Religious beatings are recalled--Women say abuse was part of life when they were held inside preacher's compound, By Lou Kilzer, News Staff Writer

Rocky Mountain News, November 3, 1998

Two Denver women witnessed severe abuse while confined to a controversial Christian compound in Louisiana where a former Rifle boy is now being held.

But the women say they love and respect the preacher in charge nonetheless.

Julie Gertz, 25, and Tracy Zwickle, 35, both spent time as teen-agers behind the barbed wire of New Bethany Baptist Church in Arcadia, La. They mince no words in describing happened there:

"I mean, there were beatings of 80 to 100 licks," Gertz said. "I mean, you basically stopped counting after 80, and the girls stopped crying.

"They were called 'mama whoopings.' Up your legs, to your back and all the way back down."

Girls who tried to escape often were tracked down by the Rev. Mack Ford. They then were placed on "the heel" -- forced to wear high heels "for weeks, constantly," Gertz said. "You could never take them off. And then you are put on pots, which is where you stand in your heels while your helper reads you the Bible and you scrub pots all day for weeks."

The compound was raided by sheriff's deputies in 1988, and beatings came less frequently, Gertz said. But they didn't stop.

New Bethany was primarily a girls' facility in the 1980s. Now it houses boys sent by their parents. The detention facility is unlicensed, and the kids are not under court supervision.

Joan Grise, a 70-year-old Glenwood Springs woman, is campaigning to have her grandson released. Matt Grise, a former Rifle honor student, was sent there last July by his father, Vincent Russo, who refuses to say why.

Matt's aunt, uncle, guidance counselors, teachers, coaches and friends have described Matt as an all-American 14-year-old whose life slowly fell apart after his mother died of cancer three years ago. He moved from Colorado to Missouri in December 1996.

There he continued to do well in school, placing third in a regional math competition. He also became a star baseball player in a youth league.

Zwickle believes that, if Matt is released, he will have to be "deprogrammed" as she was 20 years ago.

"The kids basically have no rights there," she said. "You become programmed."

When she was released to visit her parents, they noticed a sharp change in her and did not return her to Rev. Ford's compound. "I was terrified of everything. The TVs. The radio. Those things don't exist there."

But she and Gertz blame the people Ford hired to supervise the dormitories, not him.

"Part of my admiration was I felt he was my protector," Zwickle said. "I felt that if something went wrong, I could go to him and he would take care of us. It's hard to explain this man. He's a very powerful man. ... If you sat in his church and heard him preach, he would move you like you've never been moved in your life."

The Matt Grise story has gained widespread attention since appearing in the Denver Rocky Mountain News on Sunday. Dozens of people have called with offers to help Joan Grise, who is suffering from cancer.

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