Alex Tresniowski/Bates City and Pam Grout/Bates City
February 15, 2010 12:00 PM

By their telling they were 7 and 8 years old when they wrote down the crimes committed against them, put the list in an old jar, sealed it tight and buried it somewhere on their family farm. Then the two sisters ran away from home. But they didn’t make it far, and before long they were back in the house of horrors. As punishment, they say, their father forced them to watch him sodomize their brother.

Today, 22 years later, the siblings’ accounts of those nightmarish scenes have led to the shocking arrests of a man, his brother and his four grown sons—all now awaiting trial for allegedly committing sex crimes against five children in their own family. The man, Burrell Mohler Sr., 77, his sons Burrell Jr., 53, David, 52, Jared, 48, and Roland, 47, and his brother Darrel Mohler, 72, face numerous charges—including rape, sodomy and bestiality—allegedly carried out between 1980 and 1996 on Burrell Sr.’s remote 55-acre farm in Bates City, Mo. (The names and precise relationships of the five victims are being withheld.) The charges—which police believe amount to the worst child-sex-crime case in Missouri history—have stunned relatives, long-time neighbors and especially members of the Bates City Community of Christ Church, where Burrell Sr. and two of his sons were deacons. The elder Mohler “is the last person you would ever suspect of this,” says Deborah Burris, 52, who has been his next-door neighbor in Independence, Mo., for 15 years. “I wouldn’t have thought twice about letting one of my grandkids go into his house. He’s like a little old grandpa shuffling around in Bermuda shorts and white socks.”

Missouri authorities got involved after one of the victims, now 26, came to them in August 2008 and told them her story. According to court documents, she said she had suppressed many of the memories but was able to describe nine specific instances of abuse. Four of her siblings later corroborated her story and described being raped, tied up and forced to have sexual contact with animals. The sisters also said they were pushed into marrying their uncles in mock weddings. All of the Mohlers have pleaded not guilty; their lawyers declined to comment for this article.

The case intensified when police interviewed Burrell Sr.’s current wife, Sandra, 63, who told them she had recently banished him to the basement of their Independence home after finding a stash of child pornography hidden above a ceiling tile. They subsequently raided the house and hauled away boxes of porn, computers and videotapes they believe could show some of the alleged assaults. Police also seized dozens of videotapes from the home of Jared Mohler in Columbia, Mo.

Despite the evidence, many in the community continue to defend the Mohlers as hard-working and well-respected: Burrell Jr. was a firefighter; Roland a paramedic; and Darrel a corrections officer. “I’ve known those boys since they were born, and I just don’t believe these things are true,” says Ronald Gamble, 76, Burrell Sr.’s former brother-in-law.

But not everyone is surprised. According to court documents, the siblings told their mother what was going on at the time, and she went to the head of their church for help. But nothing came of it. And in 2000 Mark Young, whose ex-wife married Burrell Jr. and took their young son with her, heard a hair-raising story from Burrell’s ex. “She told me all about how [Burrell Jr.] and the grandpa were abusing children,” he says. “She was hyperventilating about it.” Young says she never went to authorities because she feared for her own safety. Young immediately contacted law enforcement and then family services. After an investigation he succeeded in getting full custody, and Missouri officials are now looking into the case. Says Young: “It’s about time.”

As for the bad memories the girls tried to make go away: In November authorities dug up the earth around the farm and recovered a broken jar—though they won’t discuss its contents, if any, or verify that it is the jar the sisters buried so many years ago. Meanwhile those who know the Mohlers are following the case closely, wondering what will happen next. “We didn’t believe any of this until they took the child porn out of his house,” says Mohler Sr.’s neighbor Deborah Burris. “This is almost too much to comprehend.”

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