To New Bethany and back: One woman’s journey to report the man she says sexually abused her.
New Bethany Home for Girls: Women allege childhood sex abuseTwenty-five years ago, 14-year-old Jennifer Halter arrived at the gates of New Bethany Home for Girls excited about a new start at a boarding school. What happened there, she says, nearly killed her will to live. Now, Halter is on a painful journey back to Arcadia, La., to fulfill her dying wish: to report the man she says sexually abused her.
By Rebecca Catalanello, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
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on April 02, 2014 at 3:36 PM, updated April 02, 2014 at 10:03 PM
She hobbled down the jetway carrying a suitcase, a pillow, a teddy bear for good luck.
At the plane’s entrance she stopped, paralyzed by dread and memories: blood, Pine Sol, broken glass, shame, God – and those barbed wire fences. God, those fences. She hugged the stuffed animal.
What if they say it was my fault? Will they call me a whore? What if I die?
Someone in the line behind her asked, “Is she OK?”
- Wednesday: Halter travels back to New Bethany.
- Thursday: A look back at 30 years of New Bethany Home for Girls.
- Friday: An experience with a New Bethany runaway still haunts a couple 20 years later; and a former New Bethany resident takes on the mantle of activism.
- Sunday: A rich, multimedia repackaging of the entire series.
- About this story
For 25 years, Jennifer Halter, 39, had been living with memories of what happened to her at a religious girls’ home in Arcadia, La. In her mind, the fences towered 15 feet high and stretched for miles, every chain link pinning her in with the man she says sexually abused her, destroyed her faith and led her to try to kill herself.
Halter, a mother of five, was dying of a rare cancer-like condition called histiocytosis x. Her body hurt. Her mind was tired. If her doctor’s prediction held, she would have four more years to live.
She had made it to the edge of Spirit Airlines redeye Flight 298 from Las Vegas against doctor’s orders. She had come this far because she had decided she was ready to tell Louisiana law enforcement about the crimes she says were committed against her so many years ago.
In Halter’s best-case scenario, the man she says abused her would be forced to answer to a judge and jury for what he had done. He would admit the things he had done to her in small rooms in churches and hidden spaces. And her kids, the ones she had struggled to mother through heartbreak, anger and loss, would see her as brave and strong. They would believe her.
Worst case? There were a lot of worst cases. The tumor in her head would cause her brain to swell under the pressure of flight. The plane would fulfill her fear of flying and fall from the sky. Police in Louisiana would ridicule her, tell her she was lying and remind her of all the ways she had messed up her life. Her children would never understand that her brokenness had roots, that she was not crazy, that she had loved them as best she could.
Jennifer Halter needed a best case.
She squeezed her pillow, found her seat on the plane and closed her eyes.
In the summer of 1988, before Halter had ever heard of a place called New Bethany Home for Girls, state officials arrived at the north Louisiana boarding school and cut a lock off the gate at 120 Hiser Road, where they had been denied entry.
The fenced-in 18-year-old school was the ministry of Mack W. Ford, a tire-repairman-turned-preacher who marketed the school as a Christian-based residential facility for wayward youth.
Two runaways from the home told police they had been abused. Social workers went to investigate.
They interviewed 47 of the 52 residents and offered all of the girls the opportunity to leave. Twenty-eight took them up on the offer. Twenty-four remained.
A few weeks later in Laughlin, Nev., Halter’s mother told her daughter to pack her things. She had enrolled her in a boarding school a few states away.
Here’s what Jennifer Halter remembers:
She remembers seeing her mother wipe her eyes as she steered the car.
“What’s wrong, Mom?” asked Halter, then 14.
“Nothing,” said her mom.
The road to the small town seemed to stretch forever.
Halter thought her mom was driving her to a Catholic boarding school. Her mom and grandmother had both attended Catholic schools and Halter had been begging her mother to let her do the same.
Back home, Halter had been involved in fights. She had tried drugs. She ran away from a juvenile police officer. Her mother told her she was veering down the wrong path.
Halter liked the promise of starting over at an exclusive school far from the drama at home. But as the highway between towering pines got longer, a pit formed in Halter’s stomach.
Barbed wire fences came into view.
“This is the best thing for you,” she recalls her mom saying. The car pulled up to the gate.
“What is this place?” Halter asked.
A white-haired woman, three girls and two boys came to the entrance. The boys unlocked the long chain on the fence.
Her mother edged the car forward.
“Where are we?” Halter asked again. “What is this?”
Panic raced through her body. I’m sorry for running away. I’m sorry for not listening. I’m sorry for not eating my dinner. Anything she could think of, she apologized for.
Her mother parked and got out of the car. Halter stayed inside and hit the door locks. The white-haired woman told her through the window that everything would be OK. She talked Halter out of the car, showed her inside to an empty footlocker and then led her to a bathroom with a curtainless shower.
From the next room, Halter saw her mother turn to leave. She bolted after her. Come back!
She remembers holding onto the inside of the chain link fence. She remembers the car driving out of sight. She remembers screaming so loud her voice cracked.
That night, she says, she couldn’t stop crying. A staff member grabbed her by the hair, she says, dragged her from her bed and hit her in the head with a Bible until she fell to her knees. She begged to go home. She begged to call her mom.
The next morning, she says, she awoke with bruises on her knees.
On a Wednesday night last December, five women gathered in Room 723 of the Sam’s Town Hotel and Casino in Shreveport.
They had been emailing and messaging for months about this trip, about trying in whatever way they could to support Halter in her quest to make a police report about the abuse she says she suffered at New Bethany.
Besides Halter, the group included Joanna Wright, an opinionated 53-year-old preacher’s daughter from Houston. Five months before, she had filed her own report with the Bienville Parish Sheriff’s Office describing sexual abuse by the school’s founder.
Also there: Teresa Frye, a 46-year-old North Carolina legal case manager who attended the school for eight months in 1982. Although she says she didn’t suffer sexual abuse at the home, she had spent years piecing together from former students so many stories of abuse — physical, psychological, spiritual and sexual — that she formed an unwavering conviction that the best weapon survivors have against their attackers was the right to go to police and make a report.
Tara Cummings of Metairie drove up, too. At 43, Cummings maintains a polished veneer that often hides the years of abuse she says she endured at the hands of an adoptive father who, when faced with police charges of child abuse, sent her to New Bethany.
Some of these women had never met in person. They weren’t all at New Bethany at the same time. But most said they knew what it felt like to be stripped down, sprayed for lice and ordered to shower while others watched. They recalled standing at the bathroom door waiting for their toilet paper allowance: four squares to urinate, six squares to defecate, eight squares for any girl who said she was menstruating.
They remembered the scent of Pine Sol used for cleaning — clothes, floors, walls, everything. They remembered being awakened at night by someone lifting their sheets and shining a flashlight on their hands and in their faces to make sure they were there and that no one was masturbating.
They knew the term “sister treatment” and could remember the pain of being physically attacked and beaten by other residents without the staff intervening.
But of all the unpleasant memories, these were some of the least painful. The ones that really cut were the ones they say left them scarred: the beatings, the sex abuse, the sermons from the pulpit that ensured they knew they were whores and Jezebels without the saving grace of God.
Each woman seated in Room 723 had a story she had tried to forget in the blur of adulthood and marriage and childbirth and divorce. Each had sought in her own way to shove the remembrances of New Bethany into corners of life where they wouldn’t require tending. Some of them had battled drug or alcohol dependence. Two attempted suicide. One terminated a pregnancy, convinced she was incapable of mothering without repeating the abuse she had endured. Several found themselves involved in more abusive relationships. Most struggled with intimacy.
Halter’s life was no exception. She married soon after leaving New Bethany, but says it was a volatile relationship that ended after 17 years. She maintains regular communication with only one of her five children, her 19-year-old daughter, the one she calls “my strength.” Her twin boys, age 14, are in the care of a relative in Louisiana. She has seen them once in seven years and says she misses them daily. Her oldest son, 17, is estranged. She worries about him, but doesn’t know where he is. Her youngest, a baby named Veagas, was born premature and lived less than two hours outside her body before he died.
She still struggles to forgive her mother for delivering her to New Bethany.
As the New Bethany girls got older and the Internet grew, they found themselves sitting at keyboards seeking answers. They met online through message boards and on Facebook. They found names they remembered and shot off emails. Some lurked for years on a message board for past New Bethany residents before feeling strong enough to chime in with a written comment or question.
When Halter said she was ready to report her story to police, these women sprang to action. There is no statute of limitations for forcible rape in Louisiana. And many of the other things that Halter says happened to her can still be prosecuted under state laws that allow victims to report until age 48 abuses that happened to them when they were younger than 17.
The women collected $1,828 through friends and sexual abuse survivor groups to help Halter make the trip. They contacted an attorney and a victim’s advocate. They asked a woman from Las Vegas who had survived sex abuse to accompany Halter on the flight and bought two $474 round-trip tickets from Las Vegas to Houston. Wright, the preacher’s daughter, drove them four hours from Houston to Shreveport.
They gathered in a plush hotel room with a view of Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club. Amid white linens, fluffy bleached towels and miniature soaps, they laughed and hugged and smoked Marlboro 100s and Winston Ultra Lights until the room was hazy. They relived scenes from their lives that they never should have had to endure.
Here, nothing was shocking except the feeling of being believed.
“Mack Ford would tell us that he would make sure that New Bethany was embedded in our heads for the rest of our lives,” Halter said. “He wasn’t lying.”
The first time it happened, Halter says, she had asked to go to the bathroom.
Mack Ford was milling about after a church service, talking with congregants who had gathered to hear the New Bethany girls’ choir.
The traveling singing group was one of the mechanisms by which Ford promoted and raised money to fund his boarding school. The girls would load up in a bus or van, travel to nearby towns and other states. They would sing before churches and give testimonies of being saved from lives of prostitution and drug use. Ford would talk about New Bethany and the churches would take offerings to support the home.
Halter doesn’t remember what state they were in. Mississippi, maybe, or North Carolina.
She remembers singing in a beautiful, large sanctuary under a crystal chandelier. The congregation had gathered in pews arranged in a stadium formation. The pianist led the group from a balcony overhead.
When the service ended, Halter urgently needed to go to the restroom. But she knew she was not allowed to step away from the fold without permission. Two girls had already gone together.
She approached Ford and asked if he would take her to the restroom. She waited for his conversation to end.
“Are you ready?” he said, finally turning to her. “Let’s go.”
The hallways to the restroom felt never-ending — a maze of walls and turns. When they reached a single-stall bathroom, she says, Ford went in with her. He was a tall man with rough hands. His whitish hair was perfectly cropped. He wore a blue tie. He unbuttoned his pants, she says, told her to get on her hands and knees and demanded oral sex.
Halter says she asked what that was. She says Ford told her not to mock him. He grabbed her hair, she says, and forced her to perform. She heard the noises and voices of people walking through the church. When he was done, she says, he touched her privates, then threw folded tissues at her.
He told her it was her fault, she says: She had a scent of a whore and she needed to bathe better.
She says he told her to apologize.
These were some of the things she wanted to tell police.
Asked to talk about the allegations recently, Ford declined to be interviewed. He referred NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune to attorney John Hodge of Shreveport. When contacted, Hodge said he had no knowledge of Halter’s case and had not represented Ford or New Bethany in decades. Additional attempts were made to contact Ford, including calls to the New Bethany compound, which he still owns and where he is believed to still reside, and a letter delivered to the home by FedEx. Ford did not respond.
Halter says she came to expect Ford’s sexual abuse during choir trips. The trips out of state offered a break from the physical abuse at the girl’s home, but not from its leader, she says.
“I could stay home and work in the kitchen and not get raped or travel and not get beat,” she says. But it was not long, she says, before the sexual abuse followed her into the home.
Halter did not know then that for years children had been running away from New Bethany and making reports to police about physical violence. She did not know that in the mid-1970s, a teenager named Joanna Wright believed she had developed a consensual relationship with Ford, 31 years her senior, and would later tell police he had raped her. She had no idea that just a few years before, between 1982 and 1984, a 14-year-old named Simone Jones was doing her chores, feeding a horse in the pasture when she says Ford approached her, asked her if she was a “pure lady,” reached into her uniform culottes, unbuttoned his coveralls and then forced her to perform oral sex. She too would give her statement to investigators three decades later.
“At the time, I thought I was the only one,” Halter said. “Each day that went by, the worse it got and the more it got easier for me to accept what was happening and allowing it and not fighting and giving in.”
She says she tried to let her mother know, writing code words and phrases in letters home. Nothing changed.
She tried to kill herself three times. The last time, she cut her wrists with a shard of broken glass. When staff discovered the blood, she says, they wrapped her wrists with gauze and paddled her.
Halter says she never saw a doctor.
A day in, the trip to Shreveport was taking its toll on Jennifer Halter.
The women swapped stories of love and loss, of things done to them in God’s name. But when the others nodded off to sleep the first night, Halter crept out from the covers, locked herself in the bathroom and called her boyfriend to cry.
She did not know if she could make this report. She shuddered to think what the police would say about her once they learned more about her.
She struggled to stop the thoughts and memories from racing. When she arrived at New Bethany, she believed in God and heaven and hell. She said prayers at bedtime. Now, she could not bring herself to talk to God. Nighttime was for recurring nightmares — like the one with the faceless man who stands over her bed breathing.
In her mind, her life had been a failure. She had run-ins with the law — arrests for drug possession and writing a check for insufficient funds. After leaving New Bethany, she continued to be abused in her relationships with men, as studies indicate many child victims are.
When she became a mother at 20, she couldn’t bring herself to breastfeed her baby girl because it felt awkward after years of being fondled and shamed for her large bosom. Instead, she let her mother bind her milk-swollen breasts flat.
When she had her second child, a boy, she went three weeks without touching him. She feared the possibility of her son doing to others what had been done to her. “I didn’t want my boys turning into one of those monsters and to have to still say he’s my son and forgive him,” she said.
The simple act of bathing her children terrified her. “I was afraid that if I liked it,” she said, “then I would become one of them.”
She tried not to blame herself for the things that had happened to her. But, even now, she gasped while retelling the details of what she described as her first molestation.
“Oh my God. Oh my God,” she said in the middle of telling her story in the hotel room. She squeezed her eyes shut. “I asked him to take me to the bathroom. He had never touched me before. If I would never have asked him, he would never have touched me.”
That night, over dinner at the Sam’s Town Casino, Halter told the other women she was worried the detectives would criticize her, doubt her, ignore her.
Tara Cummings leaned in. Unlike Halter, she had spent years in and out of therapy.
“All of us have had these moments,” Cummings told her. “Things are getting brought up, you don’t know how you’re going to act in a given moment, it feels private. You feel vulnerable and scary, but you just have to go inside that place before you go tomorrow and know that you’re just there to do one thing.
“Their opinions do not matter. You have to ask: Do you care what these policemen think about you?”
Fifty miles east of Shreveport, wind whipped through the nearly empty parking lot outside the Arcadia courthouse. Temperatures hovered in the mid-30s.
Halter stepped out of the passenger’s seat of the Sebring.
A straight black skirt fell below Halter’s knees, exposing the tattoos covering her bare calves. Loosely tied tennis shoes concealed her pastel cow booties — the slippers she wears for shoes when her feet swell from her disease.
Halter passed through the metal detector into the lobby. She walked with the others toward the glass doors with the word “Sheriff” above it.
“We need to report a rape,” said one of the women.
Joanna Wright of Houston went back first, her red bob disappearing behind a glass door. She had filed her own victim statement in July, and had been asking for a copy of the report. At 53, most of what she says happened to her at New Bethany no longer meets the statutes of limitations for sex offenses in Louisiana. But Wright says that she was raped by Ford when she was 17, and believes the circumstances of that incident meet the definition of forcible rape, which has no statute of limitations.
In the doorway, Halter cupped her hands over her face. Sobs came. The other women embraced her.
“You’re just giving a statement,” one of them told her. “You’re not a criminal.”
Wright returned, her face serious.
“He’s pissed off,” she said, referring to Sheriff John Ballance.
Wright said Ballance told her the case had been turned over to the Louisiana State Police and that he wouldn’t see Halter.
“He handed me a piece of paper and escorted me out,” Wright said, furious.
The women buzzed and talked, indignant and scrambling for a plan. One of them started to dial Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, which had planned to have a victim’s advocate en route. Others stepped out for a smoke.
Tara Cummings approached the Sheriff’s Office receptionist again.
“Can I please have a piece of paper so that I can write the sheriff?” she said politely.
The receptionist handed her a pink post-it note. Cummings scribbled something and handed it back to the woman behind the glass. The woman left, then returned and called her back.
Cummings came back with news. “They’re going to take her,” she said, then turned again to Halter. “Don’t be scared. Just try to be comfortable.”
A detective opened the door and waved Halter in.
She walked down the hall, sat down in a chair, leaned her head back, closed her eyes and began to tell her story. Three hours later, she appeared through the doors again and hugged the women who had helped her get here.
“I got to tell everything,” she said.
The next morning, Halter awoke at Sam’s Town Hotel and Casino after the first full night of sleep she’d had in three days.
There was one more thing she needed to do.
The women bundled up and piled into two cars.
By now, two more former New Bethany residents had joined the group. One was Halter’s old roommate, the one who found her locked alone in a bloody room after her most violent attempt to take her own life with pieces of glass.
The women drove onto Interstate 20 and headed east toward Arcadia. They turned off at Exit 69, south toward Highway 9, through lanky pines. At the crest of a hill, they slowed. Barbed wire fences came into view. A giant green cross marked the side of a large metal building ahead.
They turned onto Hiser Road and stopped.
About 60 feet ahead of them, a man sat in a small orange Kubota truck.
“That’s him!” one of them said.
Snowflakes swirled through the damp air. Four German shepherds rushed to the fence barking.
Halter stepped out of the car, stuffed her hands in the pockets of her hoodie and began walking down the dirt road in the direction of the man.
Fences on both sides of the street rose roughly 8 feet with inward-facing barbed wire lacing the top, so much shorter than the towering barricades that haunted her memories. How she had wanted to see these gates again.
“This is the road where I yelled and called for my mom,” Halter said.
As she spoke, the man climbed down from his rattling truck and stood watching them silently, his shoulders tilted forward, a bright orange knit cap pulled snugly around his head. He looked small there from where she stood.
The women tried to ignore him. They stood together, taking in the decay of empty buildings. White paint peeled from wooden boards. The curtains were pulled back and a door stood ajar on the old dormitories, named Martha, Mary and Happiness.
“I was raped on this compound so many times in so many areas,” Halter said. “I’m pretty sure if I walked this compound I would probably find something that belonged to me. I always said I wonder how much we left behind here besides our souls and our faith.”
She walked to the aluminum gate, spread her arms and placed her hands on the metal and stood silent.
Dropping her hands to her sides, she turned back around.
“I’m done,” she said.
Halter climbed back in the car and shut the door. She did what she had come to do. She wondered now if she would ever be back to take a stand and tell a jury the things it took her a quarter of a decade to be brave enough to tell police. Would anybody do anything?
The car backed down Hiser Road and onto Highway 9.
The man at the end of the road watched, silent.
THURSDAY: A look back at 30 years of New Bethany Home for Girls.
Photojournalist Kathleen Flynn contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at email@example.com or 504.717.7701.