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A controversial Corpus Christi, Texas saga for decades, the Roloff homes legal fight rolls on. A Christian effort to reform troubled youths and adults, the Roloff homes are mired in allegations of abuse and are also part of a church versus state debate with ties to Texas Gov. George W. Bush. A civil suit filed on Sept. 12 in Nueces County, Texas against the program, the church, individuals running it and the alternative accreditation agency set up by Bush to monitor it is simply the latest shot in the Roloff battle. An official with the program faces a felony criminal trial in January on charges of alleged abuse of tenants. And the wife of the pastor in charge of the program has been banned by the state from working at Roloff’s children’s homes. “That place is evil,” alleges Teresa Calalay, the parent of a teen who lived in the Roloff homes and a plaintiff in Justin Simons, et al. v. Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises Inc., et al. Still, supporters defend the Roloff homes and say a mountain is being made out of a molehill. And a state agency that has twice investigated the program says no children — about 100 boys and girls stay in two Roloff youth homes — are at risk. Operating on more than 500 acres of land, the youth homes were started by the late Lester Roloff and ran into trouble in the 1970s. Roloff contended that the faith-based youth program should not need state licensing. Amid allegations of abuse, the Texas Office of the Attorney General began investigating. The People’s Baptist Church of Corpus Christi took over the program in 1979, and Roloff died in 1982. The youth homes were forced to close during the 1980s in a legal battle that ultimately was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear an appeal in 1985 of a lower-court ruling requiring the youth homes to get a state license. The program got new life under Bush. As part of his faith-based initiatives, Bush won legislative approval for alternative accreditation of religious youth programs. “We must unleash the compassion of people of faith to help solve the many challenges facing Texas,” Bush said as he signed the legislation into law in 1997. The legislation led to the Texas Association of Christian Childcare Agencies Inc., TACCCA, to oversee the alternative youth programs. TACCCA’s board, headed by Rev. David Blaser, pastor of Miller Road Baptist Church in Garland, approved the Roloff program in 1999, and the youth homes reopened. INVESTIGATIONS Justin Simons had a troubled youth, according to Marc Davis of Atlanta, who represents the four plaintiffs in the suit. He was a discipline problem and got into drugs and alcohol, Davis says, and he had a short attention span and did poorly in school. He defied his mother and stepfather, Davis says, and the Roloff program, featuring religion and tough love to force sin out of him, seemed like a possible answer. According to the civil suit, Simons was placed in Roloff’s Lighthouse home for young men 18 to 25 years old in March of this year. In the suit, Simons is alleged to have been beaten, cursed, denied food and water, denied medical care and forced to dig a pit 15-feet deep, amid sewage, while other young men urinated on him, threw objects and sang hymns. Ricky Mason, who Davis says had ongoing problems defying his parents, was also placed in Lighthouse in March, according to the suit, but should not have been there, since he was not yet 18 years old. The suit alleges that he saw tenants being beaten and whipped, having food thrown at them and being forced to drink filthy water and eat rotten food. Jeremy Gullick moved into Lighthouse in February, according to the suit, where it is alleged that he was beaten and whipped. The suit also alleges Gullick was thrown in a mud-filled ditch and that a large man then jumped on top of him. Complaints led to two state investigations. The first, in May, resulted in the ouster of Faye Cameron, wife of pastor and program operator Rev. Wiley Cameron, by Texas Protective and Regulatory Services, the parent agency of the state’s child-care licensing, according to agency spokesperson Marly Sheely. She says that while the agency found that Faye Cameron — dorm mother of the Roloff program’s girl’s home — had engaged in neglect and abuse of tenants, it found no problems with the overall program. The Camerons did not return a call seeking comment. The second investigation came shortly after the first, following allegations of the 17-year-old being housed in the adult Lighthouse facility. Sheely says a finding was made that, in fact, a minor was improperly housed in an adult home, and this was forwarded to TACCCA. Sheely says she cannot elaborate because the finding is on appeal and receiving due process. But she says there is no finding that children at Roloff homes are in any danger. And she adds that the Lighthouse program is outside of her agency’s control as there is no state licensing or accreditation of adult homes. Sheely says there are eight programs in Texas alternatively accredited through TACCCA, and there are no complaints against any of the others. Amid the investigations, People’s Baptist Church Superintendent Allen Smith was arrested and charged with abusing two teens at a Roloff home, charges Smith denies. And Rev. Cameron, a board member with TACCCA in addition to operating the Roloff programs, resigned from the board. TACCCA board president Blaser describes the move as one simply aimed at avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest. But plaintiffs lawyer Davis says Cameron’s position on the board amounted to a “fox guarding the henhouse.” Blaser believes two attorneys in Florida will be handling the civil case, but Texas Lawyer could not confirm that as of press time Sept. 21. TAKING ON THE CASE Davis describes the Roloff homes’ campus as a “compound,” with houses, trailers, dorms and churches. There is a guard shack at the entryway. Local counsel Bob Hilliard, of Hilliard and Munoz in Corpus Christi, says he, Davis and Calalay drove in one day, waving at the guard and acting as if they belonged there. They wanted to see the pit where much of the alleged abuse supposedly took place. Hilliard describes the pit as being about 20 feet in diameter and approaching 15 feet in depth, with steep sides that would make it impossible for someone to get out unless they were assisted. This was the place where Justin Simons was allegedly forced to dig while others urinated on him. Hilliard says he saw a chair at the top of the pit, near the edge, where someone might sit and watch the ordeal. “It just looked ominous,” Hilliard says. He adds that it was at that point, when he saw the pit, that he agreed to work on the case. Defense attorney Grant Jones, a former Nueces County district attorney who represents Smith in his criminal case, says the pit is being made more evil than it actually ever could be. He says the tenant’s story is grossly exaggerated and filled with nonsense details that will unravel under scrutiny. He describes the pit as being more of a ditch, a low area dug by a tractor and not by a teen-ager, aimed simply at holding water to keep a road clear when there is heavy rain. And Jones says any action by workers at the Roloff homes should be understood in the context of people trying to handle youngsters and teen-agers who everyone agrees are “problem” children who may need discipline and force to be kept under control. Rev. Blaser, board president of TACCCA, preaches that critics of the Roloff homes and his accrediting agency are ignorant. He says the Roloff homes are no “compound” at all. Blaser says there is no security fence holding tenants inside. And he adds that dormitory doors are not locked at night, due to fire safety considerations. Blaser says the living arrangements are simple, but clean. “I’ve been there,” Blaser says. “I’ve eaten there. I’ve preached there.” Blaser allows that some tenants have run away from the Roloff program. But he adds that many of them have run away from other homes before. He points out TACCCA is only responsible for youth homes, not adult ones, such as Lighthouse, even though they are on the same campus as the homes for girls and boys. And Blaser says he has letters from parents that give glowing reviews of the Roloff homes. “We’re not a cult here,” Blaser says. As for Cameron’s exit from the board, Blaser says the position has not yet been filled. He says Cameron’s dealings as a board member were entirely ethical, with Cameron not taking part in TACCCA decisions affecting his own programs. LEGACY LIVES ON As Gov. Bush runs for president and some critics try to make hay out of the Roloff homes and TACCCA issue, his office in Austin is nonplussed. Press spokesperson Linda Edwards says the state can inspect facilities accredited under the alternative faith-based initiatives program and make sure they are in compliance. She says the state has power and authority to make sure that children are protected. “Gov. Bush is troubled any time there is an allegation that a child has been abused, and in this case, state investigators acted quickly and aggressively and took action,” Edwards says. “Lester and I, we developed kind of an interesting relationship and respect with each other,” says Lynn Taylor, an assistant attorney general who tangled with Roloff during the 1970s in Texas v. Roloff Evangelistic Enterprises Inc. He recalls Roloff — “Brother Roloff” as he was always called — truly believed he was doing good work and would never believe that improper violence would come from workers who professed to be followers of Jesus. Roloff would hold all-day rallies in Austin, pumping up thousands of his followers with a call for churches to fight government interference, Taylor alleges. When the point came where Roloff signed an agreed judgment with the attorney general’s office, one requiring him to try to get a state license for the youth homes, Taylor alleges Roloff was forced to renege on the deal because of pressure from his followers. And so the legal wrangling raged on. Taylor says Roloff kept changing lawyers. As time passed, Taylor realized he was the only assistant AG who was still on the case from the start. Taylor left the AG’s office in 1978, the year then-Attorney General John Hill ran for governor. Taylor alleges Roloff had a hand in getting fundamentalist voters to support successful candidate Bill Clements and may have helped tip the election. He says Roloff crashed and died while piloting a small plane through a thunderstorm on Election Day, four years later, as Mark White ousted Clements. Taylor says the death of his foe saddened him — he had come to admire and respect Roloff in his own way, as an evangelist who truly thought he was doing good work and who probably did help some troubled youths by instilling discipline and rules into their lives. And Roloff lives on — in his homes, in the continuing controversy and on the airwaves. Taylor says a Corpus Christi radio station continues to run tapes of Roloff’s sermons and speeches. Notes Taylor, “I’ll bet many people there think Brother Lester is still alive.”

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