Indictment: Boy forcibly taken to Missouri boarding school

August 31, 2022 GMT

The mother of a California teenager conspired with a former Missouri boarding school dean on a plan that resulted in the boy being forced into a car, handcuffed for more than 24 hours and driven to a Missouri school for troubled youths, federal prosecutors said Wednesday.

The indictment accuses Shana Gaviola, 35, and Julio Sandoval, 41, of violating a protective order issued at the request of Gaviola’s son. If convicted, both could face up to five years in prison and $250,000 fines.

The U.S. Attorney’s office in Fresno said Sandoval is founder of an agency that transports minors to boarding schools, and is the former dean of a Missouri boarding school himself — apparently one that is the subject of several criminal cases and lawsuits.

In February, the Kansas City Star reported that a man named Julio Sandoval formerly was dean at Agape Boarding School but had relocated to Lighthouse Christian Academy. Prosecutors list Sandoval’s address as Piedmont, Missouri, where Lighthouse Christian Academy is located. Lighthouse Christian Academy confirmed Sandoval works there.

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The indictment didn’t name the school where the boy was taken but said it was in Stockton, Missouri. Agape is in Stockton.

Last year, Agape’s longtime doctor, David Smock, was charged with child sex crimes and five employees were charged with assault, though Missouri’s attorney general said many more workers should have been charged.

The indictment out of California, unsealed Tuesday, stated that Gaviola’s son had been living with another family since 2020. He had petitioned for emancipation from his mother and obtained a domestic violence protection order against her in July 2021.

The indictment said that despite the order, Gaviola and Sandoval conspired to take the boy to a Missouri boarding school. It stated that people working on behalf of Gaviola and Sandoval found the boy at a Fresno business in August 2021, handcuffed him and forced him into a car. He allegedly remained handcuffed for the entire 27-hour trip to Stockton.

The indictment said the boy was held at the boarding school for eight days until his father was able to free him.

Christian boarding schools in Missouri are under increased scrutiny following the allegations at Agape and Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch, another southern Missouri facility that closed in 2020 when 25 girls were removed amid an investigation. Last year, the husband-and-wife founders of Circle of Hope were charged with nearly 100 counts of abuse, including sexual abuse.

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The criminal cases involving Agape and Circle of Hope are still pending. Several lawsuits also have been filed. The most recent lawsuit, filed this week, accused Smock of sexually abusing a now-14-year-old boy who was a student at Agape, the Star reported. Smock has denied wrongdoing.

Agape serves boys ages 12-17. Its website says it’s a nonprofit school “designed to show God’s love to teen boys struggling with behavior issues that can threaten their future.”

After a state investigation last year, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt recommended charges against 22 Agape employees. But Cedar County Prosecuting Attorney Ty Gaither told the AP in April that he filed “the appropriate charges” and planned to file no more.

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A woman answering phones at Agape declined comment. Phone and email messages left with Agape’s attorney weren’t immediately returned.

Supporters of religious boarding schools say they provide structure to troubled young people. But the allegations of wrongdoing at Agape and Circle of Hope were the impetus behind a new Missouri law last year requiring more rigorous oversight.

Before that, a 1982 state law gave religious boarding schools free rein and provided the state with no way to monitor how kids were educated or what health care, including mental and behavioral health, was provided.