No Tresspassing

Seclusion Suits Leader of Strict Baptist Academy

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/April 15, 1996
By Tim O'Neil

The Mountain Park Baptist Church and Boarding Academy is well-built and tidy. Strict routine and discipline govern student life. The wooded campus is far away from the big, bad world.

That's exactly how the Rev. Bobby R. Wills wants it. He runs the private school for troubled teen-agers with his wife, Betty, and has sought since 1987 to stay as far from the news as he can.

But on March 25, a 16-year-old male student from Florida was killed, allegedly by two fellow students. Wills and Mountain Park hunkered down, making no comments. A bus was parked across the driveway to keep away reporters.

Last Friday, 160 of Mountain Park's students and 130 of their parents rallied outside the Wayne County Courthouse in a well-organized showing of support for the school. Later that day. Wills spoke briefly and had his son, Brett, give a tour of the campus to the Post-Dispatch.

Wills, 60, said he couldn't say much because Circuit Judge William Camm Seay is reviewing a juvenile officer's report on conditions and treatment at the school. On Friday, while the rally was under way outside the courthouse, Seay held a 4 1/2-hour closed hearing. He is to resume the case Tuesday.

Roger Barr, chief juvenile officer for a five-county circuit, led a team of 19 officers and social workers onto the campus last Tuesday. After 10 hours of interviewing almost all of the roughly 200 students, 21 of the girls volunteered to leave.

The hearing Friday concerned general conditions and the future of four or five of those girls, some of whose parents want them back at Mountain Park. Barr has said he cannot disclose details because the case is a juvenile matter. Wills called Barr's visit a "raid."

The school is built along a hillside on a 165-acre former cattle farm just over a ridge from the St. Francis River, about 110 miles south of St. Louis.

Mountain Park is 12 miles east of Piedmont, Wayne County's biggest town, and about as far away from Greenville, the county seat.

Either way, a trip to the school requires a five-mile ride up and down steep hills on a gravel road.

"This is hard to run away from," said Rod Bristol of Seattle, whose 16-year-old son attends the school. "It redefines the meaning of being in the Ozarks sticks."

Bristol approves of that. Wills said the remoteness keeps away outside influences, as does his prohibition against radio and television. "I was raised a country boy, and I think that's the best situation for young people," Wills said.

Wills said he runs the school "totally on Christianity." The students use a Christian independent-study program and sit side by side while the teachers work individually with them. If a student needs help, he or she raises a small Christian flag, white with a red cross in a small blue field.

The boys and girls study and eat in separate areas, usually at separate times.

There are about 30 boys and 170 girls.

Students get up at 6 a.m. every day and go to bed at 9 p.m. The day is organized with set schedules of class times, Bible studies, prayer services and recreation. They have regular work routines. Boys and girls wash laundry.

Girls work in the kitchen, boys work outdoors on such chores as hauling and stacking the pre-cut firewood for the outdoor furnaces that fire the hot-water heating system. Adults stoke the furnaces.

Controls are regular and strict. Brett Wills showed the mail room, where staff members read all mail going in and out. Discipline can include spanking on the buttocks with a wooden paddle.

Several parents said Friday they were told that Barr's report complains of excessive corporal punishment and inadequate medical treatment. Sam Gerhardt, the Willses' son-in-law, said paddling is "rare and as a last resort to absolute defiance. We prefer to talk."

The 11-building campus is a mix of building designs that resembles a well-kept Ozarks resort. The boys live in a two-story rustic-wood building that looks like a farmhouse with a large porch. Their bunk beds are on the second floor, an open barracks room. There is no fence around the house.

Nearby are four private residences for the Wills family members. A few of the 30-member staff live in rooms near the girls' dormitory.

Farther up the hill, the girls live in a two-story brick dormitory that has interior connections to the office building, the study areas and the cafeteria. The girls also sleep on bunk beds in four large open rooms. Their walls have flowered wallpaper, and the furnishings and lavatory areas are like those of a college dormitory. Most of the girls also have at least one stuffed animal atop their beds.

The windows to the girls' dorm and adjoining study rooms are made of glass block. Two courtyards leading from the girls' dorm, one with basketball hoops and the other with a small swimming pool, are surrounded by high chain-link fences. Both dorms are air-conditioned.

Gerhardt said there are solid reasons for open sleeping quarters.

"It keeps things in the open," he said. "Nobody can hide. And the idea of positive peer pressure certainly is important. We preach to them and tell them the truth, but the real sharing of ministry and faith takes place student to student."

The student who was killed was William A. Futrelle II of Boca Raton, Fla.

His body was found in woods downhill from the girls' dormitory, not near the boys' dormitory as was reported previously.

Anthony G. Rutherford, 18, of Siloam Springs, is in the Wayne County jail on a charge of first-degree murder. Barr, the juvenile officer, has recommended that one 15-year-old face a murder charge as an adult. A second 15-year-old has been remanded to the state juvenile system on a lesser charge.

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