Daddy's place: Is it a home or a hell on earth?

Date: 1988-10-23

Mississippi investigating Roloff protege's facility

EVAN MOORE
Houston Chronicle

LUCEDALE, Miss. - Sometimes they call him "Daddy.''

Rebecca Stringer did. She called him that even after he shoved her up against a wall, caned her with a supple switch, called her a "morphodite'' and mocked her speech impediment.

She called him "daddy'' even after he pitted her in boxing matches with other girls, after he locked her in the "cooler,'' slapped her, spit in her face and told her what a worthless piece of human flotsam she was.

The fact was, he was the closest thing to a "daddy'' Rebecca had ever known, and even today, eight years since she stopped calling him that, she still dreams about him.

In the meantime, Pastor Herman Fountain, ordained Baptist minister, former protege of the late Texas fundamentalist Lester Roloff and overlord of the Bethel Children's Home, has gained prominence in this rustic little community.

After Rebecca Stringer and 35 other children were forcibly removed from him by the state of Mississippi in 1980 he more than tripled the occupancy of the home. He created his own construction company, manned by the unpaid teen-age boys in his care. He's built dormitories, an office building and a new church on the 28-acre former KOA campground that houses his ministry.

And, when the state stepped in again this August and took 72 other youngsters from the home - and the tales of physical brutality and emotional abuse began to pour out in court - he put the bucolic little town of Lucedale on the map, even if it's not in a way the residents appreciate.

In fact, few in Lucedale knew the preacher. Fountain, 38, is a man who, by his own account, was a heroin addict in New York City at the age of 19. Somehow, he said, he woke up in a hospital with hepatitis, found God, went to Bible college in Florida and started his own church in Oklahoma City.

"That church failed and I'd heard that Brother Roloff might need some help down in Corpus Christi, so I headed down there to work with him,'' he said.

Fountain worked in Roloff's Rebekah Home for a little more than a year before leaving in 1978 with Rebecca Stringer and her brother and sister, handed over to him by Roloff as a start for his ministry in Mississippi.

Mississippi was no random choice by Fountain. It's one of four states in which church homes that do not receive state or federal funds can go unlicensed and unsupervised and one in which Fountain can exercise his belief of "separation of church and state.''

"They (state and federal officials) have all their different authorities they have to answer to,'' he said. "Here at Bethel we only have one... and that's God.

"As long as I don't take their money, they don't have no business in here. If I've done something criminal to these kids, I oughta' be in jail and they've got laws to cover that.

"If I haven't, they oughta' stay out.''

What Fountain has done is a matter of opinion and a subject the George County grand jury is considering this week. By his own description he has run a tightly disciplined facility in which violent, rebellious youngsters were taught to say "Yes, sir,'' and little else. By others', he's been a tyrant who created a Dickensian torture chamber where children were beaten, brainwashed and deprived.

Whatever the case, any firsthand knowledge of it is relegated to Fountain, his staff and the children who've passed through the home. Because Bethel is unlicensed, the state of Mississippi has no record of how many children have been there, who they are, where they came from or what happened to them while they were there and little authority to investigate.

Had the children been questioned earlier, they would have given accounts of:

The "black room.'' An unlighted storage closet in which children were locked for disobedience.

The "cooler.'' A bare room with an uncovered light bulb in which children were held for weeks at a time and forced to listen to the continuous droning of sermons by Roloff.

"Pops.'' The floggings administered by Fountain and his staff, leaving welts and open wounds on the legs and buttocks.

"Nigger piles.'' Bethel's term for the practice of having a group of boys pile on one other boy and pummel him.

And there were tales of regimentation that reached the point of severity.

When a child entered Bethel - for which his parents usually paid an entry fee of $750 and a monthly charge of $250 - his head was shaved and he was put "on watch'' with another, trusted youngster assigned to observe him minute by minute, day and night. The newcomer was not allowed to speak to any other child and was allowed no privacy.

There was no contact with home or the outside world, no calls to parents for the first two months and no visits for six months. Incoming mail was opened and outgoing mail was censored. All phone calls were monitored by the staff. All money from parents was taken and kept by the home. There were no newspapers, magazines, movies, radios or televisions.

There were no trips to town. At night, trusted youngsters were posted on guard at the doors to keep others from escaping. Any discussion of leaving brought swift, sure punishment.

There was rationing of toilet paper (seven squares per day) and rationing of time in the shower (1 1/2 minutes).

There were the meals: usually meatless, usually bland. Day-old bread, oatmeal, grits and rice. Leftovers were mixed together in what the youngsters came to call "compost stew.'' Milk was available when it was donated.

There were the work gangs, divided into two distinct groups. The first, assigned to the least desirable tasks, was called the "nigger crew.'' The second, known as the "workers,'' dismantled condemned buildings, cleaned lots and gardens and did roofing jobs.

There was the lack of education. Bethel relies on the Accelerated Christian Education program, which requires a child to learn on his own without teachers and is not accredited.

Finally, there was religion: rigid, intractable, fundamentalist dogma spouted by Fountain and his staff. There was endless Bible memorization. Every child there was a frightful sinner, condemned to hell with only one, narrow avenue of escape: to follow Fountain's every dictate. Catholics were idolatrous heretics; the Pope, the Antichrist. Jews were despicable. Blacks bore the mark of Cain.

And Fountain doesn't deny it.

"About 80 percent of everything that's been said about me is true,'' he said. "I don't have a bunch of good little kids in here. I've got some terrible kids. I've got transvestites, homosexuals, nymphomaniacs, punks. I had a kid who raped his sister and murdered her.

"When a girl acts like a slut and a whore, I call her a slut and a whore. If a boy acts like a queer, I call him a queer. If somebody in our group needs churchin', we church him. That's it.

"They talk about our education program. Well, it's as good as Mississippi public schools, which isn't saying much. But education here is secondary. We're teaching them the Bible.

"We're saving their souls.''

On May 8, one of those souls slipped out of Bethel. A 15-year-old boy broke out and fled as many had before him. But this boy, later to become known as "SDL'' in court testimony, proved to be different.

SDL, who had hidden in a locker until evening church services began, slipped quietly out of his dormitory and tore out of Bethel on a bicycle. He made it to a convenience store and called the George County sheriff's office, whose dispatcher called child welfare investigator Kathy Prine.

And Prine began questioning SDL. He had come to Bethel in 1986 at age 13 and had a longer history there than most runaways. He'd been on the bottom of the "nigger piles'' and gotten more than his share of the beatings, been locked in the "cooler'' and verbally humiliated in front of his peers.

But that was not what made SDL different. There were other stories equally as shocking from Bethel. What set him apart was that he had nowhere to go, no one wanted him and he was willing to testify.

And his story could be proved. George County Prosecutor Mark Maples found boys who had left Bethel before SDL and some who left later who corroborated his tale. They told of how SDL had been pelted with clods in a ditch, how he'd been caned and cursed and how he'd been refused glasses for his failing eyesight.

A hearing was called to determine if SDL qualified as an abused child and could be taken as a ward of the state, and, on June 1, he took the stand. He told of the beatings and the abuse. He told how he was a bed-wetter and was placed on all-night "pee watch,'' awakened hourly and forced to urinate and was punished if he couldn't and beaten if he wet the bed.

Other children followed on the witness stand. Doctors testified that many of the girls had no menstrual periods, a direct result of emotional stress. The girls themselves told of verbal and physical abuse by Fountain and staff member Brother David Owens.

They told how they were forced to bend over and raise their dresses to receive "licks'' and how Owens forced them to do the "chair'' (bending the knees and assuming a sitting position against the wall for long periods) or stand on tiptoe with their chins against the wall.

"In Mississippi we have laws protecting animals from mistreatment,'' Maples said. "We don't have enough protecting kids.''

On May 8 Fountain was called to testify. A few times he took the Fifth Amendment, but more often he flatly refused, stating that he believed he was answerable to no one but God.

Judge Robert Oswald found Fountain, Owens and Brother Tom McDonald in contempt and leveled daily fines of $500 each. He ordered all the children removed from the home, and State Welfare Commissioner Thomas Brittain Jr. made arrangements for them to be housed in an unused portion of a state mental institution.

And that gave Fountain an edge. He returned to Bethel, where he gathered the children in the church and told them, "You're going to a nuthouse; I have no more control over you.''

That prompted some children to flee. As welfare workers and buses stood by, youngsters began running for the nearby woods with police behind them. State troopers and sheriff's deputies spent hours picking up others found wandering along the streets or hiding in private homes. Some were found hiding in trees.

And today, the case is at a standstill. Brittain, Maples and others hope its publicity will help the push for regulatory legislation. Of the 72 children, all but two have been placed in foster homes, state institutions or returned to their families. One of those two is SDL.

"Oddly enough, these `terrible' kids appeared to be pretty normal youngsters who'd simply been deprived any sort of education,'' Brittain said. "We didn't have any trouble with them.''

And Fountain continues to operate Bethel. About 40 youths (about 20 of those younger than 18) are housed there. The fines against Fountain, Owens and McDonald have reached $150,000. He has been sued by two former students - Rhonnda Traxler, who says he sexually molested her, and Ray Friery, who's suing for involuntary servitude - but Fountain says he isn't worried.

"Those fines'll never be paid,'' he said. "They can take this place if they want to. It's mortgaged up to the hilt anyway, so maybe they'll pay it off and save my good name.

"Anyhow, I came here without anything and I can leave that way and start over if I have to.''

And just outside Lucedale, Rebecca Stringer lives in a normal home, with a husband and child and has an almost normal life.

"Sometimes I dream about it, dream that I'm still there, and I wake up scared,'' she said.

"When I got out, I didn't know who won the war in Vietnam. I had to find out who the president was and I couldn't read very well. I guess I really didn't know what TV was either.

"I'd see the shows and I thought they were real. My father-in-law had to explain to me that they were just actors in stories.

"Fact is, I had to go back to school to get my high school diploma. Fountain stole four years out of my life, and I'll never forgive him for that.

"And before I left I had a Bible and a lot of the other kids signed it and Fountain signed it too. He wrote, `Are you going to school, Rebecca?' but he wrote it like I talk, like `thcool,' instead of `school' and `Webecca.'

"I erased what he wrote, but I can't erase his memory.''

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