MONTICELLO, Mo. -- Five people associated with a northeast Missouri center for troubled youths must stand trial for allegedly forcing misbehaving youngsters to stand in pits of manure as a form of punishment, a judge ruled Wednesday.
A preliminary hearing was Tuesday for four men and a woman associated with the Heartland Community Center near Bethel. After taking another day to review the evidence, Circuit Judge Garry Lewis ordered all five bound over for trial.
Arraignment will be at 9 a.m. Oct. 4 at the Lewis County Courthouse. At that point, the defendants will enter a plea. If they plead innocent, a trial date will be set; if they plead guilty, a sentencing date will be set.
The defendants all face felony charges of child abuse. They are: Charles Robert Patchin, 33, of Newark, a grandson of Heartland founder Charles Sharpe and a member of the Heartland board of directors; Heartland board member Eric David Kiepke, 28, of Bethel; Heartland staff member Michael K. Peterson, 36, of Newark; Heartland staffer Farah Avusaada, no age available, of Steffenville; and Heartland staffer Ronald G. Osbon Jr., 23, of LaBelle.
The five were arrested in June and accused of various roles in sending 11 teens into concrete-lined pits to shovel animal manure.
One pit contained solid and liquid animal waste, animal afterbirth, and corn stalks. The second pit was used to separate solid and liquid animal waste.
Authorities said one child was sent in wearing shorts. Witnesses said another boy, whom a suspect described as slightly retarded, lost his shoe and fumbled around in the manure looking for it, crying.
Court documents said the teens described the manure as punishment for offenses such as not listening, talking to other youngsters or having a bad attitude.
After Tuesday's hearing, Sharpe told reporters that the prosecution of his employees was "criminal."
"It's absolutely a witch hunt," he said. "It's evil. These people doing this, the officials, know it's wrong."
Lewis County prosecutor Jake DeCoster did not return a phone call Wednesday.
Work therapy camp
Sharpe founded the 200-acre complex in 1995 to treat troubled youth and adults by using a combination of work therapy and Christian-based instruction. The school has 220 students in grades kindergarten through 12. About 120 of those students are enrolled in Heartland's treatment program.
Sharpe has said he ordered the manure pit punishment stopped when he learned about it.
Heartland countered the charges by filing suit in July accusing Lewis County officials and juvenile officer Michael Waddle of harassment.
Several boys from the center testified Tuesday that being placed in the manure pit was "no big deal," but one said the manure even got into his mouth.