An 11-month police investigation in North Carolina has led to charges against 10 members of what authorities called an “alternative religious group” who allegedly forced children to work at four fish markets for little or no pay.
Authorities recently raided a compound in Godwin known as the McCollum Ranch, detaining four people, including the alleged religious sect’s leader, 67-year-old John McCollum, according to multiple reports.
The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to PEOPLE’s inquiries.
The Fayetteville Observer reports McCollum allegedly made the children, who lived in the compound, work full-time, against their will, at John C’s Fish Markets in Lumberton and Fayetteville.
Police said the children — between the ages of 9 and 17 — were allegedly often unpaid for lifting heavy boxes, keeping fish iced, and cutting and cleaning fish, the paper reports.
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Many of the children allegedly worked 40-hour weeks, and also performed construction and maintenance work on mobile grills. Police allege that none were in school, the Observer reports.
The alleged child labor violations were uncovered during a fraud investigation. The News and Observer reports that a commune member allegedly fabricated her high school transcripts, securing a student loan that McCollum allegedly utilized to fund the ranch’s operations.
McCollum, Cornelia McDonald, 44, Brenda Hall, 49, and Pamela Puga Luna, 41, were all apprehended this week. Warrants have been issued for the arrests of six other suspects: Shirley McNatt, Daffene Edge, Kassia Rogers, Irish Williams, Shirnitka McNatt, and Earlene Hayat.
McCollum was charged with six counts of involuntary servitude with a child victim, three counts of conspiracy, nine counts of obtaining property by false pretense, and one count each of falsifying documents and continuing a criminal enterprise.
Luna 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,” the Observer reports.
McDonald 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, while Hall faces 10 counts of obtaining property by false pretense and single counts of conspiracy and falsifying documents.
None of the four defendants has entered pleas and information on their lawyers wasn’t immediately available. They are all being held on bail, with McCollum’s the highest at $1.1 million.
Hall is being held on $325,000 bond with McDonald’s set at $250,000. Luna’s bond is $527,000.
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Authorities say a 15-year-old former member, who escaped the commune, was instrumental in exposing the alleged exploitation of underage children, reports WISH-TV.
Investigators further allege Hall was managing a fraudulent home schooling program called the Halls of Knowledge Home School, but that the purported school was not educating the children, the station reports.
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