Coloradan denied visit with grandson--After traveling two days, woman, 70, spurned in bid to see boy, 15, at harsh Louisiana compound, Lou Kilzer, News Staff Writer

From the Rocky Mountain News, November 27, 1998

ARCADIA, La. -- A stern Southern preacher refused Thursday to grant a 70-year-old Colorado woman permission to see her grandson on Thanksgiving.

Joan Grise of Glenwood Springs had driven alone for 18 hours over two days from Kansas City to New Bethany Baptist Church, which operates an unlicensed youth-detention compound.

But after she was escorted to the facility by a sheriff's deputy, the Rev. Mack W. Ford faced her down. She would not get to see her 15-year-old grandson, Matt.

Matt has been held at the church compound since July, although he has not been charged with a crime. No court supervises his detention at the compound, which has disciplined children there with corporal punishment.

Grise who is suffering from lung cancer, said Ford at first smiled at her but later became threatening.

"You're going to be in trouble," she said Ford told her. And so are many friends and relatives who have spoken out to help free Matt, she said he told her.

She quoted Ford as saying Matt "wants to be here."

Ford declined to be interviewed.

"Matt has been programmed," Grise said later at her Days Inn motel room.

For 27 years, Ford has operated locked-down facilities for children who their parents believe are wayward and in need of strict controls. Some have been as young as 8 years old.

Matt was sent to New Bethany by Vincent Russo, who lives outside Kansas City and who most agree is Matt's father.

Russo's name, however, does not appear on Matt's birth certificate, and he never married Matt's late mother, Sarah Elizabeth "Libba" Grise.

Sarah Grise, a Snowmass woman who died of throat cancer in October 1995, said in her will that custody of Matt should go to Payson and Sharlene Grise of Silt, Matt's uncle and aunt.

After his mother's death, Matt lived with his uncle and aunt until Christmas 1996, when he went to visit Russo in Independence, Mo. Though he had a return ticket to Denver, Matt never used it.

Instead, he attended Kansas City schools, where he again excelled in academics and sports. But home life with Vincent and his stepmother, Tami, deteriorated.

Vincent Russo declines to say why. He had agreed to meet with a Denver Rocky Mountain News reporter this week but canceled the appointment.

Tami Russo had told friends of Matt's he was a "pathological liar."

But Matt's aunt, uncle, guidance counselors, teachers, coaches and friends have said Matt is an all-American boy.

Before being incarcerated at New Bethany, Matt had placed third in a Missouri regional math contest, and friends say he had a promising future in football and baseball.

Joan Grise said she is convinced that he is a victim of cruel family "power play."

She had hesitated for weeks to make the trip to Arcadia to try to win Matt's freedom.

She had spoken to Ford by phone and says Ford told her that if she brought legal papers concerning Matt's custody, he would release the boy.

Joan gathered Matt's birth certificate, Sarah Grise's will and other documents she hoped might move Ford to agree.

She started out from Kansas City on Wednesday morning, intending to make it to Dallas by sundown.

But the carefully timed schedule she had been given was too ambitious for her driving practices. She was caught at dusk in metropolitan Dallas suffering from terrible night blindness. Grise asked for help, and a roadside cafe manager piloted her to the motel where she had reservations.

Grise hit the road again at 7 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, arriving in Arcadia around 3:30 p.m.

She called the Bienville Parish Sheriff's Office and asked for assistance in meeting Ford. Then she called Ford but was not put through.

She said a woman at the New Bethany compound told her, "You cannot talk with him or visit with him."

Grise then drove to the facility.

As dogs roamed around the two large compounds at New Bethany and some boys played ball, Grise approached Ford.

She said Ford flatly told her, "No, you cannot see Matt."

She said he then threatened to sue her and others involved in Matt's case.

Ford once said his facilities "take in 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," he said.

On Thanksgiving, however, Ford said "these are all good boys in here" and branded reports about New Bethany "lies."

His facilities in South Carolina and Louisiana have been raided by police for alleged child abuse. Ford has acknowledged that some children receive "licks," but no more than 10 at a time.

Two former detainees, who now live in Denver, say that they love Ford but that 80 to 100 licks were sometimes administered sadistically, although never by Ford himself.

Grise said she doesn't care about that debate -- she simply wants her grandson back. She said she worries that New Bethany might be "worse than death for Matt."

After meeting Ford, she said she also fears that New Bethany has taken Matt's will away.

She said that she doesn't know what her next step will be but that she will not quit until Matt is freed.

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