Former ABM Ministries Student Demands Justice for ‘Hell’ School

Inesa Kolberg attended ABM Ministries' Lighthouse Christian Academy from November 2005 to June 2007. She said she and other students suffered physical and emotional abuse at the unlicensed Missouri boarding school in Wayne County.

Inesa Kolberg attended ABM Ministries’ Lighthouse Christian Academy from November 2005 to June 2007. She said she and other students suffered physical and emotional abuse at the unlicensed Missouri boarding school in Wayne County.

Submitted by Inesa Kolberg

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Closure of ABM ministries

Former students say they endured years of physical and emotional abuse at Lighthouse Christian Academy, an unlicensed Christian boarding school in Missouri. After its founders were arrested and charged in March, the school closed its doors.

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Inesa Kolberg acknowledges that she was a handful for her parents.

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Adopted at 3 from Lithuania, she had a speech impediment, which led to her being bullied and getting into fights at school. In 7th grade, she said, she started self-harming, and in high school, she skipped classes, did drugs and ran away.

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“I was a troubled teen,” she said.

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Her mother’s co-worker had sent her son to a faith-based boarding school in southeast Missouri a couple of years earlier, Kolberg said, and recommended it. So the morning of Nov. 11, 2005, when she was 16 and in her junior year in high school, Kolberg’s parents offered to take her to McDonald’s for her favorite — a breakfast burrito — on the way to class. But instead of dropping her off at school afterward, she said, they headed to the highway.

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“They said we were going to check out this alternate school,” she said. “My mom kept repeating at least half-a-dozen times, ‘It has horses,’ because I love animals.”

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Six-and-a-half hours later, they pulled into a secluded, wooded area in what seemed like the middle of nowhere — especially for a teen from Chicago. They’d arrived at Lighthouse Christian Academy, an unlicensed boarding school operated by ABM Ministries and run by Larry and Carmen Musgrave.

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For the next 19 months, this would be her home. Kolberg, however, calls it by another name: “It was actual hell.”

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In early March, Larry and Carmen Musgrave were charged with kidnapping, and another staffer faces one count of physical abuse of a student. The Wayne County sheriff said he expects additional charges. Both Musgraves have pleaded not guilty, and their attorney did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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A sign marks the property of ABM Ministries' Lighthouse Christian Academy in southeast Missouri.  The unlicensed boarding school, which closed in March after its owners were accused of kidnapping a former student, remains under investigation by the Wayne County sheriff for allegations of abuse.
A sign marks the property of ABM Ministries’ Lighthouse Christian Academy in southeast Missouri. The unlicensed boarding school, which closed in March after its owners were accused of kidnapping a former student, remains under investigation by the Wayne County sheriff for allegations of abuse. Screenshot

The Musgraves ran the boarding school under a “chip” system, many former students have told The Star. Students started out on “white chip” status, which meant they had all the privileges that were allowed. If they got demoted, they would drop to “blue chip” status, followed by “red chip.”

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Kolberg said students would get demoted “for the slightest thing.”

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“If you ended up on red chip, you had to sleep on the top bunk in a T-shirt and shorts on nothing but a slab of plywood,” she said. “No pillow or blanket, either. So you’re freezing throughout the night, and you barely get any sleep.”

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For showers, those who were on “red chip” status got no hot water. “You had to get a five-gallon bucket and fill it up with cold water,” Kolberg said.

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Breakfast for the “white and blue chips,” she said, “could be scrambled eggs, it could be hash browns, sausage and gravy and pancakes. But for the red chips, it was always oatmeal and maybe a banana if there were any left. For lunch, a peanut butter sandwich and an apple and your own water bottle, filled halfway up.”

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Placed on “black chip” status

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Even worse than “red chip” status, Kolberg said, was being put on “black chip.”

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“When I first got there, you were allowed to talk during some types of activities and during meals,” she said. “But after about two months, when somebody started talking about their home life, all talking was squashed. They said we weren’t there to make friends.”

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One day, Kolberg said, she got caught passing notes in school to a girl sitting next to her. They’d been doing it for weeks, hiding the notes in the battery compartment of a calculator.

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“We would just talk about food — I mean, we were like starving there — and about our families,” she said. “Then it got to the point where we would write derogatory comments about Carmen.”

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When she got caught passing a note one day, Kolberg said, she swallowed it. And that got her placed on “black chip” status.

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For three days, she said, she was pulled out of school and forced to pick up horse “apples” — manure — with her bare hands, put it in a bucket, carry it 200 yards and dump it in a ditch, from 7 in the morning until 3 in the afternoon. During that time, she said, she also had to mow the expansive grounds with a manual push reel lawn mower in 90-degree heat while wearing overalls and steel-toed work boots.

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“And for two weeks, I was served for breakfast, lunch and dinner nothing but instant mashed potatoes with pieces of paper in it since I supposedly liked to eat paper so much,” she said — a reference to her swallowing the note after getting caught passing it to another student.

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“By the 13th day, I was literally starving. I snapped. I threw down my plate and headed right to the kitchen and said, ‘I’m done. This is f—— bulls—. I can’t do this anymore.’

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“Mr. Larry said, ‘Get over here, and you’d better shut your mouth and sit down.’ I took a swing at him and missed. He was quick. He flipped me around, put me in a chokehold, and I just dropped and blacked out.”

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When she came to, she said, the students who had been in the dining room were gone. She had a “massive headache,” she said, and could hear Carmen and Larry saying, “Get up! Get up!”

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Inesa Kolberg graduated from Lighthouse Christian Academy in June 2007. She and many former students say they suffered physical and emotional abuse at the unlicensed boarding school in southeast Missouri.
Inesa Kolberg graduated from Lighthouse Christian Academy in June 2007. She and many former students say they suffered physical and emotional abuse at the unlicensed boarding school in southeast Missouri. Submitted by Inesa Kolberg

Kolberg said the Musgraves often became impatient with her because of her speech impediment and even made fun of her.

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“Miss Carmen was the worst,” she said. “She was so cruel about it. She would say, ‘You’re faking it. Come on, just spit it out. What’s wrong with you?’”

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In many ways, Kolberg said, the psychological abuse at ABM was worse than the physical abuse.

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“Miss Carmen would berate you,” she said. “She would say, ‘You’re lucky your parents didn’t send you back (to Lithuania). I would have never adopted you. I would have sent you back.’ She would take your personal life and just attack every inch of it. You felt like s— all the time.”

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If someone got out of bed at night to use the restroom, she said, a motion detector would set off a blaring alarm.

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“If Carmen was in a bad mood, she’d get everybody up and say, ‘I’m going to make sure you’re too tired to go to the bathroom.’ Then she’d have us go outside and run laps around the basketball court.” Either that, Kolberg said, or they’d be sent to the dining room, where Carmen would start up a Billy Blanks Tae-Bo high-energy workout video and make them participate.

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“I was terrified because their rules were so outrageous, and I was just screwing up left and right,” Kolberg said. “For the first couple of months, I wet the bed. The third time it happened, Carmen said, ‘I’m going to embarrass you enough that you won’t ever do it again.’ So I had to clean my sheets outside in the courtyard with a bucket of water and a brush while everybody watched.”

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One girl who was a lesbian, Kolberg said, was treated horribly.

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“They called her an abomination and said, ‘What you’re doing is sinful, and you’re gonna die and burn in hell,’” she said.

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Split lips and bruises

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The boys, Kolberg said, “had it more physical than the girls.”

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“Some boys would have split lips, bruises on them,” she said. “And they were more physical with the kids whose parents never came to visit.”

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Kolberg said one boy, only 12 years old and one of the smallest students, was constantly on “red chip” status.

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“They tortured that kid,” she said. “Their favorite thing to do to him was fill up a book bag with rocks, put weights on his arms and legs and make him run laps in the courtyard. We would all see him outside, just running. He would fall and be exhausted and crawling. And they’re out there screaming at him, and he’s bawling his eyes out, scraped up and bleeding.”

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It happened at least once a week, she said.

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“They were so mean to him, and it just broke my heart, because you couldn’t say anything,” she said. “You’d try to give him a smile to try to show, ‘Hey, I’m sorry.’”

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When Kolberg attended ABM, it was located in Patterson, but the Musgraves were building a new school near Piedmont.

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“We were the ones who helped build the Piedmont school, from the ground up,” she said. “The boys did the labor on the building. The girls had to clear out the trees. And we had to go into the dried-up creek bed and haul rocks to create a driveway.”

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During a 10-hour day of hard labor, she said, they each got one bottle of water, a sandwich and an apple.

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Kolberg turned 18 on April 8, 2007, and graduated on June 8. Her parents came to her graduation, then took her home. After that, she said, she spent a year-and-a-half in an abusive marriage, tried to commit suicide and got a divorce.

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For years, Kolberg said, she pushed the memories of Lighthouse Christian Academy out of her mind.

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“It was traumatic,” she said. “I just blocked it out. I just wanted to focus on my future.”

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But eventually, she said, she decided that “I am done being sad and tired.” She became a certified nursing assistant and now is a dialysis technician. At 35, she is happily married, lives in a northwest Chicago suburb and sees her parents regularly.

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Inesa Kolberg and her husband, Wayne, on a trip to Cancun.  Kolberg attended Lighthouse Christian Academy, an unlicensed boarding school in southeast Missouri, for 19 months beginning in November 2005. The school was closed in March after its owners were accused of kidnapping a former student, and an investigation into allegations of abuse is underway.
Inesa Kolberg and her husband, Wayne, on a trip to Cancun. Kolberg attended Lighthouse Christian Academy, an unlicensed boarding school in southeast Missouri, for 19 months beginning in November 2005. The school was closed in March after its owners were accused of kidnapping a former student, and an investigation into allegations of abuse is underway. Submitted by Inesa Kolberg

She said she doesn’t hold it against her parents for sending her to Lighthouse Christian Academy.

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“I don’t blame them at all,” she said. “They were at their wits’ end.”

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She does, however, blame the Musgraves for what she said students endured.

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“I don’t know how I survived this,” she said. “They’ve destroyed lives. They preached the Bible, but they were straight from hell.

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“I hope they are brought to justice and that they will be held accountable.”

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Judy L. Thomas joined the Kansas City Star in 1995 and focuses on investigative and watchdog journalism. For three decades, she covered domestic terrorism, clergy sexual abuse and government accountability. Her stories have received numerous national honors.

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