When Serah Bellar ran away from her Amesville home in April 2020, few questioned her disappearance.
Serah, 16 at the time, was labeled by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office as an “endangered runaway” in its database of missing people. Some members of her enormous family whispered about her absence in private. Beyond that, silence.
“Serah isn’t dead, I’d know by now at (sic), she’s smarter than people give her credit for, but she is gone, if she ever contacts dad and mom or any of us it will be on her terms,” her eldest sibling Benjamin Bellar, who’s incarcerated, wrote to a relative last year in a prison text messaging system, according to indictments from The Athens County Prosecutor’s Office.
Her family, the Bellars, have 18 biological children and one who’s adopted. Speaking to law enforcement, Serah’s mother, Deborah Bellar, once said “God would give her all the children she was meant to have,” according to court documents.
The Bellars were all forced by their parents, including Serah’s father, Robert “Bob” Bellar, to attend the Waverly-based Dove Outreach “church” run by their uncle James “Jim” Bellar who preached that siblings are meant procreate with one another in the face of the apocalypse to repopulate the planet, documents show.
Jim, a self-proclaimed apostle, reportedly rewrote chapters of the Bible to fit his religious beliefs that were passed on to the Bellar kids. He was very selective about who he permitted at Dove Outreach, which some have described as a cult, documents said.
In an interview, Serah called the church a cult.
“All the kids would have to go, whether they wanted to or not— even if you were sick, you had to go, it didn’t matter,” she said. “Anytime he’d say anything, I’d just kind of repeat it in my head, like, how messed up it kind of sounded.”
“He’d always talk about the end of the world and how you’d reproduce with your siblings.”
The recently obtained indictments of Serah’s parents and two brothers, Josiah and Jonathan Bellar, from the Athens County Prosecutor’s Office paints a picture of several county agencies being informed of abuse and failing to protect members of the Bellar family, who were being sexually and physically harmed — often in the name of cult-like religious beliefs.
Brothers sexually abusing younger siblings was allegedly commonplace within the house, according to the documents. Robert allegedly physically abused Serah and both he and his wife went to great lengths to protect the family from becoming exposed by outside agencies. As of Tuesday, Deborah was arrested and is in custody. Robert was at large with a nationwide warrant out for his arrest for about 24 hours before turning himself in on Wednesday.
Multiple sexual abuse reports were filed with Athens County Children Services between February 2017 and April 2020, with one report, according to the prosecutor’s office, providing text messages of family members discussing brothers sexually abusing a younger sibling. The Athens Messenger and The Athens NEWS were unable to obtain child services reports since they aren’t public record, as minors were involved.
When asked about the multiple reports involving the Bellar family, Robin Webb, public relations and community events coordinator for Athens County Children Services declined to comment, saying the office takes investigations “seriously.”
“We stand by the hard work that our caseworkers do,” Webb said.
The Athens County Child Advocacy Center, a nonprofit partner of Athens County Children Services, said in a press release it doesn’t have the authority to make decisions about whether criminal charges are pursued or whether cases are prosecuted. That authority lies with law enforcement and Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn, the organization said.
In May 2018, Serah was attempting to run away from home when an Ohio State Highway Patrol officer stopped her on U.S. Route 50 . She told them she was scared of one of her three incarcerated brothers who had sexually and mentally abused her for years, according to the prosecutor’s office’s characterization of an incident report (a request for the report has since been filed from highway patrol, but wasn’t fulfilled by time of publication). When her mother Deborah arrived on the scene, she denied any knowledge of abuse.
After a child services caseworker called home in 2018 to address reports of Serah’s continuing trauma of being sexually abused, including her showing signs of self harm, and her fear of a brother soon being released from prison, her father denied that she was suicidal and claimed she was lying about self-harming. He wouldn’t allow the caseworker to speak with other children in the home.
That day, the caseworker called Serah’s mother who said her daughter was lying about the sexual abuse and that Serah’s claims had been “medically proven” to be false, according to court documents.
In an interview, Serah said she came to be placed in foster care in 2018 after she was admitted into psychiatric care by her parents when she attempted to report the abuse to a school counselor at her online home school.
She said child authorities showed up at the home after the report was filed. Her parents weren't home, so the caseworkers contacted Robert, asking him to return home.
After the caseworkers left, Robert took Serah to a fire station, where he was a volunteer, around 5 p.m. She remained there until midnight. Serah said he left, came back, and took her to OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital.
“He told me to get out of the car and I got out, and I saw Debbie’s van there as well,” Serah said. “They asked me if I knew why I was there and I said ‘no, I didn’t at all.’ Apparently, I was under a suicide watch.”
She said her mom came to visit on her second day in the institution.
“She gave me some papers, and she wouldn’t allow me to read them,” Serah said. “She wouldn’t let me read over it and made me sign them, and that night, around 11, 11:30, some other people came in, I was put into an ambulance.”
Serah said she was admitted to Windsor-Laurelwood, an in-patient mental health facility in the Cleveland area.
She was there for about two weeks before her mom called to disown her, saying she would be in the hospital forever. After a time in the facility, staff asked if she would like to be placed in the foster care system. Serah said yes.
After being placed in the foster system, Athens County Sheriff Sgt. Jimmy Childs asked her in school where she was living. The first time Childs asked about her living situation, she stated she was living with a foster family. When asked again after Childs claimed he had forgotten, Serah declined to answer, fearful that he would relay her address to the other Bellar family members.
Childs, who knew Serah through his roles as a Federal Hocking Schools resource officer and the Athens County Sheriff’s Office’s “Explorers” program, where children work alongside law enforcement and participate in volunteer opportunities, also seemingly failed to intervene when Serah was in distress.
She was reportedly harassed by family members during an Explorers event at The Athens County Fairgrounds when Childs, who has close connections with other members of the Bellar family, reportedly said he couldn’t do anything about it. The Bellar parents were volunteer administrators of the program.
“In a recorded phone call between Robert and his son Josiah, Robert tells Josiah that Jimmy [referring (sic) to Deputy Childs] just left (Athens County Sheriff) Rodney’s office and Jimmy says he loved them and he has their back,” Robert’s indictment said.
Smith and Childs denied knowledge of the events described and comments made within the indictment.
“There’s been literally hundreds of kids of parents that help out (with the Explorers) and — of course nobody knew anything like that was ongoing,” Smith said in reference to the Bellar indictments.
Serah’s in-school interactions with Childs, coupled with an unpleasant Bellar family run-in at the Athens IHOP, led Serah to flee the area, according to the Prosecutor’s office.
She had maintained contact with a man, Jerry Chadwick, she met as early as in 2018 while playing online video game Rising World with other members of the Bellar family, a seemingly common activity among Dove Outreach members.
When Chadwick started noticing oddities about the family, members cut him off from playing. But his relationship with Serah persisted over the years through alternative means of contact. He and Serah exchanged nude photos while she was a minor, according to court documents.
In 2020, Chadwick arranged for his wife, Shayna Chadwick, to travel to Ohio from their home in Georgia to bring Serah down south to live with the couple. After residing with the Chadwicks for two weeks, the couple began a “sexual relationship” with Serah, who was 17 at the time, that continued up until their May 5, 2021 arrests, according to court documents.
That was around the time Athens County Prosecutor's Office Chief Investigator Jay Barrett traveled to Georgia to interview Serah at the Toombs County Sheriff's Office after she resurfaced online in a pseudonymous Facebook post.
The Chadwicks were charged with interference with custody, a felony under Georgia law, and are being held in jail, according to Captain Jordan Kight of the Toombs County Sheriff's Office. The couple is also being investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, court documents said.
It’s unclear where Serah is residing today, but Blackburn assured she is safe.
He said in an interview that systematic failures in the county left Serah and other Bellar family members vulnerable in the face of abuse. He wouldn’t, however, disclose whether his office was investigating the Athens County Sheriff’s Office, or whether there were additional charges to come.
“I'm more interested in protecting the citizens of the state of Ohio than I am in protecting the institutions that surround the state,” Blackburn said. “We're doing a systematic review, we're more than willing to work with agencies who were involved in this and see if we can try to come up with ways of doing this better in the future. And if someone needs criminally charged as a result of the things we find, that's going to be what we pursue."
Sydney Dawes and Kaitlin Thorne contributed reporting.
Editor’s note: The Athens County Child Advocacy Center is a nonprofit organization providing services to children who are survivors of sexual abuse and their families through interagency investigation, intervention, education and advocacy. For more information visit its website at: www.athenscac.org. Locally, the Survivor Advocacy Outreach Program can be reached at 740-591-4266. More information about SAOP can be found at https://www.saopseoh.org/.