Cedar County Prosecuting Attorney Ty Gaither said he’s upset the Missouri Speaker of the House made “false allegations” that his local handling of unlicensed boarding school abuse raises questions of “undeniable corruption” in Cedar County.
“I want people to know that you cannot call the sheriffs, the judges, and the officials of Cedar County ‘corrupt’ and think there are no repercussions for doing so,” Gaither said. “We are responding because lies have been told about good people and hard-working officials.”
Although he previously remained quiet toward the press regarding his role as prosecutor in Agape Boarding School’s abuse charges and allegations, a widely publicized letter from Missouri House Speaker Rob Vescovo has lit a rare fire in Gaither, who said he usually opts to say “no comment” due to professional rules of conduct for trial publicity.
In Vescovo’s Sept. 21 letter to Teresa Moore, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, Vescovo requests federal resources to intervene and shut down Agape.
In that letter, Vescovo also praises Attorney General Eric Schmitt — who Gaither said he’s never met in person — “for his efforts to assist the local prosecutor” in the Agape case.
Additionally, Vescovo claims Gaither’s actions in the case raise "serious questions about the undeniable corruption that is taking place at the local level.”
“Unfortunately, the prosecutor is just one more in a long line of local officials who have either turned a blind eye to, or helped to cover up, the criminal actions of the staff at Agape,” Vescovo said in the letter.
Gaither sat with CCR editor Kathryn Skopec and general manager Melanie Chance for an interview in his office Saturday morning, Oct. 1, to lay out context for his actions — or rather, “lack of action,” in Vescovo’s words — as prosecutor in Cedar County’s high-profile cases of boarding school abuse.
They’re cases that he said his office is not equipped to handle, and that’s why he’s requested assistance from the Attorney General’s office since November 2020.
“In Missouri, parents are allowed to discipline their children,” Gaither said. “People who have care, custody, and control of those children have that right, as well. In other words, grandmother can spank the children or discipline the children — as can Agape.”
Gaither points to 568.060 RSMo as that law. Gaither said Agape Boarding School staff had care, custody, and control of enrolled children because of contractual agreements between parents and the school that allowed parental consent for students to be disciplined and restrained.
According to Agape’s parent orientation contract pulled from Agape’s website, parent(s) and or a guardian must consent to understanding that “Agape reserves the right to use Juvenile Management Crisis Techniques, also called ‘restraints’,” and that the school “uses many forms of discipline, including essays, standing against the wall, pushups, memorization and work details.” The contract also says Agape does not spank students.
“Because of that, when we reviewed the charges that were presented to us by the MSHP, 42 of those charges involved restraint and/or discipline,” Gaither said. “Restraint is not illegal in Missouri. It is used in every state residential facility for children, and I believe it is also used in public schools.”
Gaither said questions arise when discipline or pain compliance is added to that mix. Gaither said that while his office does not agree with the actions of Agape staff allegedly “digging the elbows into the muscles of children,” he said these type of actions did not break the law.
“If the Missouri legislature decides that parents should not be allowed to discipline their children, the Speaker of the House would have the authority to introduce that bill and use his majority in the Senate to take away that right from parents,” Gaither said. “I’m restricted as a prosecuting attorney to follow the law.”
Although Gaither has caught bipartisan flack for his handling of the Agape case, he defended his overall track record of prosecuting crimes against children in Cedar County.
“If a case is brought across our desk, we will review it, we’ll determine whether the evidence fits, and if the evidence is sufficient to charge a case, then we will charge that case,” Gaither said.
Gaither said during his eight years as county prosecutor, he’s filed 278 charges involving assaults against children, as well as 52 charges involving sex crimes against children.
Gaither won convictions in 95 percent of those cases and said he carries with him “the pain of not seeing the others convicted.”
“I take very seriously all cases in which there is harm inflicted upon a child, and when presented with the legally sufficient facts and investigation from the police, I have not failed to pursue justice,” Gaither said in a pre-written statement provided to the CCR and Kansas City Star.
Gaither said that in the case against Boyd and Stephanie Householder, Circle of Hope founders who now face over 100 felonies, his office was provided “hundreds of documents and interviews” due to an investigation conducted by the Missouri State Highway Patrol in 2020.
All of these documents required review. The work necessary to complete that review in a timely manner exceeded the limited resources of his office, Gaither said.
Gaither reached out to Governor Parson in November 2020 and asked the governor to direct the Attorney General’s office to “hold accountable those who appeared to me to have violated the law at Circle of Hope.”
In addition to having a large volume of evidence, the case involved multiple witnesses who, at that point, lived outside of Missouri.
“Not only are there considerations related to locating these witnesses, but the State’s budget for the AG authorizes funding to support complex criminal cases such as this, where the costs of travel and lodging exceed the budgets of the local prosecutor’s office,” Gaither said.
Parson officially directed Schmitt to assist in criminal prosecution that might proceed from the Circle of Hope case on Nov. 16, 2020.
Gaither said members of the AG office from the criminal division — namely Jennifer Coffin, Melissa Pierce, and investigator Kyle Eckhoff — did a “thorough and efficient job” coordinating and organizing evidence in the Householders case.
Since they did the heavy lifting in preparing the case, Gaither asked them to take the lead in charging and prosecuting the matter.
“In my opinion, there was evidence showing that the girls were forced to cook, clean, and do farm and household labor, and were punished for not doing that work,” Gaither said. “Furthermore, the defendants in the Circle of Hope case had obtained custody of the girls by means of fraud and deception, while failing to educate or take proper care of them.”
Gaither said based upon his review, he recommended that the AG office include several counts charging the Householders with a violation of 566.206 RSMo — human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor. Gaither said the penalty for violating that law is a sentence of 5-20 years in prison on each count.
“You would have all 24 girls testifying about the same thing,” Gaither said, explaining his reasoning behind requesting human trafficking charges. “Unfortunately, these are troubled children, and so the ability of the defense to impeach their testimony would have been severely limited because you would have had everybody testifying against the same thing, as opposed to 103 different charges.”
But, the AG office ultimately did not agree. They instead filed over 100 felony counts of felony endangering and abuse charges, as well as several “sexual assault charges also supported by evidence,” against the Householders, Gaither said.
However, disagreement among prosecutors in filing exact charges is “not unusual," Gaither noted.
It wasn’t until March 10, 2021, the day following the filing of charges against the Householders, that Gaither read an email sent from the AG’s office at 6:45 p.m. March 9 indicating they’d decided to file 79 counts against Boyd Householder and 22 counts against Stephanie Householder.
“When I reviewed what charges that had been filed, I was dismayed that none of the charges involved human trafficking,” Gaither said.
The Householders have pled not guilty and are due for trial in late 2023.
Gaither said he’s not being paid off by Agape, nor does he have close relationships with Agape director Bryan Clemensen or any of Agape’s staff members. Gaither said he’s attended church at the school once or twice and even had an opportunity to talk to students alone on campus, but he didn’t know Clemensen or Agape staff before the case started.
“I didn’t know these people before this started,” Gaither said. “We’re not being paid off.”
But it's a common question of corruption that’s been raised by Cedar County boarding school survivors, troubled teen activists, journalists, and more recently, top lawmakers.
Gaither said even before charges were filed by the AG’s office against the Householders, he had been contacted by assistant AGs working on the Circle of Hope case. He said they told his office the AG’s office wanted to assist in the Agape Boy’s Ranch case — a case that had been originally initiated by the Cedar County Sheriff’s Office and the MSHP.
“At the time these attorneys mentioned the AG’s interest regarding Agape, I had received no police reports regarding the Agape investigation,” Gaither said. “I indicated as much to the Office of the Attorney General and told him that when I received the investigative reports, I would review the evidence and determine what support, if any, might be required from his office.”
Gaither said approximately one week later, Chris Stevens, the First Assistant Attorney General, called his office and “again” offered the service of the AG'S office office in the Agape case. Gaither reiterated that he’d received no police reports of an investigation at Agape, and did not know what help, if any, would be needed.
A few days later, Gaither said he received a summary of the Agape Boarding School investigation that began on Feb. 26, 2021, when the MSHP began interviewing students on campus.
The day after receiving that summary, Gaither said he received a call from MSHP headquarters in Jefferson City expressing their desire to have assistance from the AG’s office in this case.
Gaither said once he reviewed the evidence summary received from the MSHP, he “recognized” that the complexity of the Agape case called for more resources.
He said the number of out-of-state witnesses would require the resources and support of the AG’s office.
Thus, he once again made a formal, legal request to Parson on March 18, 2021, to direct the AG to support the prosecution of criminal charges that might be filed against Agape.
Governor Parson directed the AG’s office to assist Gaither’s office on March 22, 2021.
Gaither said the MSHP and the AG office’s presented a probable cause statement to his office on June 30, 2021, that requested 66 charges against 22 individuals at Agape.
Gaither said a review of their evidence revealed that 42 of those abuse charges “were based upon restraint or discipline of the children” — which, he said, is permissible under Missouri law.
For that reason, Gaither requested the MSHP resubmit a probable cause statement without the discipline charges, and they “refused,” Gaither said.
Gaither said ever since filing 13 lower-level assault felonies against Agape rather than following the AG office’s recommendations in 2021, his office’s relationship with the AG’s office has deteriorated.
Schmitt made a “very public request” to be removed from the case’s directive from Parson, but Gaither said his office still needs the AG office’s assistance in the case.
Gaither said his office has twice requested help from the AG’s office, and they have “twice refused.” Gaither also said the MSHP has “refused to provide us with contact information for the victims in this case, and suggested we call Child Family Services.”
“At no point have we indicated to the Attorney General or to the Governor that we do not want or need the assistance of the Attorney General in prosecuting the Agape case,” Gaither said.
In fact, Gaither said Agape has been “more helpful in locating” witnesses than anyone else. Gaither was spotted in the Cedar County Courthouse shaking Agape director Bryan Clemensen’s hand last month, but Gaither said he was checking with Clemensen and his lawyer to see if certain children were still attending the school.
“It is our intent to prosecute this case, and whatever it takes — if I appear to appear chummy with Clemensen or anyone to obtain information, I’m going to do so,” Gaither said.
Gaither said Schmitt’s office refused to provide witnesses for his office “twice.” Gaither also said the Missouri State Highway Patrol did not provide witness addresses for his office to contact. Additionally, the Missouri Department of Child Family Services didn’t return calls to Gaither’s office until Friday, Sept. 30, when a DSS worker provided her contact information to his office — a move that Gaither said will allow the court’s victim advocate to try to contact more children.
“Hopefully, we will have more success now with the help of Child Family Services in running these children down (to Cedar County),” Gaither said. “Without these children, these cases cannot be made.”
Gaither said he also assumes the MSHP will “redouble their efforts” in communicating with witnesses who are available to travel and testify.
“That is their investigation,” Gaither said. “This office does not investigate.”
Gaither said the public backlash towards his office’s handling of the boarding school cases doesn’t personally get to him when all is said and done.
“In this job, you aren’t always going to make people happy,” Gaither said. “If you let this get under your skin, you shouldn’t be doing this job. … My philosophy of this office is that you do your job and you stay out of the newspapers. I have managed to do a miserable job of that in the last year.”
With that being said, Gaither said he feels as if Agape Boarding School should have been handled by “a more experienced prosecutor.” He said his office is not equipped with the resources required to handle a case like Agape Boarding School, and that’s why he formally requested the AG office’s assistance.
“There is more than a little irony in being accused of inaction by the Speaker of the House even as we have worked diligently to pursue justice for the victims, and have not publicly distanced ourselves from the prosecution of this case,” Gaither said.