LEXINGTON, Mo. — Authorities on Wednesday searched a rural property in western Missouri for bodies and buried glass jars containing notes written more than 15 years ago by children who may have documented sexual abuse by five members of their own family.
Lafayette County Sheriff Kerrick Alumbaugh pleaded for the public's help, saying investigators "believe that there are other victims out there, and we believe people in the public can give us more information."
Alumbaugh said authorities believe there may be bodies buried on the property once owned by two of the five family members arrested Tuesday. He refused to say to whom any of the bodies would have belonged. The property and a nearby home is currently owned by a man unrelated to the case who is cooperating with authorities.
Three of the five men arrested are lay ministers in the Community of Christ church whose licenses have been suspended, church spokeswoman Linda L. Booth said.
The five are charged with several felonies, including forcible sodomy, rape with a child younger than 12 and use of a child in a sexual performance. 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.
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 probable cause statement identifies the relationship between the siblings and the suspects. The Associated Press, however, is not revealing that relationship to avoid identifying the alleged victims of sexual assault.
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 11 1/2. She doesn't remember any sexual abuse after that date," the probable cause statement said.
The Lafayette County Sheriff's Department, the Rural Missouri Major Case Squad and the Highway Patrol were investigating, with the help of the Western Missouri Cyber Crimes Task Force.
A small excavator could be seen Wednesday moving across the property outside Bates City, which is about 30 miles east of Kansas City. Two ambulances were parked nearby, and crews were searching a creek with metal detectors.
"There has been an indication that there are body or bodies in numerous locations," Alumbaugh said.
The search was halted at sunset and was to resume in the morning.
The suspects were identified as Burrell Edward Mohler Sr., 77, of Independence, and his sons, Burrell Edward Mohler Jr., 53, also of Independence; Jared Leroy Mohler, 48, of Columbia; Roland Neil Mohler, 47, of Bates City; and David A. Mohler, 52, of Lamoni, Iowa.
All five were being held in the Lafayette County jail on cash bonds ranging from $30,000 to $75,000. It was not immediately clear if they had attorneys.
Police in Columbia seized a computer and discs from Jared Mohler's home on Tuesday, police spokeswoman Jessie Haden said. Jared Mohler is a database administrator at Carfax, a company that provides vehicle history reports to prospective buyers, a co-worker said. He was arrested at work.
David Mohler, who has worked for Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, for 27 years, was arrested on its Independence campus.
Details on the arrests of the other three suspects were not immediately available.
University President John Sellars said David Mohler periodically traveled to Independence to work on Graceland's phone systems there. He described David Mohler as "a very nice person who got along well with his colleagues."
Sellars said David Mohler and his wife have grown children, but he did not know their ages or where they lived.
Deborah Burris, who has lived across the street from Burrell Mohler Sr. for several years, described the suspect as a friendly, helpful neighbor.
Burris said she occasionally saw Burrell Mohler Sr. walking around the neighborhood but he had appeared frail lately. She said Mohler's house has an apartment, and there had been "quite a bit of activity there at different times."
"I had thought maybe someone was moving in or out of there," Burris said.
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.
Associated Press writers Maria Sudekum Fisher in Kansas City, Mo., and Alan Scher Zagier in Columbia, Mo., contributed to this report.