Rocky Mountain News, November 1, 1998
ARCADIA, La. -- 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."
'A gentle spirit'
If there's one thing Matt Grise is, it's wanted.
Not only by his grandmother, but by uncles, aunts, teachers, counselors and dozens of friends.
They uniformly describe a youngster bright and respectful, an athlete in the best circles at his school in Rifle and then after moving to live with his father in Independence, Mo.
In his last semester at Rifle Middle School in 1996, Matt earned six As and one B, in band. In the standardized comment section of the report card, most of the teachers used No. 3 to describe Matt -- "a pleasure to have in class."
Sandy Playter, a guidance counselor at the middle school Matt attended in Kansas City, even offered to adopt him.
"I truly loved Matt," she says. "Just like he was my own son."
"I've been in the people business a long time," said Connie Roman, another counselor at Matt's middle school in Kansas City. "Matt has a sweet soul and a gentle spirit."
Adds Grandma Joan: "I'm crazy about him. We were great buddies."
Money was tight
Matt Grise was born Nov. 9, 1983, in Aspen, the son of Joan's daughter, Sarah Elizabeth "Libba" Grise, and Vincent Russo, a laborer who soon left the scene.
The Grises were not part of the Aspen jet set. In the late 1970s, Libba and Joan worked together as domestic servants in Snowmass. Joan, whose husband died in 1970, eventually started a caretaking business and worked at the local rodeo.
Libba took a second job as a guide at Snowmass Village, giving her time to ski with her son.
However stretched the Grises were for money, they were close. Matt, Libba, Joan, Libba's brother Payson and his wife Sharlene, a teacher in Rifle, saw each other all the time.
The star of the family was precocious Matthew, who shortly after learning to talk began making up fantastic stories about duck kings and talking dogs.
"He has such a quick mind," Joan says. "I'm a slow poke."
Just before Matt turned three, Libba contracted throat cancer and underwent several surgeries to try to save her life. To stay off welfare, she moved to Grand Junction and opened a day care center.
"She was the nicest person in the world," says Grand Junction attorney Martelle Daniels. "She cared for my own kids."
To help pay the bills, Libba commuted to Snowmass during the weekends to work in a grocery store.
But as the disease began to consume her, Joan, Payson and Sharlene pitched in to help raise Matt.
Matt was living with Payson and Sharlene in nearby Silt. They were protective, trying to spare Matt from watching his mother waste away.
In September 1995, Joan was diagnosed with lung cancer. A month later, his mother died. Matt was 11.
Vincent Russo came to Libba's funeral. Relatives say it was the first time Matt had seen his father in years.
Family troubles didn't visibly affect Matt's performance at Rifle Middle School. He made the honor roll and once was named Student of the Month.
But those around him knew there was a hole in Matt's life. He wanted a father.
For Christmas 1996, Sharlene and Payson agreed to send Matt to Independence to visit Vincent.
He never came back.
A sudden descent
Exactly what was happening inside the Russo home outside Kansas City while Matt was there isn't known.
Vincent Russo refused to discuss it, saying: "This is a personal affair of a family. It's ridiculous for the public to get involved and embarrass my son."
Tami Russo, Vincent's wife and Matt's stepmother, told the Grises the boy was "a pathological liar."
Those on the outside picked up clues from comments made by Matt, Vincent and Tami.
Sandy Playter says Vincent Russo converted to a strict fundamentalist Christian theology and thought Matt had gone astray. He began carefully monitoring Matt's diet, at one point reducing it to peanut butter carefully weighed on a scale, she said.
Matt got along well in school but told classmates that things at home were very tough. He tried to stay away from home as much as possible but that only got him in further trouble. Matt told friends that his father and stepmother grounded him frequently.
Jay Playter, a friend of Matt's, says that when Matt was home he was usually confined to a small room in the basement of the Russos' small one-story house. Other friends say he wasn't allowed to watch TV.
But as in Rifle, the problems at home didn't seem to affect his school work. He remained on the honor roll and placed third in a regional math competition. He was also a star pitcher on a local youth baseball league.
Four of Matt's friends say they wondered why he couldn't just run away.
"Everybody suggested that," Jay says.
Some even suggested that Matt get physical with his father.
But Matt rejected all the suggestions, saying they would only get him in deeper trouble.
Matt, his friends say, also became more religious, carrying a Bible and reciting verses. His relatives say he was fond of his new friends in Missouri and liked livikng in a metropolitan area.
Sharlene Grise, Matt's aunt, says that Vincent called early this year and said things weren't working out. He was going to send Matt back to Colorado.
That was fine with Sharlene and Payson, but they insisted that Vincent formally surrender custody to them.
Vincent did not sign the legal papers, and soon the plan to send Matt back to Colorado unraveled. Sharlene said Vincent began refusing her requests to talk to Matt.
In early June, things deteriorated sharply. Apparently angry that the Playters had treated Matt to ice cream, Vincent confined his son to his room, Matt's friends said.
Worried, they started calling, but they couldn't get through.
On July 7, Sharlene says, Vincent told her that Matt was no longer there -- but at a "really neat place" in Louisiana with "horses and pigs and a swimming pool."
After hiring an attorney in Missouri, the family tracked Matt to New Bethany.
'What are you doing?'
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 presure 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."
Campaigning for Matt
Deputy Stewart said almost all the children incarcerated in Ford's compound are from outside Louisiana. The few parents who change their minds about the facility and ask for their child's release don't press any complaints against Ford.
Most parents give Ford power of attorney over their children and leave their kids there -- with no contact with the outside world -- for a year or more, he said.
The family and friends of Matt Grise do not fit that pattern.
Sandy Playter sits at the kitchen table of her Kansas City home with a six-inch stack of notes and documents she has collected during the Grise family's three-month campaign to find help.
She has called welfare workers, attorneys, investigators, congressional staffers and Louisiana state officials who possibly could influence Matt's fate.
She has learned to surf the Internet to find anything she can about Ford and his church.
She contacted Gregg Trusty Sr., a spokesman for the sheriff of Caddo Parish, which includes Shreveport, La.
Trusty seemed sympathetic. She e-mailed him a detailed description of Matt's status and his history in Missouri.
She described a kid who had no new clothes or shoes and the friends who rallied around him and helped him buy some.
"I observed that on Fridays he was not as excited as his peers; he would be excited only when he knew that he was spending the night with a friend so that he would not have to be at home," she wrote Trusty.
"Normally, kids return to school smiling and energized. Matt was neither; he looked tired and depressed. I asked him if he enjoyed his time away, and he became teary and said, 'No.' This is a kid starved for love and appreciation."
Trusty said he was moved. But like everyone else so far, he didn't know what to do.
"New Bethany has been a thorn in the side of the Louisiana juvenile justice system for more than 20 years," he e-mailed Playter.
He said Shirley White, an official with the Louisiana Department of Youth Services, told him the only way "to get a boy out of there is if he runs away and goes straight to the Sheriff's Office. She said there is no way on God's Green Earth that the Bienville Parish Sheriff's Office would EVER under ANY circumstances return a boy to New Bethany.
"But that's a Catch-22. The only way to talk with Matt is to get him out, and the only way to get him out is to tell him to run away."
Trusty offered Playter his condolences.
"I'm afraid, however," he continued, "that we can do little more than sympathize with you. Heaven knows the entire state of Louisiana has been trying to do something about these people for years."
At Ford's former South Carolina detention compound, there were three tiers of boys, according to a 1984 report by The New York Times.
At the bottom were boys "in bondage." These boys were not allowed to laugh or talk. They were marched to the fields to work while tied together with a rope.
Another group, called "bonded servants," also worked but were allowed to laugh and talk.
Finally, there were the "sojourners," who were free of chores.
Although several boys cried with relief after South Carolina authorities raided the school, others said the tough discipline had helped them.
"Most of the boys were brainwashed, just like Hitler did with kids," said Ralph Murdaugh, the county prosecutor at the time.
Jim White, the retired Louisiana probation officer, said he believes he was the last official to see boys inside Ford's Arcadia compound. He said he tried several times without success to free a Florida boy sent there by his parents.
White said he saw enough of the compound to make him deeply suspicious of Reverend Ford. He said his visit to the lunchroom was surreal.
There was no talking, laughing or jousting -- highly unusual for 8-to-16-year-olds, White said. The kids' heads were bowed.
But Ford's tough approach has found supporters in the Louisiana legislature.
After the abuse allegations at Arcadia in 1988, Rep. Alphonse Jackson of Shreveport visited New Bethany.
"I didn't see any evidence of anything abusive," he said at the time. "I didn't see any reason for any investigation of the school while I was there."
Of the kids, he said, "the few that are left there appeared to be happy."
'What happened here?'
Grandma Joan -- her family calls her Jo-Anne -- last month left her Glenwood Springs home and traveled to Independence to confront Matt's father, Vincent Russo.
"He said the most ridiculous thing," she said. "He said, 'I loved Matt.' I was just furious. I wanted to fight. I said, 'If you loved him, why did you send him so far away to where nobody can speak or write to him?"'
Unsatisfied with the answers, Joan donned a sandwich board sign bearing Matt's picture and the word "Missing!" and paraded in front of Russo's home.
Police were called.
"The police got pretty macho with me," she says. "I just said, 'Look, I'm too old to be intimidated. You just tell me what I can do and what I can't do and I think that will work."'
The police told her she could carry the sign but must not set foot on Russo's property.
Joan is posting "missing persons" fliers of Matt around Independence. But she said she's getting frustrated.
She says her next stop is the compound itself in Louisiana.
She doesn't know whether Ford will order her to leave -- and she doesn't care.
She feels she's living on borrowed time. Three years ago, doctors told her she had six months to live. Now that she has taken up Matt's cause, her cancer is in remission. That could be a sign, she says, that she's doing the right thing.
A showdown with the preacher just seems right. Besides, it might be her last option.
"I'm not wealthy," she says. "I cannot go to court and get Matt out."
Of one thing she is certain -- what happened isn't right.
"I call it kidnapping," she says. "I call it child abuse. I call it all the names you're not supposed to say. And it's the truth."