Police tried for three decades to get people who lived, worked or worshipped with John C. McCollum to talk about what went on at McCollum Ranch, his two-acre compound on a rural stretch of highway in northeastern Cumberland County.
Some of them are talking now, and they paint opposing portraits of the 67-year-old itinerant preacher, church patriarch and businessman who was arrested last month on charges that he ran fish markets and other enterprises using the indentured servitude of children.
A man who says he lived on the compound with his family in the 1990s calls McCollum a cruel, self-styled religious fanatic and con man who gathered women and children around him and gradually took control of every aspect of their lives, from their finances to their food to whether they could go to the bathroom during church services.
A woman who says she is a follower of McCollum’s and lives at the compound describes him in a YouTube video as a righteous man of God who helps the homeless and heals the sick, and whose arrest and million-dollar bond are the vindictive acts of a frustrated Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
“Do you care that a decent black man is being persecuted?” the woman, who identifies herself as Beverly Briggs, asks in a 22-minute video posted just after McCollum was arrested.
Police announced McCollum’s arrest on Wednesday, along with the arrests of three women who investigators say were involved in his enterprises. Police charge that children ages 9 to 17 were forced to work for long hours, often more than 40 per week, for little or no pay, and that the children were denied education and care. Investigators also say that some residents of the ranch were fraudulently enrolled in schools such as Wake Technical Community College for the purpose of securing hundreds of thousands of dollars in financial aid over a period of years to which they weren’t entitled.
In addition to the four arrests already made, sheriff’s spokesman Lt. Sean E. Swain said officers have warrants for the arrests of six more people.
‘Alternative religious group’
Swain said police had investigated complaints about McCollum and his “alternative religious group” four times since the late 1980s, but each time had been unable to get current or former followers to talk to them on the record.
The current case against McCollum began last February, Swain said. During their investigation, officers interviewed children who said they had been forced to work in fish markets operated in and around Fayetteville.
“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,” Swain said when the arrests were announced.
He said some of the children involved had been taken into protective custody by the Department of Social Services.
Tobias Gardner, now 34, says he lived at McCollum Ranch with his brother and parents from 1993 to 1997, when his father was leaving the military. He said they did not live in the large main house McCollum shared with some of his followers, but were in a trailer on the property. Gardner said McCollum employed his father to work on the compound, mostly cleaning up after pigs, chickens and other animals that were kept there at the time. His father was relegated to such work, Gardner said, because McCollum believed he was an inferior person.
“He would basically categorize people by how much money they had, or on their knowledge,” he said. “They called my dad a dummy.”
Gardner said McCollum would berate certain people in front of others who lived on the property. He recalled one incident in which he said McCollum summoned a woman into a room full of people, called her fat, ordered her to say that she was fat, then that she was fat and ugly.
“Then he said we would all have to fast,” Gardner said, and the children were told they could not eat for days while McCollum and some of the other adults dined on shrimp and steak.
Gardner said he and his brother left the compound each day to go to school, and that at first, other children did too. But gradually, he said, the other children stopped going, and would stay at the ranch, often starting work by 8 a.m. He recalls them helping to stack firewood, which Gardner said McCollum sold then.
Beatings and bruises
Gardner’s worst memories, he said, were of the beatings he received and witnessed while living at the ranch. He said his father often beat him until he was bruised or bloody, and that the most severe beatings came at McCollum’s direction. If Gardner talked back to his father, he said, his father would call McCollum and ask what to do.
“I threatened to call 911 after the white meat came from my flesh,” Gardner said. “My father told John what I said, and he instructed my father to go home and beat me for disrespect and he gave him a paddle and my dad beat me until my back side was covered in bruises.”
Gardner said he also witnessed McCollum beating children for slight infractions, which could be anything from getting up to go to the bathroom during a worship service to talking back to adults.
McCollum was charged in 1990 with beating children with an automotive fan belt so severely that it left scars. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child abuse in that case.
He is not charged with child abuse in the current case.
Gardner said the stress of living on the compound and with McCollum strained his parents’ relationship and that eventually his father moved away. To help with household expenses, Gardner said he worked for McCollum on weekends, traveling with a food concession truck. He said they often set up in the parking lots of discount stores out of state, selling boiled peanuts and candied apples that the children had helped helped prepare.
Gardner said it was usually his job to stand at the end of the trailer holding a bucket and asking for donations for the homeless, money he said he later would turn over to McCollum and his managers.
“If we made enough money, we might get paid $45 for the day,” he said. “That included standing out there in the heat for hours, and maybe five or six hours on the road each way.”
‘He’s a nice man’
In her video, Beverly Briggs said people who know McCollum see a different person.
“Everybody in this area that knows Brother John C. McCollum knows he’s a nice man. He ain’t never hurt nobody,” she said.
In fact, she said, she had been diagnosed with brain cancer 30 years ago when she went to a service McCollum held at a small church in New York.
“I went there and got a healing,” she said. “Not only did I get a healing, I got deliverance, and I’m here today because of him.”
In the video, Briggs defended communal living arrangements at the compound, the women’s eschewing of makeup and their wearing of long dresses that she said others have labeled a cult.
“We put our money together, and because we do we prospered,” she said. She added that a time will come when others will have to do the same just to survive.
Briggs said she needs $5,000 to give to an attorney to get McCollum out of the Cumberland County Detention Center, where he is being held under a $1.1 million bond. She asked if anyone wants to contribute. She said McCollum has had open-heart surgery, and needs to be released, and that he was arrested on the basis of lies told by children that McCollum had taken care of “like his own.”
County investigators have had a vendetta against McCollum for years, Briggs said, because he was prosperous, and “a black man is not supposed to prosper.”