Jan 11, 2018

Minister forced kids to work at fish markets, deputies say

Greg Barnes
The Fayetteville Observer
January 9, 2018

Nearly a year ago, two former members of a religious organization near Godwin complained to the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office that their minister was forcing children to work in his fish markets for little or no money.

If the children refused to work, John C. McCollum — chief apostle, as he has called himself — would threaten them with physical violence or take away their food, sheriff’s deputies say.

McCollum had been in trouble with the law before. In 1990, Fayetteville police charged him with beating four children so hard with an automotive fan belt that he left scars. McCollum pleaded guilty in that case to misdemeanor child abuse but faced little punishment.

In the years that followed, McCollum moved his organization from a house on Early Street in Fayetteville to isolated land he owns near Godwin that has grown to include several buildings, huts and vehicles. The property is visible from Interstate 95 and accessible by a rutted, sandy road called McCollum Lane. A sign at the entrance proclaims it as McCollum Ranch.

As the compound grew, so too did the complaints of alleged child abuse or neglect against what deputies refer to as an “alternative religious organization.”

Before the latest complaints in February, deputies had gone to the compound at least four times to investigate abuse or neglect allegations since the mid-1990s, said Lt. Sean Swain, the sheriff’s spokesman. Each time, Swain said, no one inside the compound was willing to talk, and no other witnesses would come forward. No one was charged with crimes.

That all changed with the complaint the Sheriff’s Office received in February. After months of staking out the fish markets and the religious compound, the investigation came to a head on Dec. 12, when deputies charged McCollum, 67, and three of the women who worked for him. Six others are being sought. Charges against McCollum include involuntary servitude of children, obtaining property by false pretense and continuing a criminal enterprise.

Arrest warrants list 16 children and young adults as victims, but Swain said investigators believe there were many more over the years.

In addition to making children work in the John C’s Fish Markets with little or no compensation, the Sheriff’s Office says, McCollum and others are accused of fabricating high school transcripts to enroll the youths into Wake Technical Community College and other institutions.

McCollum’s compound had a license for a home school called the Halls of Knowledge, but Swain said there is no indication that children met guidelines for a high school diploma. Many of the children had difficulty reading and writing, he said.

Although a few of the youths and young adults did enroll in online college classes, Swain said, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that McCollum’s organization has received $500,000 in financial aid over the years.

A man at the compound who identified himself as John McCollum Jr. referred questions to his father’s lawyer, Antonio Gerald, who declined to comment at this time.


In the 1980s, John McCollum and some of his disciples operated out of the house on Early Street, off Ramsey Street near Law Road. McCollum appeared regularly on a WIDU radio program designed to promote the interests of black people. McCollum’s father helped found the Fayetteville branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and once served as its president.

McCollum remained prominent in Cumberland County, despite his 1991 conviction for misdemeanor child abuse. After moving what was then the Holy Tabernacle Church from Fayettville to the Godwin property, McCollum and his followers pitched a red and white striped tent in the field and held an annual “Homeless Dinner” on McCollum’s birthday. An estimated 250 people attended in 1995.

McCollum is also a businessman. At various times, he operated fish markets on Murchison Road, Reilly Road, Ramsey Street and in Hope Mills and Lumberton. Since the investigation began, only the market on Reilly Road remains open. McCollum also owned a small trucking company, according to N.C. Secretary of State records, and he operated mobile concession stands, selling fish products at fairs and other events. McCollum’s church established a nonprofit to feed children.

As part of his ministry, McCollum held tent revivals in other states and even other countries, said sheriff’s Sgt. Christy Booyer, the lead investigator in the case.

It was during those revivals, Booyer and Swain said, that McCollum recruited people to live at the compound near Godwin. Investigators were able to document 120 people — probably not counting children — who lived at the compound over the years, Swain said.

Booyer said McCollum recruits “vulnerable people” to become part of the organization and live at his ranch.

But some of the people charged in December were listed as victims in 1990.

“Now they have grown up in this,” Booyer said. “Now it becomes their way of life. If you have nowhere else to go…. It’s very possible that today’s suspects are yesterday’s victims.”


The man who went to sheriff’s investigators in February with a complaint about the compound had lived there for some time, Booyer said. He was with a woman who had been there about six months. Their complaint was soon bolstered by a 15-year-old boy who had run away from the compound, Booyer said.

She said the boy told investigators about how he and his 13-year-old brother were forced to work in the fish markets for more than 40 hours a week. Children, at least one as young as 9, were made to cut, clean and ice the fish, Booyer said, adding that they lifted 50-pound boxes of fish and often cut themselves with the filet knives.

Their compensation, Booyer said, was about $20, if that. McCollum called it an allowance, she and Swain said. They said the boy who ran away told investigators that when he wasn’t working in a fish market, he was required to work on McCollum’s concessions trucks.

Booyer described adults living at the compound as respectful and quiet — so quiet that they refused to say much of anything about their lives or answer questions during the investigation.

But an arrest warrant spells out what investigators believe was happening. Booyer wrote that McCollum locked food away from one victim and took custody of his infant child because “he was not of this world.”

Other witnesses — children mostly — also began to come forward as the investigation expanded. In October, Swain and Booyer said, DSS social workers entered the compound to investigate allegations of child abuse. Deputies accompanied them to provide security, Swain said.

When they arrived, Swain said, they found that many of the children had been removed from the complex. Investigators were told they were taken to a hotel in Harnett County, but Swain said deputies couldn’t locate them.

Emotions rose when DSS entered the compound, Booyer and Swain said.

“This is a delicate situation, any time you are dealing with children and religion,” Booyer said.

Booyer said deputies were able to defuse the situation.

Brenda Jackson, the DSS director, would not comment about the whereabouts of the children or how many are in protective custody. When social workers went to the compound, Swain said, they were looking for about 25 children.

“We have been working closely with law enforcement regarding these arrests to ensure any children identified as meeting the child protective services criteria are safe and receiving proper care,” Jackson said in an email.

McCollum now faces a long list of charges: six counts of involuntary servitude with a child victim, three counts of felony conspiracy, nine counts of obtaining property by false pretense and one count each of falsifying documents and continuing a criminal enterprise.

After his arrest in December, a Cumberland County judge rejected McCollum’s bid to reduce his bail from $1.1 million to $75,000.

Three other people in his organization were also arrested on Dec. 12. Brenda Joyce Hall, the 49-year-old home school coordinator, faces 10 counts of obtaining property by false pretense and single counts of felony conspiracy and falsifying documents.

Pamela Puga Luna, 41, was charged with knowingly allowing a 13-year-old to be placed in a “religious compound where he was denied a formal education and housed in an environment connected with human trafficking.” Unlawfully profiting by forcing a child to work can be construed as human trafficking.

Cornelia McDonald, 44, was charged with continuing a criminal enterprise by holding minors in involuntary servitude by coersion and intimidation and acting in concert with five or more other people.

Deputies had hoped to arrest six more adults from the compound at a DSS hearing Tuesday, but none of the six showed up. Swain said arrest warrants have been issued for Shirley McNatt, Daffene Edge, Kassia Rogers, Irish Williams, Shirmitka McNatt and Earlene Green Hayat.

Williams and Shirley McNatt were convicted of child abuse in the 1990 case and sentenced to probation. Shirmitka McNatt was listed as a victim in that case. She was 9 years old at the time.

No charges of child abuse have been filed in the latest case.

The investigation continues, and Swain said federal authorities may join the case.

McCollum remains in the Cumberland County Detention Center. Booyer said he doesn’t believe he has committed any crimes.

“He doesn’t see where he’s failed,” she said.

Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at gbarnes@fayobserver.com or 910-486-3525.


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