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‘Troubled’ Mennonite boys were trafficked, forced into physical labor, and abused at a Pa. farm, lawsuit says

Two former residents claim the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church and Liberty Ridge Farm violated federal laws against human trafficking, racketeering, and forced labor.

The Liberty Ridge Farm in McAlisterville, Pa.
The Liberty Ridge Farm in McAlisterville, Pa.Read moreGoogle Earth

Since at least 2011, parents of wayward Mennonite boys and young men sent their sons to Liberty Ridge Farm in McAlisterville, Juniata County, where they would receive spiritual guidance, structure, and a “closely supervised homelike setting,” according to court documents. Parents were told their sons would leave reformed members of the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church.

But two former Liberty Ridge residents claim the facility was abusive. In a lawsuit filed against the farm and the church on Nov. 17 in federal court, the men allege the farm used them in a human-trafficking plot, where boys were subjected to forced labor with no compensation while being physically and emotionally tormented and deprived of food and education.

Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church officials could not be reached for comment. Martin Nelson, a named defendant who owns Liberty Ridge Farm, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Lawyers for the farm and church were not listed in court documents.

Renee Franchi, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs — identified in the lawsuit only as D.C. and J.D.M. — said other potential victims are urged to contact her office, according to a statement to the Washington Post.

“We have heard from other former residents as well as witnesses, and believe there to be more,” Franchi said.

The lawsuit is the latest allegation of abuse of power by a religious leader. Earlier this month, the founder of a Filipino mega-church was arrested and charged with orchestrating a sex-trafficking operation. According to federal prosecutors, Apollo Carreon Quiboloy and his accomplices told victims forced to engage in sexual acts that their obedience was “God’s will.” Quiboloy’s lawyer has denied the allegations. In October, eight leaders of a Nation of Islam offshoot in Kansas that has been labeled a “cult” were arrested for allegedly separating children from their families, housing them in poor conditions, and forcing them into labor without pay.

The Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church is a conservative sect of the Protestant group founded in the 16th century known as Anabaptists. In the late 1960s, the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonite Church separated from the Lancaster Mennonite Conference after religious leaders decided to modernize the movement and allow members to own televisions.

Liberty Ridge Farm was established in 2011, the lawsuit says. For approximately $2,300 a month, parents sent their “troubled” sons with “special spiritual, emotional, and social needs” to live in “an intense spiritual atmosphere for the purpose of effecting social and behavioral changes,” court documents state.

But the residents were forced into intense labor, and the school-aged boys received no schooling, the lawsuit says. Leaders of the 80-acre farm allegedly used the boys to run many profitable business ventures, including farming chickens, cattle, and hogs. The boys also built fences, gates, and wooden pallets, according to the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services told the Allentown Morning Call, which first reported the lawsuit, that there were no licensing records for the facility.

The residents, who worked six days a week from sunup to sundown, were not paid for their work, the victims allege. Leadership threatened the boys with physical and emotional abuse, the lawsuit says. If they tried to leave or spoke of running away, the suit adds, the boys were told they’d be excommunicated from the church and their families.

If they misbehaved, leadership would allegedly withhold food until the boys completed their tasks and sometimes restricted the amount of rice and beans or water they could receive at mealtimes. Other penalties for wrongdoing included strenuous physical activity, court documents state.

“Some consequences included, but were not limited to, dragging chains over their shoulders, breaking boulders into tiny pieces by hand with a small hammer, and digging out stumps by hand,” the lawsuit says.

The boys were also allegedly restrained by older residents known as “mentors,” who were forced to hold them facedown on the ground, restrain them with zip-ties in a “hogtied position,” and sometimes “drag them,” according to court documents.

The punishments could go on for days or weeks, the lawsuit says.

D.C., one of the plaintiffs, was 14 when his parents sent him to Liberty Ridge. He stayed until 2014, when he was 17. Despite being a school-aged minor, he received no education for the first few years at the farm, the lawsuit says.

Instead, he spent every day working. The boys were forced to perform labor at all times except for when they ate meals, slept, studied the Bible, and exercised, according to court documents.

J.D.M. was 18 when he arrived at Liberty Ridge in 2019. He stayed for 10 months, during which he was threatened that if he left, “they would have the police drag him back because the cops were on their side,” the lawsuit says.

The plaintiffs allege the church and Liberty Ridge violated federal laws against human trafficking, racketeering, and forced labor.

It is unclear whether the farm is still operating as a reform home for Mennonite boys.