Former cult abductee graduates

Associated Press/May 16, 2009

Valley City, North Dakota - Valley City State University graduate Erika Schumacher has a life story that reads like a movie script, but she didn't let her disadvantages get in the way of academic success.

Members of what some have described as a cult founded by her grandfather, Gordon Winrod, abducted Schumacher -- then 12-year-old Erika Leppert -- and three of her siblings in 1994 from their family farm near Edgeley.

For the next five years, Schumacher, cared for her younger siblings in the caves of the Ozark Mountains and on Winrod's Missouri farm. They were not allowed to watch TV, listen to the radio or attend school.

Police raided the farm in May 2000, arresting Winrod and then working for four days to talk the children -- then ages 9 to 16 -- into surrendering. Authorities said Winrod brought the children to his farm because he wanted to indoctrinate them with his beliefs.

Winrod, who was known for his hatred of nonwhites, Jews and the government, was sentenced to serve 30 years in prison.

Schumacher, 26, whose only year of education was fifth grade, returned to North Dakota and earned a high school general equivalency diploma in 2002. She enrolled at Valley City State in fall 2004 and earned cum laude honors with a triple major in health sciences, biology and chemistry. She was honored as the university's outstanding chemistry student.

The rural Jamestown woman now heads to veterinary school at Iowa State University in Ames so she can become a large-animal vet, a passion she developed in North Dakota and on Winrod's farm.

"I never really envisioned me going to college," Schumacher said. "But I always knew I wanted to do something more than stay on my grandfather's compound."

During her ordeal, Schumacher spent time hiding in a North Dakota shelter belt, an old mine shaft in an Arkansas forest and caves in the Ozark Mountains before moving to Winrod's farm. She and her siblings did their own cooking and sewing, gardening and meat butchering. At the farm they were taught to shoot guns and take turns on guard duty.

Schumacher, who had been taught to read by her mother, used the few school books she had to teach the younger children to read and to educate herself.

Her love of animals grew while on the compound, where she got to train a horse named Nutmeg that she eventually brought back to North Dakota.

"She's largely why I'm here today," Schumacher said. "She just stuck with me through everything, and kind of was a friend."

At 17, Schumacher broke her ankle when some lumber fell on her leg. She used fiberglass casting material for animals and an early 1900s medical book to set her own bones. She had to learn how to walk again but now is able to run.

That incident was in part what prompted Schumacher to want to escape. She convinced her grandfather that she wanted to go to North Dakota to bring her sister back to the compound, but instead she got help from law enforcement.

A few months later, the other children were rescued after a four-day standoff with law enforcement.

Schumacher lived with her father's mother after returning to North Dakota. After earning a GED, she spent a year traveling as Miss Rodeo North Dakota Winter Show.

She decided to attend Valley City State because she liked the small-town atmosphere and the attention she could get from professors. While in college she married Don Schumacher, a LaMoure County sheriff's deputy she met after calling authorities about cult members who were still harassing her. They have a son, Ryan, 2.

"Everything should be working against her, but somehow she turned those things to her advantage," said science professor Joe Stickler.

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