Southwest Missouri group home suspended after teen escapees are accused of murder

A southwest Missouri group home was suspended for a fifth time after two teens who escaped from it were accused of fatally beating and stabbing a Michigan couple in a botched robbery at a vacation cabin.

The Springfield News-Leader reports that the Children’s Division of the state Department of Social Services, which oversees residential youth facilities, wrote that the Lives Under Construction Boys Ranch could not take in any new residents to give it time to “process the incident involving two residents who are suspects with regard to felonies while on the run.” The letter was dated Feb. 5, less than a week after the killings of Margaret and Paul Brian Brooks, ages 69 and 70.

Ranch administrator Ken Ortman shied from specifics, saying he was concerned that saying too much will hurt the investigation.

“Part of what all of us have to do when we go through our worst nightmares is we have to learn from it,” Ortman said.

A judge decided last week that the suspects, Anthony Zarro, 17, and Christopher Allen, 16, will be tried as adults. They are charged with two counts of first-degree murder, three counts of armed criminal action, one count of felony robbery and one count of felony burglary.

Lives Under Construction, a 186-acre ranch in Lampe near the Missouri-Arkansas border, was first suspended in 2001 when a 14-year-old was killed while trying to run away. Records obtained by the News-Leader showed that the boy was returning to camp with four other youths after doing odd jobs in the community when a staff member struck him over the head with a crowbar. The staff member managed to steer the truck he was driving to the side of the road. The boy jumped out and was killed when he ran into traffic.

Under a suspension that lasted for 34 days after the teen’s death, no new campers were allowed to come to the ranch, but the boys already there were allowed to stay. The ranch was required to rewrite its policies demonstrating actions to be taken “to minimize the chance of another crisis occurring.” Other changes included purchasing a walkie-talkie system to enhance communication among staff and increasing staff numbers to ensure proper supervision.

The state also investigated the facility in 2004, 2008 and 2011, the News-Leader learned through a records request. Issues included sexual contact among residents and failure to immediately seek medical help for a boy with a broken leg.

The News-Leader reported that the latest suspension ended Monday. For the time being, the 18 boys who were on the ranch when Zarro and Allen ran away remain as the only campers.