Incest allegations shatter public image of church-going clan

Kansas City StarNovember 23, 2009 

Last June, 76-year-old Burrell E. Mohler Sr. seemed a perfectly reasonable choice to give the Father's Day sermon at his tiny Bates City Community of Christ Church.

After all, he was a family man. Proud of his four sons. Loved all those grandchildren.

A churchgoer who was present that day believes Mohler’s message followed the lectionary Scripture suggested by the mother church: the Gospel of Mark 4:35, the story of Jesus quieting the storm at sea.

Fortunate, perhaps, that he did not speak on Mark 10:14: “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”

Because months later, Mohler’s reputation as the strict but good patriarch would come crashing down.

He’s in jail now, after allegations from at least three grandchildren that “sleepovers” on his farm at 3067 Old Concord Road often meant incestuous rape, and that when granddaddy sang “Itsy-Bitsy Spider” his hands ended up in wrong places.

After allegations that their uncles wedded and bedded first-graders in a chicken coop and that their father did unspeakable things to them less than a mile from that little white church.

Once the charges — 42 so far — were filed, it seemed the Mohler family was shattered as irreparably as the bad-memory jars the little girls purportedly buried and authorities earlier this month hoped to dig up.

It’s a dark and ugly family portrait, causing dismay and disbelief among relatives and friends. They paint a starkly different picture — one of people who took joy in their children, their churches and friendships.

Time in court will tell which is the correct one.

Many stand fiercely by Mohler and his four sons, Ed, David, Roland and Jared, as well as his brother, Darrel — all in jail.

Gina Fauth, a good friend who sang church duets with Burrell Mohler Sr.’s wife, doesn’t buy any of the allegations.

“He’s a very respectable man,” Fauth said. “I have no reason to not trust him. It’s mind-boggling. I’m just sick over it.”

What about the prosecutor’s relentlessly recounted atrocities against girls as young as 5?

“I don’t believe it, and we go back to 1951,” said Ron Gamble, a brother-in-law of the senior Mohler.

Yet all or nearly all six children of Burrell “Ed” Mohler Jr. — including one who is a police officer in a Kansas City suburb — gave credence to the tales of twisted family relationships, according to court documents.

Nor did it help the senior Mohler’s legal defense or public image as a grandfather when police hauled incest porn out of his current Independence home.

While some question the validity of the accusations, others may ask why authorities did not investigate earlier.

In the 1980s or early ’90s, at least some of the grandchildren reportedly went to their mother about the abuse, according to police documents. Instead of going to law enforcement, she told the head of her Mormon church. And nothing happened.

An Overland Park man, who once shared custody of his 7-year-old son with an ex-wife who married into the Mohler family, said he tried to alert the Lafayette County sheriff, the Missouri Division of Family Services and a court-appointed guardian to what he feared was happening at the Mohler place.

“I notified everybody I could notify in February 2000 about this.” Then, three months ago, an Independence police detective told the man there were multiple victims, “and my son was on the list.”

“I said: ‘You mean it took them nine years to figure this out?’ ”

•••

As a boy, Burrell Mohler Sr. lived near Monroe, Iowa.

He met his wife-to-be, Alice Elefson, at what then was Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa. She had grown up on a farm near Butler, Mo.

Early in his career, Mohler built electronics for weather balloons. He later settled in the Bates City area, working as a manufacturers sales representative.

Alice taught preschool until starting a machine quilting business in Bates City. She was known for her quilts and gardens, family said.

Their first son was born in February 1956. They named him after his father, but he would be known as Ed, from his middle name.

David arrived the next year. Seasons passed before Jared was born in early 1961, and then quickly the year after, Roland.

In 1974, Burrell Mohler Sr. bought the house on Old Concord Road. The 55 acres and the country setting seemed a good place to live and keep an eye on his fast-growing sons, then 18, 16, 13 and 11.

“I’ve known those boys since they were born,” said Gamble, of Independence. “They’ve all been responsible citizens. They’ve all had respectable jobs. They’ve been active in church. I’ve never known any of them to smoke or to drink or to carouse around or gamble — any of the vices that you could think of.”

Like their parents, the sons attended Graceland. David later got a job at the southwest Iowa institution. Ed became a fireman, and Roland became a paramedic. Jared worked as a data administrator at a private firm.

All but Jared married, and as early as 1978, granddaughters were wandering the house and grounds on Old Concord Road. Ed would have five girls and a son. Roland and David would add five more grandkids.

Alice was a devout follower of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, now known as the Community of Christ. Her strong faith is a key reason why some scoff at the charges.

“Alice had such deep moral strength and integrity,” said her sister, Kathryn Sacry, who came from Montana for last week’s hearing for her relatives. “The very thought of what was happening now would break her heart.”

Family members note that Alice died of cancer at age 59 in 1991, and the accusers allege some of the crimes happened in the ’80s. “She would have been on top of it,” Gamble said, “and would not have permitted such a thing.”

Many remember how the family children once looked forward to what they called “cousins camp” every summer, a happy and normal gathering of the young in the tribe.

“I just cannot wrap my head around it,” said Erin Hill, who went to school with David and Roland’s children — who are not mentioned in any of the court documents.

Hill considers herself a good friend of the senior Mohler, who used to drive her to the Bates City church and who once came to her house to pray for her after she accidentally super-glued shut an eye.

“Those three men I know personally are probably the nicest men alive,” she said. “If you can’t trust them, then you can’t trust anybody.”

Less than a year after Alice died, the senior Mohler married a woman who worked at the Community of Christ Temple in Independence.

They resided in a small, white bungalow on a corner lot in Independence — him in the basement lately since she found a porn trove above the ceiling tiles.

Police took incest mags titled Family Taboo and Best of Family Secrets, along with hand-labeled videotapes, guns, computers and sex toys.

The porn find was unfortunate, said Alice’s cousin, Bob Bruch. “But it doesn’t convict him.”

Bruch hired Burrell Mohler Sr. when Bruch ran maintenance at the Community of Christ Auditorium. “He was a good employee. Did what he was told, knew what he was doing and didn’t complain.”

Bruch, who once worshipped with Mohler in Bates City, said he had no doubts about Mohler’s commitment to Christ.

Gamble told of how he might have been with Mohler at month’s end. “Usually we get together at Thanksgiving, so we see each other then.”

He had to settle for a courtroom in Lexington, Mo., on Tuesday.

•••

That wounded children might bury bad-memory jars caught the nation’s attention. Early accounts said the sisters were trying to exorcize their demons. One, however, called it a childish attempt to record the crimes against them.

Although machinery rooted through the topsoil for two days searching for those jars, search-warrant affidavits indicate only pieces of glass were found, nothing about notes in children’s handwriting. If those condemning words can’t be found, however, the Lafayette County Courthouse now holds thousands more that could be more damning.

The allegations run from about 1986 to 1995, a period when the senior Mohler would have been in his 50s and his sons in their early 30s or late 20s. David and Roland were fathers themselves by the time.

The charges paint the grandfather as both key player and cheerleader in the sexual games.

“That’s my boy,” the senior Mohler allegedly said, encouraging a son’s rape of a granddaughter. “You all have fun,” he said another time. This story avoids naming alleged victims, some whom live in the area. Others have moved a thousand miles away.

The facts supporting the charges in the court documents are briefly these:

To Ed’s children, a “sleepover” meant something different than for most children. Unlike most kids their age, they dreaded summers. It meant spending more time at grandfather’s farm. Some of the girls said that after Alice died, when they spent the night, it meant taking turns sleeping with their grandfather.

One, now 26 and living in a Western state, first came to police in August to allege she was raped in his bed at least three times. She recounted mock marriages — complete with white dresses and flowers in her hair — consummated with two uncles, Jared and David Mohler.

In one of 14 counts, she alleged being subjected to bestiality.

A sister, three years older, said the crimes began when she was 6. She accused her grandfather of three rapes, twice in an abandoned house nearby.

Court papers state that at age 7, she was in bed with a slightly younger sister when her father entered the room and raped them both. Her allegations add up to 17 counts.

Eleven more counts involved a third sister, now 28. She told police of her grandfather remarrying her sister and an uncle in the little Bates City church — while her father, Ed Mohler, allegedly raped her in a pew.

She also recounted running away with her sisters, but they didn’t get far. Their punishment, she alleged, was Dad making them watch as he sodomized a sibling.

The allegations go on and on, also involving a great-uncle, Darrel Mohler. He is being held in a Florida jail, waiting to be sent to Lexington for an unhappy family reunion.

Lafayette County Prosecutor Kellie Ritchie said she probably will not file any more charges, though more could come from other jurisdictions.

Legal representation for most of the men may be public defenders. Jared, who has pleaded not guilty, is the only one to have an attorney so far.

•••

“She has suppressed many of the memories of abuse and is very fearful of her grandfather, father and uncles,” court documents said of the 26-year-old accuser.

The statute of limitations for such forcible rape and sodomy charges generally extends to 20 years after an accuser turns 18.

The Mohlers’ defenders insist the tales must arise from dark fantasies or misplaced bitterness. Suppressed memories are controversial, in some cases successfully challenged as unreliable or untrue.

Indeed, it was learned last week that the digging for bodies on the former Mohler place arose from strange allegations — little girls helping to stab a man to death and seeing a woman — who apparently was also sexually abused — held captive so long that the girls thought she was a sister they had not known.

The unidentified woman — who claimed to have been kept in a crawl space and held long enough to see at least one of her babies buried in the basement at the Old Concord Road property — came forward to the police with her own accusations, according to court documents.

Police have offered little information on what was found and none about the woman, who is said to be unrelated to the Mohlers.

For Gamble, it just stretched the accusers’ credibility anew.

“A lot of smoke and mirrors,” he said. “Children’s minds are very malleable, and people can really be sincerely honest in thinking that this did happen.”

Fauth agreed: “What kind of emotional condition are they in? Are they stable?”

Police and prosecutors apparently are satisfied with what they have heard.

Many of the allegations directed at the Mohlers defy what experts encounter in sex-abuse situations — group encounters involving children within the same family are rare, primarily because they are less apt to be kept secret.

Still, there are cases of incest being so ingrained in a household that, for some families, “the act becomes normalized … a family value, as common as Sunday dinners or watching football on TV,” said Joseph Beck, a therapy director at Spofford Home, a Kansas City nonprofit that treats children with severe emotional problems.

“Although it’s abnormal, it becomes, ‘This is how we do things,’ ” Beck said, adding that victims can be trained early in life not to trust the outside world.

Despite common assumptions, adults who sexually abuse children are not likely to have been molested themselves.

“That connection has been way overblown,” said Mark Chaffin, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

According to a British study of 224 men sexually abused as boys, only about one in 10 later committed offenses of their own.

Clinicians widely believe that child molestation, especially within a household, is driven more by urges to be violent and exert power than act out instilled sexual practices.

“It’s not about sex. It’s about power and control,” said Judith Ann Cohen, who specializes in child-rape cases at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. “A man who feels he is king of his castle gets to abuse his children because, well, you can if you’re king of your castle.”

Beck agreed. “Usually it revolves around a single patriarch of a family, the man in power.”

•••

In 1995, the farm property shifted to Ed Mohler, who rose to the rank of captain in his 24 years with the Independence Fire Department. He left the firehouse on North Spring Street five years ago.

His 1978 marriage to Jeanette lasted two decades, the time in which all the alleged abuses occurred.

“Where was she through this whole thing?” Fauth asked.

Records, however, indicate that the children told their mother: “At the time, complaints by the mother were taken to the head of the church rather than law enforcement. No official investigation was completed.”

Paul Tonga, a former bishop of the family’s Latter Day Saints or Mormon church, recalled Jeanette Mohler coming to him back then. He said he asked Ed Mohler about the accusations, but he denied them, so Tonga did not pursue the matter further.

A statement released Friday by the LDS church — which noted that Ed Mohler was excommunicated in 2007 for personal conduct unrelated to child sexual abuse — acknowledged that Tonga should have consulted with church leaders. If he had, the statement said, “he would have been told to ensure the proper authorities were notified.”

Ed and Jeanette Mohler’s divorce was finalized in early 1998. She could not be located for comment.

Kelly Halford, who was a court-appointed advocate for the Mohlers’ children in the divorce case, said her client-attorney relationship kept her from answering questions about the divorce case. “You can see that in the judgment of dissolution, I believe the father was given supervised visitation. Other than that, I can’t comment any further.”

Mohler remarried in 1998, again in 2001 and finally just last June.

Court documents show Jeanette is cooperating with police.

In 2000, she warned that a 7-year-old was in danger at the farm, said the father, who now lives in Overland Park. His son was with an ex-wife who married Ed Mohler.

The father had become alarmed that the boy was missing a lot of school, and he contacted Jeanette for information.

“She had a court order saying she had to let (Ed) have her children on the weekends, so her children knew my son. She told me that one of their daughters said that Ed was quite fond of my son and likes to sleep with him.”

The Overland Park man was shocked. “She poured her heart out … crying hysterically and (saying) her children had been molested by Ed and his father for years. It was hard for me to comprehend.”

He said he related the information to child-welfare officials in Clay County, where he then lived, but he was accused of trying to cause trouble.

At one point, the Mohlers tried to get an order of protection against the man.

A spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Social Services said no comment could be offered. A Lafayette County sheriff’s deputy did check on the Mohler place, and the boy began attending school more regularly.

The Overland Park man collected a thick stack of records — now in police hands. The records showed he and his family were sent to a court-appointed psychiatrist, who recommended that he get immediate custody, which he soon did.

The man on Friday told The Kansas City Star that his son, now 17, denied any abuse occurred, but said authorities told him again last week that his son was a possible victim. The man does not speak to his ex-wife, who could not be reached for this story.

He expressed anger at those who defend the accused Mohlers: “Now is the time to speak up. Those who have feared the Mohlers don’t have to now.”

•••

Like Burrell Mohler Sr., his sons were churchgoing.

David attended the Community of Christ Church in Lamoni, where he was a lay deacon. Jared was a deacon in a Columbia congregation. The church headquarters said their licenses were suspended soon after the arrests. They also revealed that Ed and Jeanette petitioned to leave the church in 1982 and joined the LDS.

Roland was active in the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which splintered off when the Community of Christ began ordaining women.

David ended up working for Graceland University. He and his wife, whom he met when they were students, have longtime friends there, including Bob and Jerie Gail Ramsey.

A retired Graceland professor, Ramsey knows the Mohler patriarch and several of his sons and grandchildren. His wife played piano at two Mohler weddings.

Count them among the ones who don’t believe the charges. David Mohler recently offered to help them clean out their garage.

“We’re not as young as we used to be,” Jerie Gail Ramsey said. “He said, ‘When you’re ready to do it, give me a call.’ He’s that kind of a person.”

The Ramseys called David a “fairly strict but good” father to his two daughters and a man who ensured everybody was greeted and felt welcome at his church.

Roland Mohler owns a house not far from Old Concord Road. He and his wife have three children.

Jared Mohler is a database administrator for Carfax in Columbia. The search warrant for his home indicated police were looking for evidence of child porn.

The accusers alleged that they had been taken to various locations where they were posed in sexually provocative ways and that pictures were taken as naked men climbed on the bed. What police found on videotapes at Jared Mohler’s home is unknown.

•••

The farm has changed hands once again, and no Mohlers live there today.

The machine-torn ground where their children once played will heal in a season or two, but the wounds said to have been inflicted on the children themselves are more difficult to soothe.

Some wonder whether those buried jars with the painful stories bottled inside could still turn up.

More likely, they are broken into shards, just like a family.

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