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In an interview with ABC11, Morrisville resident Ed Weeks described a chilling account with a young man who claimed to have been kidnapped by John McCollum's group nine years ago.
"I've always called it a cult," Weeks said, describing the secluded compound in a rural end of Cumberland County occupied by McCollum and many of his followers.
"(McCollum) never really talked to anybody," Weeks said. "He always had two or three ladies that would walk behind him. They always called him 'The Apostle.'"
We’re getting an eyewitness account of a chilling escape attempt from the McCollum Ranch in Godwin— 9 years before this week’s arrests and allegations about a child slave labor ring.— Joel Brown (@JoelBrownABC11) January 12, 2018
NEW AT 11. #abc11 pic.twitter.com/JjCA4e6B0q
In the summer of 2008, Weeks was the director of an assisted living facility for seniors on the other side of the woods from McCollum Ranch.
He remembers rushing back to the facility after getting an urgent call about a 21-year-old man with intellectual disabilities claiming to have just escaped from captivity at the ranch - breaking through a window to freedom.
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Weeks said the man was in a panic, screaming, "Please help me, please help me. They took me. They locked me up. They wouldn't let me out."
"And we were trying to figure out who he was talking about," Weeks said.
The young man told Weeks he had been kidnapped by McCollum's group.
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The story took an even wilder turn when another man soon showed up. It wasn't McCollum - but he was claiming to be the young man's father - demanding Weeks hand the young man over.
"We had called the sheriff's department because we knew that something was wrong and (the victim) needed help," Weeks recalled. "And I was not comfortable with the gentleman outside coming in and taking him since he was saying that they took me."
Nine years later, McCollum and three others are behind bars; charged in what the sheriff's office describes as a child slave labor operation. According to arrest records, children worked 40-hour work weeks with little or no pay at John C's Fish Markets in Lumberton and Fayetteville. The sheriff's office said the markets were operated by McCollum to fund the ranch which has been there at least 20 years.
ABC11 asked the Cumberland Sheriff's Office why it took so long to file charges.
"You can't get the victims or anyone else to talk to you and if you can't get the allegations substantiated, there's nothing we can do," said Lt. Sean Swain.
Weeks said he found that hard to believe given the ordeal he witnessed in 2008.
"I got really upset about that (explanation) because I had a young man who was 21 years old, mentally-challenged, and saying that he had been kidnapped," Weeks said. "He broke out of the building, ran away and he was locked against his will and nothing happened."
While no charges were filed against McCollum from that incident in 2008, sheriff's deputies did not allow McCollum or any of his followers to take that young man back to the ranch.
Weeks told us he helped the young man return home to his sister in Pennsylvania who suspects McCollum was using her brother to get to his federal disability checks.