Kidnapper's farm to be sold

From jail, Gordon Winrod voices opposition to auction 16, 2003
By Eric Eckert

Gainesville -- The air inside the cinderblock bunker under the Winrod family farmhouse is thick and musty. A plastic pipe running underground from the buried room to an outside shed provides the only hint of oxygen. Brittle remains of dead spiders cling to veils of cobwebs dangling from the plywood ceiling -looming only three feet above the cold concrete floor.

It's a wonder, authorities say, that six children were able to survive in such a place. The bunker, or "priest hole," was built by anti-Semitic preacher Gordon Winrod as a place to hide his kidnapped grandchildren if law enforcement approached.

In May 2000, police raided the farm to liberate the children. When officers arrived, the kids, then ages 9 to 16, scurried to the imperceptible passage and started a four-day standoff with officers.

"Somebody thought this out," said attorney David Pointer, as he peered through the nebulous 6-foot tunnel leading to the hidden chamber. "It's well-hidden. You can't even see it from the outside."

Pointer represents the children's fathers, Tim and Joel Leppert -Winrod's former sons-in-law and the home's owners since March 31. Pointer said the Lepperts, who bought the farm at auction, plan to sell the property. So, in the near future, someone outside the Winrod family may have the opportunity to own a slice of one of southwest Missouri's most infamous tales.

"There's definitely a story here," Pointer said. "It's hard to comprehend what these kids went through."

For more than five years, the children were held on the massive Ozark County compound, where they took shifts guarding the front gate with a loaded pistol. Erika Leppert, now 20, testified at a civil trial in May 2002 that while on "guard duty" she and the other children used a secret signal to alert people at the house if visitors were friend or foe. Friends were relatives. Foes were police.

"If police tried to grab us, we were to defend ourselves with (the pistol)," Erika Leppert told the jury.

Brainwashed by Winrod's teachings, the children were told they couldn't trust police officers, whom their grandfather coined "Jewish enemies of God."

Winrod, 76, is serving 30 years in prison for kidnapping. When authorities raided the home and arrested Winrod in 2000, the children locked themselves in the priest hole and didn't emerge until Winrod persuaded them.

The hideaway can only be accessed by crawling through the narrow tunnel, which opens behind a bookcase in the basement. A thin iron door with a heavy latch on the inside keeps intruders out of the tiny tomblike room, which measures 40 feet square.

A smaller second room, separated by another iron door, opens off the main chamber.

Evidence of the standoff lingers in the priest hole. Four dusty canning jars filled with homegrown green beans, peaches and jams sit in the corner. A pocket-sized New Testament -its cover damp from moisture, pages flaky and fragile from age -rests on the jar of green beans.

During the raid, authorities were shocked to discover the children were armed and prepared for battle.

Donna Leppert, who was 16 at the time and still holds true to her grandfather's beliefs, wrote the following passage while in the priest hole: "We don't plan on them getting us unless they either get shot or us in this (priest hole) and drag out the corps(es) or they might have to try to catch us trying to escape in the night with guns afire and knives a-waving."

Lt. Justin Riley, who was a deputy with the Ozark County Sheriff's Department during the raid, said the primary concern for authorities was always to get the children out unharmed.

"We weren't wanting the children to feel provoked to where they'd come out feeling they had to fight us," Riley said.

Three years later, the house sits peacefully on a lush, rolling landscape about a half-mile off the main road.

On the first floor of the farmhouse, a maze of hallways leads to several spacious bedrooms. Hand-stitched curtains with embroidered scripture adorn some of the bedroom windows. Heavy drapes bar any light from penetrating the large panes in the living room; red shag carpet blankets the floor.

Upstairs, a wall of shelves sits empty in an expansive library. A calendar turned to May 2003 hangs on the kitchen wall.

Outside, a log chicken coop had been converted into a tool shed. Gardening equipment hangs from nails on the walls. Antique student desks with initials and various shapes etched in the wooden tops are piled inside.

Erika Leppert told the Laclede County jury she was ordered to homeschool the other children during their captivity. At the time, she had only a fifth-grade education.

As part of the civil judgment, the jury ordered the Winrods to pay $26 million to the Lepperts for actual and punitive damages. The 449-acre farm -including the house, several outbuildings and Our Savior's Church -was sold to settle a portion of the judgment. The Leppert brothers, who live in North Dakota, purchased the property in March at public auction. They paid $464,000.

To the east of the church, a tiny cemetery is positioned among towering cedars. Gordon Winrod's wife, Genevieve, who died Dec. 31, 1984, is buried there along with a grandchild. Pointer said he hopes that portion of the land will be turned over to the county so the Winrod family can visit the graves.

From his prison cell in Jefferson City, Gordon Winrod managed to voice his opposition to the auction via his "Winrod Letter" -a sporadic publication that turns up in Ozark County mailboxes several times a year.

The May mailing refers to the sale of the property, saying it was done to "intimidate" the masses and "to swindle the owners of the property."

The Lepperts weren't able to take possession until the remaining Winrods, who initially ignored a court's order to leave, vacated the farm.

Pointer filed a petition April 16 to have the family removed. But by the time Ozark County Sheriff's deputies arrived on May 9 to enforce the judgment, the Winrods and most of their belongings were gone.

"By all appearances, it seems they've left," Riley said. "I imagine any conflict has pretty well died down."

Pointer said the Lepperts plan to eventually resell the property. "We've had people make offers, but there's been nothing set in stone."

With the impending sale, Pointer said his clients hope to one day put the incident behind them. The civil trial and purchase of the property, he said, will hopefully "close the chapter" on Gordon Winrod and stifle his rantings.

"They just want it over," Pointer said.

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