Missouri authorities jail owners of Christian boarding school on kidnapping charges

Kansas City Star [Kansas City MO]

March 2, 2024

By Laura Bauer and Judy L. Thomas

Faith-based boarding schools found a welcoming home in Missouri because of a law that allowed them to operate without state oversight. But many former students spoke out about the abuse they say they endured at the schools.

The owners of a secluded southeast Missouri Christian boarding school are behind bars after authorities served arrest warrants Friday night at their facility. Larry and Carmen Musgrave are being held in the Wayne County Jail in Greenville, Missouri, without bond. They are charged with first-degree kidnapping involving a former student. Authorities, who interviewed all the boys at the school Friday night, took Larry Musgrave Jr., 57, into custody at the ABM Ministries campus near Piedmont, according to a news release issued late Saturday afternoon by the Wayne County Sheriff’s Department. And Carmen Musgrave, 64, was taken into custody hours later, the release said.

The Musgraves operate the school near Piedmont, a town of roughly 1,900 residents more than 300 miles southeast of Kansas City. First-degree kidnapping is a Class A felony that, if convicted, carries a minimum sentence of 10 years and maximum of 30 years, or life in prison. “This investigation is far from being over,” Sheriff Dean Finch said in his release. He said he anticipates more charges “with more alleged victims coming forward.” The arrests and charges come more than a week after

The Star published an article detailing how several boys had run away from ABM Ministries — which is also known as Lighthouse Christian Academy — since Jan. 13. Two of those boys were helped by a local resident who took them home after they flagged her down and asked her to call 911. That resident, and another neighbor, told The Star that the boys were “terrified” and said the 12- and 14-year-old reported that they were hit for no reason or because they didn’t finish chores fast enough. They also said they were berated by school staff, especially the Musgraves. Deputies picked up the boys and returned them to the school, but it isn’t clear whether the youth remained there.

In interviews with The Star, former students have described how they said they were treated at the school over the past nearly 20 years. That included physical abuse, not being allowed to make eye contact with fellow students, standing for hours at a time looking at the wall when they were in trouble and being forced to do manual labor to benefit the school. Several local residents said they reported the recent incident with the two runaways to the Missouri child abuse and neglect hotline but were told they didn’t provide enough information to meet the criteria to launch an investigation.

After townsfolk saw the caravan Friday night of law enforcement vehicles — led by Finch — head to the boarding school, word spread through a group chat that includes residents and many former students. Those former students said the activity gave them hope that after feeling their stories had been ignored for years, someone was finally listening to them. “This will be the first night in almost 20 years that I will not have nightmares about ABM ministries,” said Aralysa Baker, who attended the unlicensed boarding school from 2005 to 2007 when it also housed girls.

“I truly hope that the boys are doing OK. Our collective survivor base has been thinking about them since we first heard news of the runaways. “The bravery they’ve shown through this situation led us to stand together and fight for their freedom.” Residents in the area celebrated with the former students they’ve come to know through social media. “I got goosebumps and started crying,” said Courtney Hall, who lives 2 miles from the school and called the hotline after the two boys had run away. “I just pray to God that they are actually doing something and these poor boys will go home.”

In Saturday’s release, Finch said after his team arrived at the school Friday evening members of his department and state troopers with the Division of Drug and Crime Control interviewed “all the children there.” Nineteen boys were at the school, the sheriff said. “After the interviews, Larry was located at his camper on the property and placed under arrest,” the release said. “His wife was not at the residence. Around 3 a.m., Carmen came to the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office checking on her husband, and she was placed under arrest for kidnapping in the first degree as well.”


The boys remained at the school Friday night. “We will be doing well-being checks of the kids periodically,” Finch told The Star Saturday evening. ABM Ministries’ current director, according to state documents, is Julio Sandoval. The Star reported in February 2022 that he had moved to southeast Missouri. Sandoval was dean of students at Agape Boarding School in February 2021 when the Missouri Highway Patrol launched an investigation into abuse of students at the Cedar County school in Stockton. In September 2021, the Cedar County prosecuting attorney charged five staff members with 13 counts of third-degree assault. Sandoval, who had been at Agape about 10 years, left to go to work for ABM Ministries soon after that. In September 2022, The Star reported that Missouri’s child welfare agency had substantiated 10 reports of physical abuse at Agape. Those dispositions were final. Multiple sources at the time told The Star several staffers appealed their findings. They said Sandoval was among them. According to Missouri’s online court database, he still has a case pending against the Department of Social Services. His next hearing is scheduled for Feb. 26. State law allows staffers to still work with children while their case is under appeal.

Lighthouse Christian Academy takes in boys 10 and older from all over the nation. The 25,000-square-foot campus is “tucked away near the Ozarks on 250 acres with rolling hills, a spring-fed pond, and fenced pasture with animals,” its website says. Operated by ABM Ministries, the school is “dedicated to the training of children in a program of study, activity, and living that is Bible-centered,” according to its parents manual. Discipline at the school “is firm, consistent, fair, and tempered with love,” the manual says.

Larry Musgrave’s LinkedIn page describes him as the founder and pastor of ABM Ministries. “He works directly with 40 families at a time by providing a boarding school environment for teens in need of guidance,” the site says. “With a staff of 11 people he works 24/7/365 to mentor Biblical principals.”

Court records show that Larry and Carmen Musgrave and former school principal Craig W. Smith Jr. were the subjects of a 2009 civil lawsuit in federal court. It alleged that Smith groomed a female student after she enrolled in 2005, then “committed multiple acts of sexual bodily contact” with her — including intercourse — from September 2007 until June 2008. The lawsuit says the girl’s parents notified the Musgraves in late 2007 that they were concerned about the degree of Smith’s personal relationship with their daughter, but nothing was done to prevent further contact between them. The lawsuit was settled in 2010, court records show, with a $100,000 judgment entered against Smith and a $750,000 judgment against ABM Ministries and the Musgraves.

ABM Ministries is the latest unlicensed boarding school in Missouri to face scrutiny amid allegations of abuse. Since September 2020, The Star has investigated several schools, and the lack of regulations for them in the state, and has spoken to more than 80 students who attended facilities in southwest Missouri. Those stories prompted lawmakers to pass legislation that for the first time placed some regulations on these schools. The main element of the 2021 law is that owners must register their facilities with the state and undergo fire and health inspections.


David Clohessy, former national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, went to Wayne County a week ago to hand out leaflets and talk to residents about the concerns raised after the recent runaways. He said the charges are a first step in holding owners of unlicensed boarding schools accountable. “We’re encouraged by reports of law enforcement action at the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Piedmont last night,” Clohessy said. “… We want to encourage everyone who cares about kids to remain vigilant and to realize that a real resolution to this horror must involve therapy for the victims, prosecution for the wrongdoers and reform of Missouri’s dreadfully weak child safety laws.”

In 2021, another couple who operated a boarding school in southwest Missouri were arrested over their treatment of students. Boyd and Stephanie Householder, former owners of Circle of Hope Girls Ranch, were charged with nearly 100 felony child abuse counts. They have pleaded not guilty, and their jury trial is scheduled to start in the fall.

In Saturday’s release, Finch said he and his department had received several calls about runaways from the home, and he began an investigation several months ago. “Sheriff Finch was contacted by a former student and traveled to Albertville, Alabama, to interview the victim,” the release said. After the interview, it said, Finch “was able to make contact with several past students, and interviews are forthcoming.” Finch said he anticipates more charges will be filed and plans to travel to other states to conduct interviews of former students. “When it comes to children,” he said, he will “leave no stone unturned until all victims are interviewed.” “We know the citizens are concerned as well that nothing was being done, however we can’t disclose what we are doing on cases.” The sheriff said he hopes the public will remain patient. “When some things come to light, we will always be there investigating.”