LEXINGTON — Five family members charged in a child sex abuse case in western Missouri made their first court appearance Thursday while crews resumed scouring property where some of the abuse allegedly occurred years ago.
The five men, wearing orange jumpsuits and shackled at their wrists, waists and ankles, appeared downcast as Associate Circuit Judge John Frerking of the Lafayette County court read the charges against them, including forcible sodomy, rape with a child younger than 12 and use of a child in a sexual performance.
Burrell Edward Mohler Sr., 77, of Independence, looked ill, keeping his eyes closed during much of the proceeding and coughing several times.
The other suspects are Mohler's sons, Burrell Edward Mohler Jr., 53, of Independence; Jared Leroy Mohler, 48, of Columbia; Roland Neil Mohler, 47, of Bates City; and David A. Mohler, 52, of Lamoni, Iowa.
The allegations, which include bestiality, forcing children into fake marriages with relatives and making an 11-year-old have an abortion, date from 1988 to 1995.
The men did not enter pleas Thursday and said little during the 20-minute hearing. They did not appear to have legal representation. The men are being held on cash bonds ranging from $30,000 to $75,000. Their next court hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
Authorities resumed a search Thursday at a rural property where members of the family once lived. They believe they may find a body or bodies and buried glass jars with notes written by children who may have documented sexual abuse.
"There has been an indication that there are body or bodies in numerous locations," Lafayette County Sheriff Kerrick Alumbaugh said, although he would not say whose bodies they might be.
Three of the five men are lay ministers in the Community of Christ denomination. Their licenses have been suspended, church spokeswoman Linda L. Booth said.
Alumbaugh pleaded for the public's help, saying investigators "believe that there are other victims out there" and that the public can provide more information.
Cpl. Bill Lowe of the Missouri State Highway Patrol said a 26-year-old woman came forward to investigators in mid-August with the allegations. A probable cause statement released by the Lafayette County prosecutor's office says five other siblings of the woman have accused all five men of abuse, but it's unclear whether all the siblings were claiming to be victims.
Lowe said the woman told investigators that she and her siblings had buried glass jars around the property that were filled with messages "about what was happening to them" when they were younger. The woman said she had "suppressed many of the memories of abuse perpetrated on her" and her siblings, according to the probable cause statement.
Sgt. Collin Stosberg of the Highway Patrol said the adults told the children to write down their bad memories.
"That was what they were told. Write these memories down, put them in a jar and bury it and the memories would go away," Stosberg said. "It was a way for them to cope."
The woman who came forward also claimed some of the men forced her to have sex with a dog and to watch as her brother was abused.
"She became pregnant and was made to have an abortion at age 11½. She doesn't remember any sexual abuse after that date," the probable cause statement said.
The Associated Press is not revealing details that could identify the alleged victims.
Booth, the church spokeswoman, said none of the Mohlers served in leadership roles in the congregations they attended "nor did they serve as volunteer youth workers, teach children or youth church school, or work with children or youth."
"The church takes seriously the allegations that have been made and suspended the priesthood licenses of three lay ministers: Burrell Mohler Sr., David Mohler and Jared Mohler," the church said in a statement.
Booth said one of the men, whom she refused to identify, had been registered to work with children but that license has been terminated.
The Community of Christ, headquartered in Independence, split from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1860 and was known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints until 2001. It has about 250,000 members worldwide.