Four years ago, Rob Barrett got a phone call from a new friend.
“Hey, I want to do some snow sculpture. Could the girls do some snow sculpture with me?”
Rob’s new friend was Jamie Treadwell: A tall, slim, balding white guy. A world traveler. An artist-in-residency at The Potter’s House school in Grand Rapids. A man of faith.
In 2016, he made friends with Rob, his wife Crystal Barrett, and their two daughters.
Treadwell did come over. “And next thing you know, there's this, this Moses in our front yard.”
“It's not just a snowman. It's a sculpture of Moses holding his hand up in the air, pointing into the heavens and all this. And it is astounding,” said Rob.
“The whole neighborhood was totally impressed,” Crystal said.
Jamie Treadwell is like a big kid. That’s how the Barretts’ daughters would later describe him to police. When it warmed up that spring, Treadwell washed his car at their house, and started a water fight with the girls.
“They were — really, really, really liked him,” said Crystal. “I mean, like, really liked him.”
In 2015, Jamie Treadwell had just moved back to Michigan from Europe. He co-founded and ran a program for at-risk youth in Northern Ireland. He was new in town. So he asked to join Rob Barrett and his family at their Grand Rapids church.
“I really felt honored that he would want to spend time with us. This amazing guy with all this stuff going on has taken an interest in us.”
Treadwell was part of a Christian brotherhood called The Servants of The Word.
About 60 celibate men make up The Servants of the Word — “living single for the Lord,” as they put it. They live communally, sharing money and possessions. The home base is near Chelsea, Michigan but the group has houses all over the world, including Grand Rapids. Treadwell transferred to that house in 2015.
A few months into their friendship, Treadwell was at the Barretts’ house at least a couple times a week. Sometimes he just popped by.
When it was planned, Treadwell showed up super early. Rob wouldn’t be home from work yet. Crystal noticed Treadwell always disappeared with her girls into areas of the house or backyard she couldn’t see.
“They were almost always playing some kind of a game that involved a lot of physical contact. Which is not really what we do in our house,” Crystal said.
“That's part of the attraction,” Rob added, “He was so different. They were having so much fun playing tickle games with him in ways that we didn't do.”
One night, in May 2016, the Barrett family and Treadwell were sitting around the kitchen table.
In front of the girls, Treadwell turned to Crystal and said, “'Hey Crystal, do you remember when we talked about how fun it would be for me to stay the night sometime?' In my head I thought, ‘Uh, no, we've never talked about how fun it would be for you to stay the night. I don't arrange sleepovers with adult men.’”
It wasn’t unusual for the Barretts to have overnight guests. They lived overseas, so they have friends all over the world and family across the country who come stay in their guest room.
But at that time, Treadwell only lived a mile and a half away from the Barretts' house.
“My girls started saying, ‘Oh, that would be really fun! We can play these board games, we can do this, we can do that,’” Crystal said. “And then he said, ‘And you know, it's my birthday on Saturday and it would just be so much nicer to spend the time with you all than by myself. The brothers are out of town.’”
Crystal went from feeling frustrated and confused to planning to make Treadwell homemade cinnamon rolls for his birthday. She couldn’t put her finger on what she was anxious about.
The night Treadwell stayed over, Crystal sat up in bed, and told Rob: “Please go sleep in the girls’ room.”
“I was literally laying awake at night for hours on end thinking, this really seems like this guy is setting us up, like, to molest my kids. Like, this is what this feels like. And then the next thing in my head would be, ‘But what if you're wrong? What if this isn't that? And your kids love him and he loves them and he loves being part of your family and what if you're wrong?’
"There's part of me now that's just like, ‘Oh good grief, what if there was even a 20% chance this is what this was about. These are your girls.’ But I, I felt like if I wasn't 100% sure I couldn't say anything to anybody.”
Rob slept in the girls’ room that night. Nothing bad happened.
Still, Crystal was on high alert.
Then, one Sunday in September 2016, something did happen that confirmed Crystal’s worst fears about Jamie Treadwell.
He popped by after church — unannounced. Crystal was in the kitchen making lunch. Rob, the girls, and Treadwell were in the living room.
“Rob (came) into the kitchen to start setting the table 'cause it's getting close to lunch being ready. And I looked up at him and I said, ‘Rob, I'll take care of all this. I'll make the lunch and I'll set the table, please don't leave him in the room alone with the girls,’” Crystal said.
Not even for a minute, Crystal told her husband.
Rob remembers returning to the living room. His younger daughter was perched on Treadwell’s lap, playing a game on an iPad. Treadwell was watching her game too, but Rob noticed Treadwell rubbing his daughter’s legs.
“For some reason that just struck me as going, that's a little, that's a little weird,” Rob said. In full view, Treadwell was rubbing his eight-year-old’s upper thighs.
“As he's doing that, then her legs spread apart for whatever reason, I don't know. And then his hand just reached over into her crotch and just rubbed, twice. Right between her legs, and then casually moved away. And it’s just, he's not looking, he's just doing whatever with her. And that was when my brain exploded,” Rob said.
The Barretts made several calls about Jamie Treadwell. To their pastor at Sherman Street Church, where he was attending. They also called police.
Rob’s younger daughter doesn’t remember Treadwell touching her inappropriately.
His older daughter told investigators Treadwell touched her breasts during tickle games. She hadn’t mentioned it before because she thought it was an accident.
The Barretts also contacted the leaders of The Servants of the Word — that celibate, religious brotherhood Treadwell was a part of. The Barretts talked to the group’s leaders on the phone several times. They even drove across the state to meet face-to-face.
Rob recalled the group’s leaders told him Jamie wouldn't talk, even to them, because his lawyer advised him not to.
“They’re spending time with him and they say he just sits there silent. He will not say a word,” Rob said.
Leaders of the group wouldn’t talk to Michigan Radio. But in a series of emails and documents, one thing is clear: Parents raised concerns about Jamie Treadwell before.
Those concerns did reach someone at The Servants of the Word, at least ten years ago. Long before he moved back to Michigan from Europe. The group now says it knows of at least four “similar allegations” that have been reported to authorities.
East Grand Rapids Police took the Barretts’ complaint and investigated their claims. Investigators tried, unsuccessfully, to interview Treadwell. EGR Police sent the report to the Kent County prosecutor. They wanted to charge Treadwell with second-degree criminal sexual conduct.
This is the part of the story where you might think Jamie Treadwell is going to be arrested.
But that’s not what happened.
Michigan Radio interviewed Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker in September — three years after the Barrett case was referred to him in 2016. Becker said there was just not enough evidence to prove the Barretts’ case beyond a reasonable doubt.
“A lot of these cases do come down to some sort of corroborating evidence. You had the dad ... saying he saw something, but his two daughters didn't back him up.”
Hours after the warrant request landed on his desk, Becker decided not to charge Treadwell. Becker said he had heard rumors there could be other victims.
“Under sexual assault law, you know, prior instances of other sexual assaults or as molestations are admissible. So those could play a role in swinging the balance towards charging if, if we have evidence of that.”
If only Becker had more evidence. If only more victims had come forward. Things might have worked out differently.
But there is another Michigan family who says Treadwell also crossed the line with their daughter. They also reported Treadwell to police.
It was that same summer of 2016 — when Jamie Treadwell was hanging out with the Barretts. Treadwell was also making friends with another family. This time, in the Lansing area.
This family is part of another religious group, The Sword of the Spirit, that has strong ties to the celibate brotherhood that Treadwell was in. This family asked that we not use their names to protect their daughter’s identity.
Back in 2016, their daughter was five. The dad in this family hired Treadwell as a business coach. But they were social too — and the way Treadwell built that friendship will sound familiar.
He invited himself over. There were tickle games and car washes with lots of physical contact, this family said. Treadwell asked this family if he could stay overnight one weekend because he had an art show in town.
The family, reluctantly, agreed to let their business coach sleep in their basement.
Like he did with the Barretts, Treadwell showed up early at this Lansing area family’s house — hours before he was supposed to.
Dad wasn’t home from work. Mom apologized; she hadn't had time to get the sheets on the air mattress in the basement yet.
“Then he looks at my daughter and he puts his hands on his knees. He says, ‘You want to help me make the bed?’ And ‘Don't worry about me. You go keep working on dinner.’ And like a fool I do what I was told. I go upstairs, back to the kitchen and start stirring a pot that's on the stove,” this mom remembers.
Upstairs, this mom had second thoughts about leaving her daughter in the basement with Jamie Treadwell. She felt a pit in her stomach when she got back downstairs. There, she was shocked to see Treadwell laying on the bed, spooning her daughter, rubbing her lower belly.
This mom remembers interrupting the spooning, crouching down to her daughter’s level to say: “This basement door is Mr. Treadwell's bedroom door. He needs his privacy. When he is here, you are not to come down to the basement. You need to be upstairs the rest of the time.”
Treadwell was silent.
But when her husband came home, mom didn’t get a chance to mention the spooning incident. It was hectic. She was cooking dinner, and then they all ate together. After that, the whole family piled into the car and went to Treadwell’s art show.
The next morning, this Lansing-area dad was brushing his teeth when he heard Treadwell talking to someone in the kitchen. He assumed it was his daughter.
He heard the basement door open. So he peeked his head out of the bathroom.
“I'm like, OK, I heard him, I thought I heard her. And I definitely heard the door open and close to the basement and them go downstairs,” dad said.
He opened the basement door. It was pitch black.
“I turn on the main light and I walk down the stairs and I start calling out my daughter's name.” No answer.
So dad walked a lap around the main area of the basement. Treadwell’s room was a little off to the side. He remembers it was dark in there too.
“I'm uncomfortable actually going into that room and turning on the light,” the dad said. “Maybe he doesn't want to say anything because he's uncomfortable because he's in the middle of changing and I'm down there. Who knows, right?”
He called his daughter’s name a few more times. Still, nothing. So he went back upstairs.
“I'm sitting there thinking to myself, he's definitely down there. Why didn't he say something? I'm almost positive she's down there as well. The fact that she didn't say something is very weird. So I go back downstairs. I do one more lap. As I'm passing by his room, I reach in and I turn on the light and I see him standing there looking gray. You know, hands at his sides looking uncomfortable, a little sweaty, and (my daughter’s) in the bed with the sheets kind of half over her and... I don't know what to say.”
Dad looked at his daughter and said, “It's time to go.”
Again, Treadwell said nothing.
Their five-year-old later told investigators that she and Treadwell heard her dad calling, but they were playing hide and seek from her dad. That under the blankets, they told each other secrets. The police officer warned these parents: Never let your children around Treadwell again.
This Lansing-area family filed a police report about Jamie Treadwell just two weeks after the Barretts. Officers from both police departments talked to each other. Police in both jurisdictions mention the existence of both police reports to bolster the case against Jamie Treadwell.
I asked Chris Becker about this. He’s the Kent County prosecutor who didn’t charge Treadwell because he said there wasn’t enough corroborating evidence.
“I don't recall a tangential report out of Lansing,” Becker said.
Becker said he never saw the other police report from the Lansing family back in 2016. Not until I pointed it out to him, three years later.
“When we reviewed it, there were some things … (the Barretts) had talked about, he may have done at other places, but I don't recall seeing anything or, or looking at any sort of reports out of any other jurisdictions,” Becker recalled.
Now that he has seen it, Becker said in a follow-up email, “Nothing is ever closed unless the statute of limitations has run on a case.” That limit hasn’t passed yet.
Back in 2016, Treadwell refused to talk to police.
We wanted to get his side of the story. So this fall, I tracked him down to Grace Church in West Ann Arbor, where he had been attending services. He set up a painting in the lobby.
I followed him to a gas station in Dexter, and asked him about the Barretts. “This is kind of a bizarre conversation,” he responded.
Treadwell said Rob and Crystal Barrett are “really good people” that he thought he was friends with. He’s heard the Barretts had been stirring up rumors about him, Treadwell said.
“There's a terrible misunderstanding. I wish they would want to work with that,” Treadwell said. Treadwell flatly denies inappropriately touching the Barrett children.
I ask him: Why would he repeatedly bring the Lansing area family’s five-year-old into the basement? The mom said she made it clear she didn’t want her child down there.
“They might've said that, but I, I didn't pick that up" Treadwell answered. "So that's what I'm saying. OK. I just didn't see that."
From there, the conversation took an unexpected turn. Treadwell blamed this family’s five-year-old girl; blamed the Barretts for “abusing” his character.
“It's like, where's there any kind of human decency in this? You know, for someone in my situation? Because you know that, you report it, it absolutely destroys my life. It already has. I'm trying to find a way that I can be responsible to who I am and um, work in very different areas but also learn from this,” Treadwell said.
Maybe God brought you into my life, he said, to bring some healing to the situation. He offered to sit down and talk with the two families. He did not respond to my subsequent emails or calls.
Shortly after our conversation, Jamie Treadwell asked the leaders of The Servants of the Word to leave the group, the family he’s been a part of for more than 30 years.
On December 15, that breakup became official, and the brotherhood publicly announced the allegations they’d known about for years. In a follow-up email, the group wouldn’t say what the specific allegations are, who made them, or when — not even what continent they took place on.
Leaders of The Servants of the Word admit they’ve been through this before, with a different member of the brotherhood. The group wouldn’t name this other brother or detail the allegations. Only that this other member had been reported to authorities, charges weren’t filed, and this time the brother had stayed in the group.
Another former member of the brotherhood, Michael J. Keating, was the subject of a civil lawsuit for allegedly sexually abusing a minor. He has repeatedly denied those allegations.
Now that Jamie Treadwell has left the group, he doesn’t have to answer to the leadership at The Servants of the Word.
He’s accountable to no one but himself. Now more than ever, Jamie Treadwell is a free man.