Students, Parents Sing Praises of Baptist Academy

St. Louis Post-Dispatch/April 13, 1996
By Tim O'Neil

The court hearing was behind closed doors, but the testimonials on the courthouse lawn were enthusiastic. Everyone who spoke proclaimed love for the Mountain Park Baptist Church and Boarding Academy.

About 160 of the 200 students at Mountain Park, 130 of their parents from coast to coast and at least 100 other supporters gathered outside the Wayne County Courthouse to praise the school's work with troubled teen-agers. On a spring morning of blustery wind and warm sunshine, two dozen speakers and singers took turns at a microphone atop a flatbed truck emblazoned with several large signs, including this one: "READ OUR LIVES. LEAVE US ALONE."

The school, on 165 secluded acres near the St. Francis River, has avoided publicity on fanfare since it opened in 1987. That privacy was broken March 26, when a 16-year-old student was killed, allegedly by two fellow students, to protect a bizarre plot to take over the school and get on national television.

The victim was William A. Futrelle II of Boca Raton, Fla. His throat had been slashed and his head beaten. Sheriff's deputies arrested an 18-year-old male student, and two 15-year-olds although they now think one of the juveniles was not involved in the killing.

Tuesday, 20 state juvenile officers and social workers visited the school and interviewed all of its students. Twenty-one of the female students left the campus that night with the state investigators.

Chief juvenile officer Roger Barr filed a confidential report with the Wayne County Circuit Court on conditions and treatment at the school and has declined to say anything more. Circuit Judge William Camm Seay heard the case in closed session for 4 1/2 hours Friday. He took no action and is scheduled to resume the hearing Tuesday.

Afterward, Barr and L. Dwayne Hackworth, a lawyer from nearby Piedmont who represents the school, said Mountain Park would remain open. Barr said the court still must deal with four or five girls who left the school but whose parents wanted them to return or could not agree with the girls about their future.

Outside, nobody knew that. The plea was to save Mountain Park, even though Barr had said earlier that he never intended to close it.

"This school should be called the Miracle Academy," said Richard Kelley, a lawyer from Olympia, Wash., who has a 15-year-old daughter there. "You can't imagine what it's like to see a daughter delivered back to an attitude of love and respect.

I'm not the Christian that many of you are," Kelley told the crowd. "That's not why we came here. But my daughter has shown me the hand of God where I have never seen it. I thank Mountain Park for saving her."

His daughter and all of her classmates gave the credit to Jesus. "When I got here, all I wanted to do was get home to my drugs," said Shannon Kelley. "At first, I thought these people were a bunch of brain-washed fanatics. But I began to see what the other girls were living as well as saying. I have made a complete U-turn in my life. I love the Lord."

The Rev. Bobby R. Wills, 60, who runs the school with the wife, Betty, 58, did not speak at the rally. Later Friday, he spoke briefly at the school and called Barr's visit Tuesday a "raid." But back at the courthouse, plenty of people spoke for Wills.

One girl called the school her "home and ministry." A boy said the school had saved him from drugs and self-desturction. Two mothers stood at the microphone and wept. Local ministers pledged support. Everybody thanked God.

The 140 female students all attended the rally in matching navy blue skirts and jackets, with cream-colored blouses. The 20 boys all wore dark-colored suits and ties. They happily shouted to the Willses as "Mama" and "Papa," their nicknames at the school.

They sang songs, including one that goes in part: "All those things I used to do, I don't do them anymore. There's been a great change since I've been born again."

Many also carried signs they had made Thursday, with such messages as "Don't attack Christian schools," and "We're now young ladies."

In a cell on the third floor of the yellow-brick courthouse was Anthony G. Rutherford, of Siloam Springs, Ark., charged with first-degree murder in Futrelle's death. Barr has asked the court to certify one 15-year-old to stand trial for murder as an adult, but the second 15-year-old already has been sent to juvenile detention on a lesser charge of concealing a crime.

When the court hearing ended, the crowd left. The students boarded buses for the 12-mile ride to school, but only after a line of male students carrying trash bags picked up litter on the courthouse lawn.

Wills spoke briefly afterward during a tour of the school that his staff gave to the Post-Dispatch. It was the first time Wills had spoken about the incident or had allowed a visit to the school since Futrelle was killed. Wills complained that Barr's visit was "a devastating blow, not only to the 21 who left, but to the other students who didn't know what would happen to their school. I think his tactics were very extreme."

But he also said he was proud that only 21 students left. He said his school - which charges each student $948 a month - "is based totally upon Christianity. It's difficult for the state to comprehend what we're doing.

We've proven that Christianity can turn young lives around."

Wills declined to compare the hearing Friday to his long battle in Hattiesburg, Miss., with the county youth court there. He closed his former school there in 1987, several months after the court took custody of his students. In that case, the battle was over the court's insistence that only it could approve detention for children, while Wills claimed religious exemption from any court supervision.

Barr, speaking to reporters in the courthouse, said he went to Mountain Park because a student had been killed, "and I had concerns about what might be going on there."

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