Four children killed in fire at commune

CNN/November 18, 1998
By the Associated Press

Emelle, Alabama (AP) -- Four young children died in a fire that destroyed a dormitory at a rural religious compound whose leader has battled claims of child labor and other violations while stressing an ascetic, Christian life.

The building that was destroyed at "the Holyland" compound housed teen girls and more than 50 preschoolers and babies they cared for. All four victims were believed to be under age 5, said Mary Long, chief of the Gainesville Volunteer Fire Department.

The fire began about 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Sumter County Coroner Carolyn Gosa said the rubble was being still searched Wednesday morning but she had not heard of any more victims being found overnight.

Long said residents reported that a girl knocked over an electric lamp, which came in contact with paper and started the blaze. But State Fire Marshal John Robison said it was too early to say what the cause was.

Long said the fire scene was unusual because residents stood quietly at a distance, watching as the flames towered over the building. "I didn't hear any crying or anything," she said.

She said residents initially reported only one child missing after they fled the building. "We were shocked when we found three others," she said.

The one-story wood-frame dormitory was burned to the foundation and was still smoldering this morning. Four red flags marked the spot where the bodies were found, all close together near the bent frame of a baby bed. Dozens of destroyed mattresses could be seen in the rubble.

Those who escaped were taken to a motel in Livingston.

The group founded by Luke Edwards, a 71-year-old preacher, consists of a 54-acre compound -- several plain wooden buildings, three mobile homes and several sheds, all laid out against a utilitarian backdrop of rusty earthmoving equipment.

But the isolated compound is part of a multimillion-dollar operation, called Reach.

Edwards began building his organization when he established a food pantry in his church in Meridian, Mississippi, and encouraged food stamp users to buy goods from him. By last year, when his group was profiled by The Associated Press, it owned three motels, four restaurants, a small slaughterhouse, three stores, a cattle feedlot, a hog farm, a four-seat airplane, 2,800 acres of land, several limousines, a four-seat airplane and two garages.

Most residents come from the church in Meridian, but some troubled youths are brought by relatives. Mississippi courts once referred children to Edwards, but the practice stopped several years ago as questions arose about his methods.

As of last year, Holyland had been hit with repeated lawsuits, $1.3 million in court judgments, child-labor fines and claims by Edwards' estranged daughter and some former members of sexual improprieties.

When the group was profiled, Edwards and his wife, Luvenia, lived in a mobile home. Couples and singles lived in tiny, individual rooms in one building. The building that was destroyed housed some 20 teen-age girls and young women who cared for young children whose mothers stayed elsewhere in the compound. Boys lived in a separate dormitory.

Current and former residents spoke of taking extensive fund-raising trips across the country, raising thousands by selling peanuts or panhandling and telling donors their money would go for abused children.

Edwards denied the group was a cult of personality, as some former members claimed. Former resident Gloria Roberts and her husband, now divorced, won a $650,000 verdict in a lawsuit that accused Edwards of mind control and trying to seduce her.

The allegations were similar to those of former members and of some of Edwards' relatives, including daughter Brenda Garris, who say he has added to his flock by fathering dozens of children by Holyland women. Edwards acknowledged 18 children -- nine each by his first and second wives -- but denied having any out of wedlock.

"All people are doing is lying on me," Edwards said. He said critics are jealous and feel threatened by black economic power.

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