Monday, October 6, 2008


News-Sentinel, The (Fort Wayne, IN) - December 30, 1992
If 15-year-old Sarah doesn't memorize her Bible verses, she loses her solid-food privileges and lives on a protein drink. The people who run her life read all her letters before she sends them out and screen all her mail before she gets to read it. She's allowed one 10-minute phone call a month. Her doors and windows are rigged to an alarm that will sound if she tries to get out.

She's not in prison. She goes to school in Winona Lake.

Her father wants to take her away. She's not interested in leaving. She says she likes living at Hephzibah House.

Two weeks ago, a 60-year-old Teamster named Lucius hired an attorney in Middletown, N.Y., to free his daughter from a Northeast Indiana religious school so strict it sounded like a jail.

From what Lucius had heard, some women who were once students at Hephzibah House have complained about fierce, ritualized beatings delivered in a special "paddling room."

They say their menstrual periods ceased at the school. Girls who ran away were returned by local police officers.

Unusual as this school is, it's not widely known - even in Kosciusko County, where it has existed for 20 years.

Hephzibah House isn't accredited. It doesn't have to be. In Indiana, private schools are regulated only if they request it.

Hephzibah House , named for a modest biblical woman, draws its students - and its funding - from independent Baptist churches as far away as Alaska.

Some girls are troubled. Some are merely troublesome.

Lucius' daughter Sarah was both.

Lucius got a divorce from Sarah's mother, Mary, in Middletown, N.Y., in 1983.

Mary won custody of Sarah and the couple's two other children. She later remarried, and five years ago, after years of court-refereed hassles over visitation rights, she and her new husband moved the children to Tennessee.

Lucius lost track of the kids after that.

Then last February, he got a letter from his oldest daughter, Heather. She told him their stepfather was now in prison for sexually abusing her and Sarah. She told him their mother had sent Sarah to Hephzibah House .

Because Sarah is a victim of sexual abuse, The News-Sentinel is not printing the family's last names.

Lucius is a Christian. He's a Baptist, in fact. But nothing from the day he was born again in 1954 to the times he helped out with the Billy Graham crusades in the '60s prepared him for these Hephzibah House Baptists.

The staff at Hephzibah House wouldn't let him talk to Sarah on the phone unless one of them monitored the call.

Nor would they send him information on the house.

When he read about the paddlings - in an article published in a Warsaw newspaper in the mid-'80s - Lucius decided it was time to act. He wanted Sarah out.

Lucius hired Anthony "Toots" LaBella, a slick-talking, ponytailed child- custody lawyer, on Dec. 18.

After days of researching custody laws in three states - New York, Indiana and Tennessee - LaBella came to Indiana this weekend.

On Monday he got a court order allowing six hours of unsupervised visitation for Lucius and Sarah, beginning at 2 p.m. yesterday.

Next week, Sarah's mother and the Rev. Ron Williams, founder of Hephzibah House , have been summoned to Kosciusko Superior Court for a hearing that could give Lucius temporary custody. Mary reportedly was to arrive in Winona Lake today.

By the end of the month, when the arena shifts to a courtroom in Goshen, N.Y., Lucius hopes Sarah and her younger brother will be moving in with him and his second wife in New York. Heather has married.

LaBella was encouraged by what appeared to be initial success. But he and his private investigator, Larry Chambers, weren't counting on Hephzibah House to comply with the court order.

Yesterday, after discussing every possible contingency for hours, those two and Lucius waited out the final few minutes before the 2 p.m. showdown in a parking lot a mile or two from Hephzibah House .

Lucius had arrived at Fort Wayne International Airport a little before noon, and had been in Warsaw less than an hour.

He'd downed 25 cups of coffee since he woke at 3:30 a.m. He clutched the umbrella on his lap as he wondered whether, after more than five years, he would finally get to see Sarah.

On the plane, he'd read a book on cult deprogramming.

''Man, that's enough to scare the sugar out of anybody," he said. "But at least I know what to expect if she starts acting screwy on me."

LaBella checked his watch. Ten minutes 'til 2.

''All right," he said. "Let's do it."

Chambers gunned their rental car. Barely two minutes passed before they entered the long, gravel lane to Hephzibah House , an expanded version of a 1960s-looking suburban tract house.

They didn't have to ring the bell. By the time they got to the sidewalk, one of Williams' sons opened the door and came out holding a piece of paper.

''Sarah's over at Paul Refior's office, that attorney we told you about," he said. He handed LaBella the address and directions.

LaBella and Chambers pondered this development on their way through town.

''Now, why is this child at the attorney's office?" LaBella asked.

''Could be the runaround," muttered Chambers.

In the back seat, Lucius tried to reassure himself.

''(Toots) knows what he's doing," Lucius whispered. "He's got everything under control."

At Refior's office, the receptionist greeted them with a smile.

LaBella didn't smile back. He glared out the picture window toward the lake at the end of the street.

''These people are a little too happy for my taste," he muttered.

A couple of minutes later, a door opened and a pale blond girl in a skirt and plain black shoes joined them in the lobby.

''Hello," she said politely.

Lucius gave her a hug.

''I just had to come get you, Honey," he said.

LaBella and Chambers hustled them out the door. Through the open door of an inner office, Williams watched them go, arms folded across his chest.

Back at the hotel, Lucius took his daughter up to his hotel room so they could be alone for a while. LaBella shook his head.

''She's like a blank slate," he said. "It's like she's 9 years old."

He and Chambers killed time in their room, chatting and snacking on bananas, doughnuts, corn chips and Diet Rite.

Lucius and Sarah emerged a little after 4, and invited LaBella and Chambers to a local restaurant.

Labella fired his opening round of questions before the waitress had finished pouring the coffee.

''Is there a calendar in that place? What day is today?"

Sarah answered slowly but correctly, tacking a "sir" on the end of each sentence.

''Why are you 'sirrin' ' me?" LaBella asked, as if offended. "I haven't been 'sirred' since I was in uniform. Call me Toots. Everybody calls me Toots. Even my kids call me Toots."

She smiled. But she couldn't stop herself from responding with another "Yes, sir."

Sarah ordered a scoop of orange sherbet, which she stirred around her dish as she pondered each question.

LaBella and Chambers ordered burgers.

Lucius didn't order anything. He'd left his emphysema medication back at the hotel, and his lungs were hurting him so much he could hardly talk, much less eat.

He listened as his daughter described a "school" where staff members escort girls to the bathroom, ban Christmas celebrations and prohibit talk about their lives before Hephzibah House .

At this school, Sarah said, alarms on doors and windows are designed to keep people in, not out.

Paddlings occur, she said, although not often. It had never happened to her, and only once to someone else in the 10 months she's been there. As far as she knows, anyway. The girls don't really question each other about that, she explained.

''It would probably hurt their feelings."

''What's the best part about being at Hephzibah House ?" Chambers asked.

''That we get to learn about God."

And the worst?

Sarah looked at her sherbet dish. Her dessert had melted.

''I don't know, really."

Sarah had been drying dishes Monday afternoon when Pastor Williams summoned her upstairs to talk to the deputy sheriff who had brought over the court papers. Williams had showed her the papers, but she only glanced at them. She figured Williams would take care of it, she told LaBella.

Sarah had been clinging to her father all afternoon, planting little kisses on his cheek and holding his hand when they walked. Yet she seemed ambivalent about leaving Hephzibah House to go live with Lucius.

If he'd showed up 10 months ago, she probably wouldn't have hesitated. It wasn't her idea to come to Indiana last February. She hadn't even known that was their destination. Her mother told her they were going out to dinner. Ten hours later, she was at Hephzibah House .

She hadn't been going to school at the time. The Christian school she'd been attending had kicked her out a month or two earlier, after they found out she thought she was pregnant.

She wasn't. But the fact that she was messing around with boys obviously troubled her mother.

Sarah didn't like Hephzibah House at first. She got used to it, though. After all, Pastor Williams' religious beliefs weren't that much different from what she'd been used to in Tennessee.

Sarah hadn't seen a movie or watched television since her parents' divorce almost 10 years ago, so that was nothing new. She can watch educational and Christian videos, though. Like the one about the martyr who was burned at the stake.

''He died singing," Sarah said.

She said she wasn't particularly troubled by staff members' assertions that true Bible-believing Christians ought to marry whomever their parents recommend.

''It's not like you don't have a say in it," she said.

Sarah told LaBella she now believes that if it weren't for Hephzibah House , she would be dead, pregnant or in jail.

He decided it was time to try a different approach.

''Am I the devil because I have long hair?" he asked.

''No. But you know what the Bible says about that? It's a shame for men to have long hair."

She was loosening up a bit. LaBella told her about his kids and how he got his nickname, from a monk at his high school who warned that he'd turn out like a local tavern owner named Toots.

She admitted that she missed her family. And she tweaked her Italian- American inquisitors with a joke about how the name Tony came from the days when Italian immigrants stamped TONY - short for "to New York" - on their children's foreheads.

It had been half an hour or so since she'd called anybody "sir." As the restaurant began to fill up with dinner customers, Sarah found herself telling the men about the one thing at Hephzibah House she could find nothing good to say about: the "protein drink."

She described a powdered drink mix that was stirred into a glass and drunk in place of a meal. Those girls who didn't memorize their weekly Scripture verses, she said, were punished with a supper of protein drink, which they were served at each meal until they passed the Scripture recital.

It was also served to girls who were sick, as a deterrent to those tempted to fake an illness. Sarah said she had once spent two to three days on a protein drink diet.

''It's supposed to be vanilla, but it doesn't taste like that," she said. "It's gross. I gagged on it once and threw up."

LaBella changed the subject.

''Speaking of 'monthlies,' " he said, referring to their monthly (as well as weekly) Scripture-memorization requirements, "what about your other 'monthlies'? I'm not trying to embarrass you here. Do you know what I'm talking about?"

During telephone interviews with former Hephzibah residents, Chambers had discovered an apparent pattern in the women's menstrual cycles. Many women had a period the first week they were at Hephzibah House , followed by months of no periods at all.

Both men listened carefully to Sarah's response. "I got my period when I first came to Hephzibah House ," she said. "Then I didn't have one for about six months."

She excused herself to go to the restroom before they could question her further. LaBella was eager to hear more. But Lucius needed his medicine, so they decided to return to the hotel instead.

It was 6 p.m., two hours until they had to take Sarah back. Lucius took Sarah back to his room so they could have more time alone. In their room next door, LaBella and Chambers analyzed what they'd just heard.

''I believe her," Chambers said. "I don't think she's lying. I think she's omitting."

LaBella ticked off the things that troubled him most.

''Food deprivation," he said, referring to those liquid-protein dinners. "Now that really rocks my socks."

That menstrual cycle problem, that might be serious. They'd need to consult a gynecologist.

Sarah had been unclear on the frequency or severity of the paddlings. But LaBella didn't think anybody ought to be whacking teen-age girls' rear ends.

He wasn't satisfied with the schoolwork Sarah had described, either. "Who ever heard of biology without a microscope?"

The thing that troubled both men most, though, was the way Sarah seemed to shift back and forth from a shy, naive schoolgirl to a mischievous, calculating teen-ager during the interview.

The school social worker they'd asked to evaluate Sarah's letters to Lucius from Hephzibah House had noted similar shifts in her penmanship - a sign she might be under severe stress.

Looking for an easier question to resolve, LaBella picked up the hotel Bible and looked up the verse Sarah had cited when he'd asked her about his ponytail. It took him a while to locate 2 Corinthians 11:8.

''For the man is not of the woman," he read. "The woman is of the man."

Chambers offered his interpretion: "That means Adam didn't come from Eve," he said soberly. "Eve came from Adam."

LaBella snorted.

''Thank you, Pastor Larry."

It was getting late. LaBella knocked on Lucius' door.

Inside, Sarah was sitting on the bed, a black Teamsters cap on her head. She was reading some Hephzibah House material Lucius had given her. Newspaper articles quoting Hephzibah alumni, whose complaints ranged from paddlings for leaving unpicked green beans in the garden to sexual dysfunction that persisted nearly a decade after the time at the facility.

''I don't agree with some of this," she said. Missed beans warranted sentence-writing penalties, not paddlings. "And as for my period . . . every time I've had it, it's been the same as any other time."

She told Hephzibah staff about the missed periods, and was told it was probably due to stress.

''Teen-agers have irregular periods anyway," she said.

They walked out to the car. It had been a grueling six hours for Lucius. But he wasn't ready to give Sarah back.

Fifteen minutes later, Chambers pulled into the Hephzibah driveway. Williams was waiting outside the house. He didn't want to comment on the day's events when contacted by phone a few hours earlier.

Williams had referred questions to his attorney, Refior, who was out all last evening. He introduced himself to Lucius, but they didn't have much to say to each other.

Sarah hugged her dad goodbye.

''I love you," she said, kissing him on the cheek.

She hadn't kept the Teamsters cap or the gold necklace with the initial "S" he'd given her. There was no use, she said. They wouldn't let her keep it.

Next week Lucius appears in Kosciusko Superior Court to try to win temporary custody of his daughter.

Back at the hotel, he tried to make sense out what had been a frustrating yet rewarding visit.

Her answers had come too easily, he thought.

''I think she's been coached," he said. "I think she wants to be with me, but she doesn't know how to say that. She wanted to see me, though. She really did want to see me.

''I think the kid loves me. She really does."

A brochure produced by Hephzibah House may describe the life there best: " Hephzibah House is not a prison or a detention center, though its rigid policies procedures may lead one to that conclusion. Strict rules are necessary when young women capable of foolish and possibly dangerous actions are being helped to restructure their lives."

Some of the more than 100 rules, regulations and requirements:
* Any food left on a girl's plate will be saved and fed to her at the next meal until she has finished it.

* Women visitors who show up NOT wearing skirts or dresses are asked "politely" to leave the premises. "Dresses and skirts of modest length encourage the Hephzibah student, so please wear them when visiting," the brochure states. * In order to better assist parents in purchasing clothing, Hephzibah recommends clothes from "Modest Appeal," a catalog that can be ordered from Kentucky. If parents are uncertain about whether shoes are modest enough, they're encouraged to circle a potential purchase in a catalog and send to Hephzibah House for approval.

* The only jewelry allowed are small "post" earrings and watches - "provided it was not given by a boyfriend, etc."

* Worldly practices such as TV viewing, attendance at commercial movie theaters, dancing, mixed swimming, gambling and other games of chance, and listening to unbiblical music such as rock, country-western, blues, jazz, or so-called gospel-rock would be taught as wrong for a Christian."
Caption: MAP; PHOTO (4)
Map shows the location of Winona Lake in Kosciusko County.
Anthony "Toots" LaBella, left, and investigator Larry Chambers are working to help a father win custody of his daughter. Color Photos By Argil Shock Of The News-Sentinel
An unidentified staff member, in blue jacket, from Hephzibah House appeared outside the house to speak to Sarah's father. He informed LaBella and Chambers that the girl was to be picked up at the house's laywer's office. Color Photo
After picking up his daughter, Lucius escorts her into a motel for a private meeting. He had not seen Sarah in more than five years. His lawyer also attended the meeting, which involved asking questions about how Sarah is doing. Photos By Argil Shock Of The News-Sentinel
At Hephzibah House , where alarm systems are meant to keep girls in, not intruders out, the staff monitors mail and telephone calls closely.

Memo: See microfilm for map explained in caption at end of story.