Students join effort to free Matt Grise--Review of Baptist center begins after students call White House, Lou Kilzer, News Staff Writer

Rocky Mountain News, November 5, 1998

A group of gifted students at Louisville Middle School has called the White House and Justice Department, demanding that the government do something to free 14-year-old Matt Grise.

It appears their plea was taken seriously.

Christine DiBartolo, spokeswoman for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said Wednesday the Colorado students have sparked a preliminary review of the Louisiana compound where the former Colorado boy is being held. She said she did not know what action, if any, might be taken.

John Kettling, an engineer and volunteer instructor at Louisville Middle School, said some of his students read a Denver Rocky Mountain News story Sunday about Matt's plight "and totally freaked out."

The story detailed how Matt's father in Missouri sent the boy to the New Bethany Baptist Church juvenile detention facility in Arcadia, La. The Rev. Mack Ford, a fundamentalist preacher, runs the locked compound and uses corporal punishment to discipline children held there.

"They said, 'Wait a minute,"' Kettling said of his students. "He looks like us, he plays like us, he studies like us.'

"Things didn't calm down during the day. They were getting really upset by the time third hour came around. They were in nuke mode. They had an open discussion with me about breaking the gates down."

They made their first call to the White House at 11 a.m. Monday. By 4 p.m., Kettling said, they had "broken through" and were talking with Greg King, a sympathetic Justice Department official.

King located the News article on the Internet.

Kettling said King warned the students not to be too anxious.

"He said be patient," Kettling said. "Because we've got to look at this. And he said just for example, one big problem we have is: 'So what if we get the kid out. Fine. We put him in a car. We take him over to our office. Now what? We don't want to give him back to the dad, necessarily, because that looks like we're part of the problem."'

Matt's grandmother, Joan Grise of Glenwood Springs, is spearheading a campaign to set him free. She has been joined by Matt's aunt, uncle, school counselors, teachers, coaches and friends.

They describe Matt as an honor student who, to their knowledge, has done nothing to warrant being confined in a harsh detention facility.

Grise, who is battling cancer, said she has been inundated with calls of support and offers of help since the story broke Sunday. She said she is struggling over what to do next to win Matt's release.

Ford has not allowed family members except Matt's father to write to or talk with Matt. Ford declined a News request to be interviewed last month.

Matt lived most of his first 11 years with his mother in Rifle. After his mother died of cancer three years ago near Grand Junction, he moved in with other relatives on the Western Slope.

Later, he visited his father in Independence, Mo., and wound up staying there about 18 months.

Last July, Matt's father, Vincent Russo, sent Matt to Ford's compound. Russo would not discuss the reasons, although friends of Matt's say the Russos portrayed the boy as a "pathological liar."

Louisville Middle School officials declined to allow the News to interview or photograph Kettling's students. They said they were concerned about the students' safety.

But one student was undeterred.

Fourteen-year-old Greg Downing is researching Louisiana and Colorado law, hoping to prepare legal briefs to promote Matt's release.

Kettling said that Greg knew immediately that the federal government was vital to the case.

"Why don't we have the feds jump in?" Kettling said Greg told him. "That's what they always do."

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