Dad’s Death Crushed Granada Hills Youth
It had seemed like a sign from God to Patrice Burris-Costales when a spot suddenly opened up at a Baptist boarding school here for her troubled son Joseph.
And once he arrived at the Mountain Park Baptist Church and Boarding Academy, Joe studied, prayed--and transformed himself from an average juvenile delinquent into a ruthless killer.
Convicted last week of murder, the 17-year-old from Granada Hills faces life in prison for his role in a plot to take over the quiet campus, have his way with the female students, start a Branch Davidian-like cult and make it onto national television.
In chilling videotaped confessions, Burris and accomplice Anthony Rutherford described how in March 1996 they used a brick to bash in the head of William Futrelle, a 16-year-old classmate from Florida, beat him with a stick, and then cut open his throat, not once but three times, because they feared he would expose their plans.
What happened to Joe, a once-loving child whose brutality has devastated families in three states, began nearly five years ago in the San Fernando Valley, when his suburban childhood was shattered by the unexpected death of his father.
As defense lawyer James Bowles told jurors at the end of his trial last week: “At 12 1/2, an otherwise good boy, an all-American boy, began his descent into madness.”
Special Bond With His Father
The second of Keith and Patrice Burris’ three sons, Joe grew up in the devout Baptist home of an engineer and a full-time homemaker whose own father and grandfather had been Baptist ministers. He attended Granada Hills Baptist School and, with his brothers Nathan and Kyle, excelled in competitive swimming. According to his mother’s testimony, all three boys were close to their father, but he and Joe had shared a special bond.
Less independent than his brothers, Joe seemed to crave his father’s attention and could always be found at his side, Patrice Burris-Costales recalled. That made it all the more difficult when, in 1993, Keith suffered a heart attack. The family had just arrived home from one of Joe’s swim meets.
Joe dialed 911, relayed CPR instructions to his mother, and watched helplessly as his father turned blue. His friends and family all agree: The death marked a turning point in Joe’s young life.
Within months, his conservative grooming gave way to baggy jeans, gold chains and a new hairstyle one relative described as “inexplicable.” Joe began drinking, having sex, smoking marijuana, experimenting with heroin and cocaine and running around with the “Homies,” a group of wannabe gang members from Simi Valley, according to testimony during his trial.
The changes did not escape the attention of friends and relatives, who watched as he distanced himself from them. During the trial, his aunt, Debbie McKean, a teacher at the Santa Clarita Christian Academy, recalled commenting to her husband on her nephew’s behavior during a family outing to a Dodger game.
“Look at Joe,” McKean said to her husband. “He’s like a person by himself in this family.”
By most accounts, Joe found little comfort at home in the months after his father’s death. Burris-Costales acknowledged during the trial that she was absorbed in her own grief and in no position to help her son. The best she could do for him, she testified, was to enroll him in a support group for children who lost parents to an early death.
Then came another blow: Burris-Costales’ marriage slightly more than a year after her first husband’s death, a decision Joe opposed. Joe and his stepfather, Ken Costales, eventually grew closer, but the relationship came to a premature end in early 1995, when Costales was found to have terminal liver cancer.
When Joe learned of the news, Burris-Costales remembered him saying, “I cannot lose another father.”
A few weeks later, Joe was expelled from the Santa Clarita Christian Academy after school officials found marijuana in his backpack. Burris-Costales testified that she lectured her son about making wrong choices and enlisted the advice of her husband’s nutritionist from Texas, who over the phone prescribed vitamins and herbs.
Joe’s acting-out only grew worse, although there was no evidence presented during his trial of any arrests, and authorities declined to say whether he had a criminal record before he entered the Mountain Park Academy.
Three times he ran away from home. On one occasion, he went to the Simi Valley home of his pastor, Bruce Swetnam, who counseled Joe after his father died. Swetnam, a pastor at the First Baptist Church of Granada Hills, described Joe as “devastated” and “angry at God” over his father’s death and said he appeared to lack a sense of purpose in life.
His mother, meanwhile, did not seek psychiatric help for her son because, as she testified, “We thought that if his relationship was right with the Lord, we could get him through this.”
Unable to control Joe, Burris-Costales took a friend’s advice, called the Mountain Park Academy, and made arrangements to send him there once a space became available. “I felt it was an answer to a prayer,” Burris-Costales testified.
Two days after her second husband’s death in September 1995, she continued, she tracked down her son at his girlfriend’s Burbank home and with the help of friends and family, “kidnapped” him and flew him to rural Missouri.
He did not attend his stepfather’s funeral.
Resort-like Campus Off Winding Dirt Road
Located about 110 miles south of St. Louis in the tiny community of Patterson, Mountain Park Academy is spread over 180 acres of lush Ozark forest. The resort-like campus consists of a spacious main office, girls’ and boys’ dormitories, an auditorium, faculty homes, classrooms and a swimming pool.
For a decade now, the campus has attracted anywhere from 150 to more than 200 students per year from all over the nation, many but not all of whom have been in varying degrees of trouble. The school’s founders, the Rev. Bobby Wills and his wife, Betty Wills, use Bible study, strict discipline and prayer to turn around the students, who range in age from 12 to 18 and whose families pay $940 a month in tuition and living expenses.
Once students arrive at the school, they are not allowed to communicate with their families for three months. Other contact with the outside world is so limited that residents of tiny Patterson said last week they were only vaguely aware of the school, which is located off a secluded, winding dirt road and marked by no sign.
“You’re far from sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” said school Principal Sam Gerhardt.
The murder of Will Futrelle was the first such incident at the school, said Gerhardt, who described it as a tragic and isolated event. Nonetheless, Futrelle’s mother is suing the school for failing to protect her son, and the school’s enrollment has declined from around 200 students before the murder to 145 today.
Publicity surrounding the case was so great that the trial had to be moved from Wayne County to Pulaski County, which is roughly a three-hour drive.
Patterson resident Gini Stufflebean, whose home and property are next to the school, said she was devastated by news of the killing. She said things like that just don’t happen in Patterson, which she described as being so small that “if you blink your eyes you’re through it.”
“You can’t keep secrets in a small town like this,” added resident Valerie Hulse. “But they did because they are so secluded and they kept to themselves.”
“Monitors” Help New Students
New students at Mountain Park are immediately paired with student “mentors” or “monitors” and constantly accompany each other around campus.
Mountain Park officials considered Joe a good student, and three months after he arrived, he was assigned to monitor incoming student Will Futrelle, from Boca Raton, Fla., whom a family member described as a boy “who needed a lot of help” for discipline problems of his own.
For three months, the two boys prayed, studied and did chores together, until March 25, 1996, when Joe agreed during a lunch break to join in Rutherford’s plan to take over the school.
The son of an administrative judge, Rutherford had arrived at the school two years earlier from his home in Siloam Springs, Ark., where, according to a prosecutor, Rutherford had been staying out late and using drugs. During his videotaped confession, the then 18-year-old Rutherford said he cooked up the plan because he was tired of being pushed around.
“I was trying to overpower and take over, just push over Mountain Park in any way possible so that I could start something, do things the way I wanted to do them,” Rutherford said in the taped interview. “I felt like I was pushed around to a certain point. I was always looked down upon. I wanted to be looked up to.”
But getting in the way of his plan were the students he and Joe were assigned to mentor.
Joe said in his taped interview that he agreed to kill Will because “we assumed he would go against us.”
The day the agreement was struck, Rutherford and Joe lured Will into the woods on the premise that they were going to collect firewood. With them was the youth Rutherford was assigned to mentor, whom authorities have not identified because of his age and because he did not participate in the ensuing attack. Joe started to attack Will too soon, Rutherford recalled in his confession, describing how he motioned to Joe to stop until they were farther away.
“No,” Rutherford said he told Joe. “You have to cover his mouth or someone will hear him scream.”
Rutherford described how, after hiking a bit more, he hit Will in the head with a brick and then removed a serrated pocketknife from a sheath and handed it to Joe.
Joe said to him, “Don’t make me do this,” to which Rutherford replied, “I’m not making you do anything,” according to his confession.
With the knife in hand, Joe slit Will’s throat open three times and then he and Rutherford beat Will until he stopped moving. Moments later, they dumped the boy’s body in a ditch.
In a haze of confusion, they continued on to a faculty member’s home, where they broke in, hoping to find a gun for their takeover. But they were unable to find a gun, and then couldn’t get access to a car as they had hoped. Their grand plan had unraveled.
Rutherford said that when he suggested to Joe that they turn themselves in, Joe told him, “I’m not going to go down like this. We’ve done something bad.”
But the three boys turned themselves in nonetheless, simply walking into the administration office with their news, handing over the knife and leading school officials to the body. Before morning, local police got their confessions.
Defense Points to Chronic Depression
At his trial last week, Joe was ghostly pale and extremely thin, and he stared downward as his mother testified. His defense attorney sought to portray him as a boy who slid into chronic depression after the death of his father.
Bowles urged the jury to find Joe not guilty “by reason of mental defect” and allow him to be sent to a state mental institution where he could receive the psychiatric help he had long needed.
But the jury sided with Wayne County Prosecutor Jon Kiser, who played Joe’s videotaped confession in court. In an interview later, Kiser said that if Joe looks depressed now, it’s because he has a real reason to be.
Though Joe was 15 at the time of the slaying, Kiser successfully tried him as an adult. He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. Because of his age at the time of the killing, Joe is exempt from the death penalty.
Rutherford was convicted in May and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He had agreed to a nonjury trial when Kiser agreed not to seek the death penalty. The third student, who witnessed the killing but did not participate, was ordered to remain in juvenile custody until he turns 19.
Will’s mother, Billie Futrelle, said she regretted that the convicted killers did not receive the death penalty.
“Children who do adult crimes should do adult time,” said Futrelle, who also attended Rutherford’s trial in what her 20-year-old daughter described as “her last role as Will’s mother.”
Listening to the testimony of Burris-Costales, another mother with a troubled son, had been especially hard to tolerate.
“It’s a very sad situation,” Billie Futrelle said. “She’s going to lose her son just like I’ve lost my son.”