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Lawsuit alleges widespread abuse at Arkansas religious camp

The plaintiffs are suing for damages after allegedly suffering from years of sexual abuse while at "The Lords Ranch."
Michael Hibblen
Little Rock Public Radio
The plaintiffs are suing for damages after allegedly suffering from years of sexual abuse while at The Lord's Ranch religious camp and treatment center in far north Arkansas.

A lawsuit is underway against a former religious camp and treatment center.

The Lord's Ranch Church Camp was a therapeutic facility created for troubled teens. It was located in the Randolph County community of Warm Springs, just south of the Missouri border, and was open from 1976 to 2016.

Now, former residents are alleging physical and sexual abuse at the facility. Two law firms, Romanucci & Blandin and the Gillispie Law Firm, are bringing several lawsuits on behalf of more than 30 former residents seeking punitive damages.

The current lawsuit is on behalf of eight accusers, but the firms promise they will continue filling suits against the school's former staffers and owners.

Decades of accusations

The eight plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege the sexual abuse was mostly perpetrated by a former staffer, Emmett Alden Presley. Presley was a licensed counselor and the Ranch’s Director of Social Services.

Family members Bud, Ted and Shirley Suhl lead the facility. The complaint alleges these high-ranking members were told about the abuse and allowed it to continue.

In the complaint, the plaintiffs are only known as “John Doe’s.” John Doe 1 stayed at the facility from 1997 to 2000. He says he was raped by Presley repeatedly during their weekly counseling sessions. He said the abuse happened over three years.

“The several years I spent at the Lord's Ranch were the worst most horrific experiences I can remember,” he said. “He used my trust as a weapon against me,” he said of Presley. The abuse, he said, “has impacted my entire life.”

John Doe 1 later reported the abuse to the administration. He was told “the consequences would be severe” if he continued to speak up.

He was physically assaulted after he reported the abuse. John Doe 1 was in church, when he was physically restrained by a staff member until his shoulder and collarbone were broken. He was told this was because he allowed his eyes to “wander” during the service.

The descriptions of the abuse listed in the complaint have a similar pattern. Often Presley would force children to perform oral sex and promise them gifts if they complied. Students who refused the abuse were threatened with the removal of privileges like access to phone calls and visits home.

John Doe 2 was sent to the facility by his mother for “behavioral issues.” He was forced to meet with Presley once a week

“He knew I didn't want to be at the ranch,” John Doe 2 said, explaining that this fact was held over him throughout his time there.

In the complaint, John Doe 2 alleged he was promised he could go home if he submitted to oral rape from Presley.

After he told someone about the abuse, John Doe 2 was threatened with solitary confinement.

He promised not to say anything more about the abuse and then apologized for reporting it. Presley told him that if he had “kept it a secret he would have been home already.”

The Lord's Ranch in Warm Springs, Ark. is seen in this undated photo.
Romanucci & Blandin
Courtesy photo
The Lord's Ranch in Warm Springs, Ark. is seen in this undated photo.

The complaint mentions two female victims. Jane Doe 1 was 16 when the abuse started. The complaint says she was forced to marry an unnamed counselor at the facility before she was able to escape and get a divorce. Jane Doe 2 was treated for a sexually transmitted disease while at the Lord's Ranch, further indicating that the higher-ups may have been aware of the abuse.

Several other allegations include physical beatings and homophobic harassment. In 2006, a hearing in the Arkansas Legislature was convened by Rep. Buddy Blair, D-Fort Smith. The hearing discussed students being forced into straitjackets and other physical restraints for bad behavior.

Ted Suhl Bribery Conviction

The Lord's Ranch is no longer active. In 2014, it was suspended by the Arkansas Department of Human Services. Its license was then revoked by the DHS Child Welfare Agency after it became inoperable. This came amid a slew of criminal prosecutions relating to the facility.

The lawsuit complaint reports that from 2002 to 2008, The Lord's Ranch received $95 million in Medicaid funds.

Steven B. Jones used to be the deputy director of DHS. He admitted to receiving bribes on behalf of the facility. His confession was part of a plea deal where he also agreed to serve 24 months in prison.

From 2007 to 2013, Jones said he received “cash payments and other things of value” from Suhl. In turn, he would give Suhl information about “DHS’ internal workings” and other activities that would benefit The Lord's Ranch. A third man named Phillip Carter pleaded guilty to helping funnel the money between Suhl and Jones.

Suhl pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud and bribery. He was found guilty on four out of seven counts, and sentenced to seven years in prison. Three years into his sentence, then-President Donald Trump commuted it. In a statement, the former president called Suhl a “pillar of the community,” saying he ran “faith-based” healthcare treatment centers. The statement stressed that he was only convicted on some of the charges he faced.

“Mr. Suhl’s request for clemency is strongly supported by former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee,” the statement says.

In 2006, the Arkansas Times reported then-Governor Mike Huckabee and his daughter, future Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders were passengers on Suhl’s plane when it had to land in an emergency. The article says Suhl has given thousands of dollars to Huckabee’s campaigns in the past.

Ongoing Lawsuit

Attorney for the plaintiffs Martin Gould says the case is heartbreaking and that “each story is worse than the next.” The lawsuits ask for punitive financial damages on the counts of negligence and callous disregard. They want compensation for the medical and psychological after-effects the students suffered.

Michael Scotti, an attorney for Ted Suhl says he denies the allegations. "the Suhl Family categorically denies each and every allegation of wrongful conduct alleged in the Complaint." He went on to say: "The Lord’s Ranch and its employees strictly followed applicable regulations safeguarding children under their care." He says he will work to "prove that each and every allegation of wrongful conduct is false."

The statute of limitations for survivors to sue The Lord's Ranch for sexual assault runs out next year.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.