Indictment alleges West Virginia couple used adopted Black children as 'slaves,' judge says

A couple arrested after some of their adopted children were found locked in a shed at their West Virginia home are set for trial later this year on charges that a judge said involved their use as “slaves.”

Donald Ray Lantz and Jeanne Kay Whitefeather face trial later this year after they were arraigned on 16 counts each accusing them of civil rights violations, human trafficking, forced labor, gross child neglect and falsifying an application seeking a public defender. All but one of the counts are felonies.

Lantz and Whitefeather are white. Four children whose initials are in the indictment are Black.

The indictment said Lantz and Whitefeather forced, threatened and interfered with “the free exercise and enjoyment of any right and privilege” of the four children.

Kanawha County Assistant Prosecutor Madison Tuck said Wednesday that while she couldn’t answer questions about specific details, “I would just say that because the indictment includes a civil rights violation, that there’s definitely a racial element to the case.”

The couple’s trial is set for Sept. 9. They remain held at the South Central Regional Jail.

Circuit Judge MaryClaire Akers expressed shock after a grand jury indicted the couple in May, saying at a June 11 arraignment that “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an indictment like this in all of my time,” according to WCHS-TV.

Akers said the indictment alleged the children's “use as, basically, slaves."

Authorities began investigating after they received a call to the home last October in Sissonville, near Charleston, from someone expressing concern about the children’s welfare. Sheriff’s deputies forced their way into a shed next to the home where a teenage boy and girl were locked inside. The children had been deprived of adequate food and hygienic care, and the room had no running water or bathroom facilities, according to a criminal complaint.

Inside the main residence, a 9-year-old girl was found alone crying in a loft about 15 feet (4.6 meters) high with no protection from falling. No adults were present at the home. A fourth child was with Lantz when he eventually returned. Deputies were later led to the couple's 6-year-old adopted Black daughter who had been with acquaintances from the couple’s church.

The couple was arrested and the children were placed under the care of Child Protective Services.

Akers ruled the bonds for each of the defendants was insufficient and ordered them increased from $200,000 to $500,000 cash only.

Lantz’s attorney, Ed Bullman, said at the June 11 hearing that the charges were full of “square pegs and very round holes.”

Whitefeather’s brother, Mark Hughes of Chesapeake, Ohio, testified during a bond hearing in October that the home in Sissonville was unfurnished because the family was in the process of moving to a larger home in Beckley, according to WCHS-TV. At the hearing, Whitefeather’s attorney, Mark Plants, referred to the shed as a “teenage clubhouse,” said there was a key inside the shed and that there was “just a plain and simple misunderstanding about what is going on here.”

But in a criminal complaint, Deputy H.K. Burdette said he knocked on the shed's door on Oct. 2 and that the teenage girl inside indicated she was unable to open it. After deputies forced their way in, the girl said the defendants had brought food to her and her brother early that morning and that they had been inside for about 12 hours with no contact from the couple. The girl also said she and her brother were not allowed inside the house and were “locked in the shed for long periods of time daily.”

The children were in dirty clothes and smelled of body odor, and the boy was barefoot and had what appeared to be sores on his feet, Burdette said.

In a court filing, Kanawha County Assistant Prosecutor Chris Krivonyak said the couple had sold an 80-acre ranch for $725,000 in Tonasket, Washington. Whitefeather’s brother posted two $200,000 bonds to secure the defendants’ initial jail release three days later. In March, the couple sold the Sissonville home for $295,000, Krivonyak said.

Separately, a U.S. magistrate judge ruled in February that Child Protective Services failed to adequately investigate what happened with the children, who were left to “suffer at the hands of their adoptive parents for months.” The judge ordered Child Protective Services to provide information in the case as part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit that accuses the state of failing to protect children and fix its overwhelmed foster care system.


Associated Press writer Leah Willingham contributed to this report.