'Cult' preacher worked kids as slaves at North Carolina fish restaurants: sheriff
John McCollum

A religious cult in North Carolina allegedly forced children to work as slaves in fish markets to fund the group's operations.


Authorities in Cumberland County have arrested four members of the group based at McCollum Ranch and have issued warrants for six others, reported WRAL-TV.

The group lives on a compound based at the ranch and operates at least three John C’s Fish Markets and mobile grills in Fayetteville and another in Lumberton, authorities said.

John McCollum, who runs the fish markets, was arrested on charges of operating a continuing criminal enterprise, involuntary servitude of a minor, obtaining property by false pretense and conspiracy.

Former residents told investigators that group members forced their children as young as 9 to work full time for little or no pay at the fish markets, where they lifted heavy boxes, cleaned and iced fish, and performed construction and maintenance after hours on the grills.

Raleigh police said a woman told them in March that the group had used her personal information to create a phony high school transcript to apply for financial aid at Wake Technical Community College that was later used to fund the religious group.

John McCollum, who runs the fish markets, was arrested on charges of operating a continuing criminal enterprise, involuntary servitude of a minor, obtaining property by false pretense and conspiracy.

Brenda Joyce Hall, who managed what police say was a bogus home school operation at the ranch, created fake high school transcripts to get teens into online programs at Wake Tech and other schools, authorities said.

Hall, Cornelia McDonald and Pamela Puga Luna were each arrested on the same charges as McCollum.

Warrants were issued on the same charges for Shirley McNatt, Daffene Edge, Kassia Rogers, Irish Williams, Shirnitka McNatt and Earlene Hayat.

Investigators have been trying to gather evidence against the group for months, but the case stalled until authorities located a 15-year-old who had run away from the ranch.

"We found that kids are like second generation of the ranch and that some of the people that we've charged in this were actually victimized years ago," said Lt. Sean Swain, of the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office. "They've just never left this ranch, and now their kids are second-generation victims."

McCollum has recruited members and their children at tent revivals across the country, investigators said.

Authorities described McCollum and his followers as an "alternative religious group," but a friend denied those claims.

"It is a family atmosphere out there, it is not a cult of a compound," said Anthony McKoy, who has known McCollum for years. "He is showing these people, these kids, a work ethic."

McCollum remains held on $1.1 million bond, while the three women remained jailed on bonds up to $527,000.