staff Writer


She is a 70-year-old Colorado cancer victim determined to see her grandson one more time.

He is a fiery Louisiana preacher who has incarcerated children for 27 years.

In the middle is a popular Western Slope honor student who has disappeared inside an American gulag.

Fourteen-year-old Matt Grise of Rifle is being held behind the 10-foot-high barbed-wire fences of the New Bethany Baptist Church juvenile detention compound in northern Louisiana.

He has not been charged with any crime. No court supervises his detention. The boy's father, other family members say, has decided Matt is "evil" and must be subjected to the Rev. Mack W. Ford's stern brand of corporal punishment.

No one on the outside, except for Matt's father, Vincent Russo of Independence, Mo., is allowed to communicate with the boy.

Joan Grise says she won't rest until her grandson is freed.

But Ford appears in no hurry to release Matt.

This has set the stage for a confrontation in the same rural Louisiana parish where lawmen gunned down desperadoes Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in a roadside ambush in 1934.

For three months, Joan Grise has done everything she can think of to free Matt. But lawyers in three states told her she has no standing to act on Matt's behalf.

Now, she plans to travel to Arcadia and approach Ford, hoping to convince the preacher to back down.


As the weeks have dragged by, Joan Grise says she has become increasingly worried, unable even to verify until recently that Matt is still alive.

Ford angrily declined to be interviewed by the News. He ordered a reporter off the property Oct. 22 and threatened to call the police.

Deputy Sheriff Bob Stewart of Bienville Parish, where Arcadia is located, says there's no way of knowing the conditions inside what he calls Ford's "private jail."

"It's a money-making deal," Stewart says. Ford gets children "down here and works the heck out of them and spanks the heck out of them and does what he wants to."

Ford has said relatives need not worry. What the kids have called "beatings" were merely "paddling" and "licks," he once explained.

No child receives more than 10 "licks" for any infraction, he said.

The kids need this type of punishment, Ford told a Baton Rouge newspaper in 1985.

"When a boy is placed here, he is not a Sunday school dropout," Ford said. "When a boy is placed here, this is the end of the road for him. We take boys no one really wants or cares for.

"We feel this is the goal of the New Bethany Home - to reach the unwanted with the love of God."


New Bethany is located in a remote, heavily wooded region 60 miles east of Shreveport. Arcadia, pop. 3,079, is a few miles to the east.

Barbed-wire fences ring two areas in the compound - one on the east containing the church and boys' facilities and one on the west a school and rooms for staff and their children, according to two young girls interviewed 10 days ago by a News reporter.

As the girls talked, a line of boys walked single file from one of the locked compounds to the other. The swimming pool Vincent Grise mentioned wasn't visible from the narrow dirt road separating the two areas.

When he learned that a reporter was asking about Matt Grise, an angry Ford approached one of the fences with another man. Dressed in overalls, Ford stood with his face almost pressing against the fence.

"What are you doing down here trying to start trouble?" Ford asked.

He refused to discuss Matt's situation, loudly repeating, "Ask the daddy. Ask the daddy. Ask the daddy."

After the reporter produced a camera, Ford walked away quickly, shouting, "I'm going to have the law on you."

Later, Ford walked in front of the reporter's car on a nearby public road, forcing the car to stop. He then walked to the driver's side and tried unsuccessfully to force open the door.

Beyond state control

Louisiana state officials have tried but failed to close down Ford' s unlicensed private compound. State courts have upheld Ford's contention that his compound is a church protected by First Amendment guarantees of freedom of religion and exempt from state control.

Ford repeatedly has rebuffed the attempts of state regulators to inspect the facility. Even the state fire marshal is not allowed on site to assure the safety of the approximately 50 children housed there.

Ford has a long history of run-ins with state authorities in the South.

In 1981, the state closed a Ford-run boys home in Longstreet, La., amid accusations of child abuse. A year later, Ford opened the New Bethany Baptist Church Home for Boys in Walterboro, S.C.

Within a year, abuse charges again swirled around Ford.

Hearing tales from runaways of savage treatment, South Carolina authorities raided New Bethany, uncovering a logbook for beatings.

Boys there told of being hit with a plastic "rod of correction." Some said they were confined to a tiny cell. Handcuffs and ropes allegedly used to restrain the children were recovered.

In 1988, officials raided Ford's Arcadia compound, freeing 28 children aged 12 to 17. An affidavit in the case indicated that several children had severe bruising of the buttocks.

Some parents, however, returned their kids to Arcadia, some bringing them in handcuffs from as far away as California, deputy Stewart said. A state legislative committee later said it could find no children who told of abuse and cleared Ford.

In 1992, the state removed three girls and a boy from the Arcadia after renewed allegations of abuse.

In 1996 child welfare workers were turned away when they arrived to investigate further complaints. They were told the children they had come to see were no longer there.

When seriously challenged, Ford has closed his compounds, then reopened them when the pressure is off. He has also released children when official interest in specific cases surfaced, said former Louisiana probation officer Jim White.

While that gives some hope to members of Matt's family, it doesn't end their confusion about how such a facility has existed for so long and how their own relative vanished into Ford's private universe.

"Kids are taken down there against their will," complains Payson Grise, Matt's uncle. "It's like you woke up one day and what was right isn't right any more. And what was wrong is right."

Deputy Stewart has no illusions that the New Bethany Baptist Church is a pastoral boys ranch.

"It's nothing but a juvenile jail," he says. But this juvenile jail isn't run by the state or governed by local laws.

"Everybody's afraid of him," Stewart says of Ford. "I've been working for the sheriff for about 18 years and I've tried every way (to stop Ford's operation), and I've just about given up.

" . . . I say if these people are ignorant enough to bring their child down here or send their child down here, then they deserve what they get.

"But, see, the kids are the ones getting the punishment, not the adults."

Copyright 1998, Denver Publishing Co.

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