NC religious group held children in involuntary servitude, authorities say

NC religious group held children in involuntary servitude, authorities say

GODWIN, NC (WNCN) - Members of an "alternative religious group" living on a property in Godwin in Cumberland County forced children to perform forced labor instead of attending school, while also using a fake home schooling program to commit college financial aid fraud, according to the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office.

Authorities have obtained warrants against 10 suspects as a result of the investigation into the group, which lived "on and around" a property called McCollum Ranch on McCollum Road in Godwin.

The group also operated John C's Fish Markets and mobile grills: three in Fayetteville and one in Lumberton.

"Several former residents of the McCollum Ranch, during interviews, said that (John C. McCollum) and others were holding children, ages ranging from 9 years old to 17 years old, in involuntary servitude," deputies wrote. "The children had to work full time in the fish markets with little to no compensation."

The residents told investigators that the children weren't attending school.

In August, a 15-year-old ran away from the ranch, deputies said. He told investigators that he, his brothers, and several other juveniles, were forced to work at the fish markets for more than 40 hours per week for little-to-no compensation, according to authorities.

"The children were living in the McCollum Ranch with their mothers and/or guardians who are also agents and/or managers of the criminal enterprise affiliated with McCollum and John C's Fish Markets," deputies wrote.

Investigators say they also found that the group was committing fraud using the college financial aid system.

"The investigation revealed that Brenda Joyce Hall, a resident of the McCollum Ranch, was managing a fraudulent homeschool program called the Halls of Knowledge Home School," deputies wrote.

Hall gave ranch residents fake high school transcripts, which were then used "in an effort to acquire admittance into online programs through Wake Technical Community College(s) and other schools," deputies wrote.

Members of the group were able to secure financial aid, "which sums were converted by McCollum and others to benefit the criminal enterprise," deputies wrote.

Investigators say they have so far arrested four of the 10 people charged. Various members of the group face charges of continuing criminal enterprise, involuntary servitude of a minor, obtaining property by false pretense and conspiracy.