Dozens more allege sexual abuse at youth facility owned by Arkansas businessman freed by Trump

Arkansas Times [Little Rock, AR]

February 2, 2024

By Benjamin Hardy

Three additional lawsuits were filed last week against Ted Suhl and others associated with the Lord’s Ranch, alleging staff at the now-defunct northeast Arkansas behavioral health facility sexually and physically abused dozens of children and teenagers entrusted to their care over the course of several decades.

Founded by the Suhl family in the 1970s, the Lord’s Ranch sits on a 1,100-acre property near the Missouri state line north of Pocahontas. Thousands of troubled youths passed through the remote facility over the decades, many of them sent from states including Illinois, Indiana, Texas and Alaska, as well as Arkansas. It received hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicaid funding throughout the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. The Lord’s Ranch shut down in 2016 after Ted Suhl, the facility’s director for many years, was convicted of bribing a state Medicaid official and sentenced to seven years in federal prison.

Suhl was released by President Donald Trump in 2019 after serving less than half of his sentence, due in part to lobbying by Mike Huckabee — a friend of Suhl’s since at least the ‘90s, when then Gov. Huckabee appointed Suhl to a board that oversaw facilities such as his own — and former federal prosecutor Bud Cummins.

The new complaints, filed in federal court in Little Rock on Friday, Jan. 26, follow two earlier lawsuits filed in November and early January. All five lawsuits allege “systematic and widespread abuse” at the Lord’s Ranch, including “premeditated sexual abuse and child rape, often under threat of force; extreme physical violence and abuse resulting in serious injuries such as broken bones; and psychological manipulation and torment, such as isolation closets and straitjackets.” They claim the Suhl family and senior staff were aware of the abuse and allowed it to continue. (After news of the first lawsuit broke, an attorney for the Suhl family issued a statement denying “each and every allegation.”)

The first two lawsuits were filed on behalf of 16 anonymous male plaintiffs and focused on alleged rapes and abuse committed by a single staffer: Emmett Alden Presley, the director of social services at the Lord’s Ranch for many years. Presley, who is now in his 90s, is believed to live in Jonesboro and has not responded to reporters’ requests for comment.

The three new lawsuits add another 36 anonymous plaintiffs all told, including both male and female former residents, bringing the total to 52. The filings contain a grab bag of allegations against both Presley and other former staffers, some of whom are named and others who are not.

Here’s one typical passage summing up the claims made by an unnamed female plaintiff who lives in Arkansas:Plaintiff Jane Doe 104 was a minor resident at Lord’s Ranch in approximately 2002-2003. Plaintiff was physically and sexually abused by several staff members on multiple occasions, including two senior staff members. Plaintiff was around 13-14 years old at the time.

Here’s another, from a male plaintiff, now a resident of Illinois:

Plaintiff John Doe 110 was a minor resident at Lord’s Ranch in or around 1996 and remained until 1999. While a minor resident of the Lord’s Ranch, John Doe 110 was sexually abused and intimidated by an employee of the Lord’s Ranch named ‘Jeff.’ Other employees saw this sexual abuse take place or had it reported to them but took no action to prevent it from taking place. As time went on, John Doe 110 was sent to a private house where he would be seated with his hands tied behind his back where he would be physically assaulted, beaten, and left in the home.

In at least one instance, the alleged abuse occurred within the last decade. (In the lawsuit containing the following passage, both male and female victims are referred to as “John Doe.”) This plaintiff is now a resident of Missouri:

Plaintiff John Doe 18 was sent to Lord’s Ranch in or around 2014 and remained for approximately a year until 2015. While a minor resident of Lord’s Ranch, she was sexually assaulted multiple times by multiple staff members, including a senior male administrator, when she was approximately 14 to 15 years old. The abuse included but was not limited to groping of her breasts and vaginal area, and also penetration. Sometimes the abuse involved other minor girls.

The defendants in the lawsuits include Ted Suhl; his mother, Shirley Suhl; Emmett Presley; Alonza Jiles, a former senior director at the Lord’s Ranch who now sits on the state Board of Corrections; ten unnamed “John Doe” defendants; and a long list of corporate entities associated with the Suhls.

Not every individual accused of child abuse in the lawsuit is listed as a defendant. Josh Gillispie, an attorney representing a number of the plaintiffs in the Lord’s Ranch cases and other child sexual abuse litigation, said that’s not uncommon. Unlike a criminal case, in which an alleged perpetrator faces potential jail time, the focus of civil cases such as these is to secure compensation for victims.

“I name the perpetrator directly about half the time, and about half the time there’s just no point. The only thing we can get for somebody in a civil lawsuit is civil compensation,” Gillispie said. “There’s no point in wasting resources going after a defendant who has nothing to provide in the way of civil compensation.”

Michael Scotti, the attorney representing the Suhl family, did not respond for a request for comment about the newest round of lawsuits. Attorneys representing Emmett Presley and Alonza Jiles also did not respond.

Attorneys for the defendants filed motions last week asking for the first of the cases to be dismissed. The complaints against the Lord’s Ranch, like a flurry of other recent lawsuits against various institutions in Arkansas, rely on a recent state law that created a “revival” or “lookback” window for child sex abuse cases that would otherwise be barred under a statute of limitations.

“Contrary to Plaintiffs’ assertion, Arkansas law is clear that the legislature cannot revive a cause of action already barred,” says a brief filed by attorneys for Presley and Jiles in the first Lord’s Ranch case. “Plaintiffs’ claims must, therefore, be dismissed based on the applicable statutes of limitations.”

The constitutionality of the new state law, the Justice for Vulnerable Victims of Sexual Abuse Act, is the subject of a case now pending before the state Court of Appeals. Gillispie also represents alleged sexual abuse victims in that case, which pits former Little Rock pediatrician, James “Darrell” Nesmith against onetime patients and other plaintiffs. Nesmith pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual assault in 2018 and admitted to molesting a teenage boy he had met through his church.

Should adults who were sexually abused as children have the ability to sue their alleged abusers years after the fact? Other states have passed similar revival windows in response to child abuse scandals at institutions from the Catholic Church to the Boy Scouts of America.

Gillispie said the Lord’s Ranch lawsuits “would be an unusually hard case to defend if it got to trial … given the scope and breadth, the amount of victims, the continuity of allegations, the degree of corroboration between victims. And so the Suhls’ only hope is that the window is struck down.”

Martin Gould, another attorney representing plaintiffs in the new round of Lord’s Ranch lawsuits, said the biggest takeaway is from the new round of lawsuits is that the case isn’t just about Emmett Presley.

“It’s many different perpetrators,” he said. “There was a lot of horrific physical abuse and sexual abuse that was going on. Countless residents reported abuse, whether it was older residents on younger residents, or staff on residents, and time and time again, nothing was done in response.”

The three new complaints are here: