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Police break up child slave labor operation at fish markets around Fayetteville

Warrants for arrest were obtained for several members of the McCollum Ranch for Continuing Criminal Enterprise, Involuntary Servitude of a Minor, Obtaining Property by False Pretense, and Conspiracy. Warrants for arrests were obtained for John C. McCollum, Brenda Hall, Cornelia McDonald, Pamela Puga Luna, Shirley McNatt, Daffene Edge, Kassia Rogers, Irish Williams, Shirnitka McNatt, and Earlene Hayat. Four of the ten suspects have been arrested; John McCollum, Cornelia McDonald, Brenda Hall and Pamela Puga Luna are currently being held on secured bonds in the Cumberland County Detention Center.
Warrants for arrest were obtained for several members of the McCollum Ranch for Continuing Criminal Enterprise, Involuntary Servitude of a Minor, Obtaining Property by False Pretense, and Conspiracy. Warrants for arrests were obtained for John C. McCollum, Brenda Hall, Cornelia McDonald, Pamela Puga Luna, Shirley McNatt, Daffene Edge, Kassia Rogers, Irish Williams, Shirnitka McNatt, and Earlene Hayat. Four of the ten suspects have been arrested; John McCollum, Cornelia McDonald, Brenda Hall and Pamela Puga Luna are currently being held on secured bonds in the Cumberland County Detention Center.

Police have arrested four people and are searching for six more on charges that they used the slave labor of children as young as 9 to run a series of fish markets in the Fayetteville area.

Some of the victims were children of the operators or managers of the fish markets, according to a release.

Lt. Sean E. Swain, public information officer for the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office, said that the department got a report in February 2017 that “an alternative religious group” was living on and around a property commonly referred to as McCollum Ranch, at 5953 McCollum Road in Godwin. The leader of the religious group is John C. McCollum, who has been a preacher in Fayetteville since at least the late 1980s.

“The investigation initiated by the Sheriff’s Office based on the information provided in the report revealed that John C McCollum and others were operating at least three John C’s Fish Markets and mobile grills in Fayetteville, and one John C’s Fish Market in Lumberton, in an effort to profit and additionally fund the communal property,” the release said. “Several former residents of the McCollum Ranch, during interviews, said that McCollum and others were holding children, ages ranging from 9 years old to 17 years old, in involuntary servitude. The children had to work full time in the fish markets with little to no compensation. The children are performing labor such as lifting heavy boxes/shipments (reportedly some weighing approximately 50 lbs), keeping fish iced, cutting fish and cleaning; additionally, many of the children were performing construction and maintenance on the mobile grills after fish market hours. The former residents also informed investigators that the children were not attending school and were being denied adequate education and care.”

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Daffene Edge working at John C's Fish Market in Hope Mills, N.C. in 2014. She is one of 10 people facing charges, according to the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office. Marcus Castro The Fayetteville Observer

In March 2017, Swain said, officers got a call that a 15-year-old boy had run away from the ranch and was gone about three weeks before being reported missing by his mother. Police found the boy, who said that he had left McCollum Ranch because he, his brother and other children were forced to work in the fish markets for excessive hours, typically more than 40 per week, for little to no pay.

We’ve been out there several times over the years, but we could never get anyone to talk to us. This time, we got some people to talk us, and we made a case.

Lt. Sean E. Swain, Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office

Swain said that in interviews with the children, officers found that the children were being held in “involuntary servitude by means of force, fraud or coercion, for profiting and funding the McCollum Ranch.”

Swain said the children were living on the ranch with their mothers and/or guardians, who were also agents or managers of the criminal enterprise affiliated with the fish markets.

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John C's Fish Market in Hope Mills photographed Aug. 16, 2007. Lisa Warning Fayetteville Observer

During the investigation, Swain said, officers found that Brenda Joyce Hall, a resident of McCollum Ranch, was running Knowledge Home School, which police said had provided fraudulent high school transcripts for residents of the ranch to enroll them in online programs at Wake Technical Community College and other schools. The records were then used to secure financial aid that was used by the criminal operation at McCollum Ranch, Swain said.

Charges against those involved in the activities of the ranch include:

▪ continuing criminal enterprise.

▪ involuntary servitude of a minor.

▪ obtaining property by false pretense.

▪ conspiracy.

Warrants for arrests were obtained for John C. McCollum, Brenda Hall, Cornelia McDonald, Pamela Puga Luna, Shirley McNatt, Daffene Edge, Kassia Rogers, Irish Williams, Shirnitka McNatt and Earlene Hayat, the release said.

Four of the 10 suspects were arrested about two weeks ago. John McCollum, Cornelia McDonald, Brenda Hall and Pamela Puga Luna are currently being held on secured bonds in the Cumberland County Detention Center.

The other six suspects – Shirley McNatt, Daffene Edge, Kassia Rogers, Irish Williams, Shirnitka McNatt and Earlene Hayat – are all wanted for outstanding warrants for their arrest. Swain said officers had planned to arrest the six on Tuesday during a Social Services hearing, but none of them attended.

Swain said police have investigated McCollum at least four times in the past. He was charged in 1990 with beating children with an automotive fan belt so severely that it left scars. McCollum pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child abuse in that case.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics show that more than 700,000 children are referred to child protective agencies as a result of abuse or neglect in the U.S. each year. According to Purva Grover, M.D., a pediatric emergency physician at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, child abuse is something that unfortunately pediatricians and emergency room physicians are always on the lookout for, but parents need to know the warning signs of physical abuse too, especially when their children are left in the care of others.

“We’ve been out there several times over the years, but we could never get anyone to talk to us,” Swain said. “This time, we got some people to talk to us, and we made a case.”

Swain said that not all of those involved in the church live on the compound, and that McCollum has enterprises in other states.

“That’s where he recruits,” Swain said.

During the investigation, Swain said, a number of children were taken into protective custody by Social Services. Other children, he said, had been removed from the property before officers arrived.

Swain said the children often injured themselves while cutting fish for sale in the market or to be used in McCollum’s food trucks and catering operation.

The Sheriff’s Office asks anyone with information about the suspects to contact the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office at 910-323-1500 or Crimestoppers at 910-483-8477.

Video: Yessy Bustos, executive director of NC Field, describes growing up in a seasonal farm working family where at the age of eight she began working in the cotton fields of Arkansas. After college she landed a job with NC Field, an advocacy organization.

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin

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