CENTERTON -- A convicted sex offender operated a halfway house for parolees and probationers in rural Benton County where authorities said he assaulted one of the participants.
Federal, state and local law enforcement served a search warrant at the facility Jan. 20. By the time they left, five residents had been arrested on various charges, including drugs and weapons. Founder and director, Thomas Hartman, is facing felony charges of sexual assault in the third degree and being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Hartman wasn't required to obtain a state license for the Wings of Peace Ministry, a self-described sober transitional living facility, but he called Arkansas Adult Probation and Parole to tell them he intended to apply, according to spokeswoman Dina Tyler.
"Community Correction knew this place existed and was deeply involved with the raid. Any time several parolees live at the same address, it raises a red flag. Sometimes it's totally innocent. For instance, several parolees living in the same apartment complex," Tyler said.
"We are always looking for operations like Wings for Peace. It can take a while to find them, but at some point, we will."
Hartman was a lay minister, according to Jonathan Watson, who was a Wings of Peace board member. Watson said he became involved in Wings of Peace because Hartman was a friend and said he only became aware of problems at Wings of Peace when Hartman was arrested.
"This situation is terrible in what happened and the unfolding consequences of it. Just awful. There's not a person in the world that's going to come to Tom's defense and I'm not, either," Watson said. "He is going to have to deal with the reality of the choices that he made."
Hartman's wife, Janice, gave police a membership certification from the Revival Ministries International Ministerial Association which listed her husband as the Rev. Thomas Hartman. Men living in the center often referred to him as reverend and he occasionally preached sermons, Thomas Hartman told police.
Hartman is accused of using his position as a member of the clergy to engage in sexual acts with a 23-year-old man who was living at Wings of Peace, according to court documents. Hartman is a level 3 sex offender. Level 3 offenders have a history of repeat offenses or strong antisocial, violent or predatory personality characteristics requiring notification throughout the community, according to state law.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, serves as chairwoman of the state Senate's Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee. Irvin confirmed there's no licensing requirement for such facilities unless they accept state taxpayer money, such as Medicaid payments or vouchers for child care. Part of the reason for the lack of oversight, she said, was constitutionally guaranteed freedom for organizations with a religious affiliation.
Sen. Tyler Dees, R-Siloam Springs, and Rep. Hope Hendren Duke, R-Gravette, both represent western Benton County. Both said they have asked legislative staff to check regulations on halfway houses and report back to them on possible ways to prevent such situations in the future.
Wings of Peace claimed to be a faith-based facility but didn't list a specific religious affiliation. Residents were supposed to pay the Hartmans $125 per month to help with the bills and continue in the program, but Janice Hartman told police most didn't because they had no money.
Under the radar
Arkansas Adult Probation and Parole was aware of Wings of Peace, according to Tyler.
Tyler said Wings of Peace never reached the point of applying to be licensed. It's common, she said, for would-be operators to call and tell Community Correction they want to open a house and plan to file an application.
"Our reentry officers found out he's a sex offender and the process stopped," Tyler said of Hartman. "They checked out his facility and him. So, his verbal intent to apply was as far as the application process got."
Thomas Hartman was convicted of sexual assault in the second degree of a child in Wisconsin in 1997 and was given a suspended sentence with probation. Within months, he violated his probation for having unsupervised contact with a minor, and he was incarcerated from January 1998 through September 2003.
He moved to Arkansas in 2018 and registered with the Sex Offender Notification Assessment Program, which assigned him a community-notification level 3, which was affirmed by the Sex Offender Assessment Committee after Hartman requested an administrative review.
Hartman appealed to the Pulaski County Circuit Court, which also affirmed. In September 2021, Arkansas Court of Appeals Judge Rita Gruber affirmed the committee on appeal.
Prosecutors in both Benton and Washington counties said they were not aware of Wings of Peace until it came to the attention of law enforcement.
"I don't know anything about them," said Nathan Smith, Benton County prosecuting attorney. "Obviously, we partner with Ozark Guidance. I was not familiar with Wings of Peace. I'd never heard of them."
Ozark Guidance/Arisa Health is licensed by the state to provide mental health and addiction counseling in Northwest Arkansas.
"I would think there's some sort of accrediting agency. I don't know who would do that, but there's got to be some sort of accreditation-type stuff. They are not to my knowledge under the umbrella of the state," Smith said of Wings of Peace.
Libby Bier, Ozark Guidance/Arisa Health director of recovery services, said there are state licensing requirements for treatment centers -- even ones that don't take Medicaid -- but not for things like "safe houses" or alcohol-safe residential programs.
"I don't know what they were licensed for, or if they weren't, then there wouldn't be any accrediting body or anything that would oversee them," Bier said.
Bier said Ozark Guidance is a referral source for the Arkansas Department of Correction when someone is released from prison who needs mental health or substance abuse treatment.
Wings of Peace was active for less than a year. Bier said that could be one reason little is known about the organization. Bier said she doesn't recall Wings of Peace reaching out to build relationships with the licensed and accredited organizations.
"They weren't attending any of the coalitions or any of that that I'm familiar with either," she said. "There's a network of us. You build that relationship through being licensed. The state holds meetings for those of us that have a contract with the state."
The Arkansas Department of Health's Arkansas State Board of Examiners of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors said it had never licensed Thomas Hartman or his wife as counselors. The Arkansas Substance Abuse Certification Board said it had never certified either of the Hartmans.
Wings of Peace
Hartman and his wife founded Wings of Peace NWA. Records show the couple bought the 13.76-acre property in 2021 for $375,000 in November 2021 at 1470 Shipe Road west of Centerton. Buildings on the land can barely be seen from the dirt road because of the number of trees. There's a gate, a mailbox and cedar posts that once held a sign.
One building on the property can house 12 to 16 men, according to a probable cause affidavit. There's also a 2,200-square-foot house the Hartmans lived in. One probationer lived in the family home at no cost, according to the affidavit.
The man told authorities he met Hartman four or five years ago and considered Hartman a father figure, according to the affidavit. The man said Hartman had engaged in sexual acts with him a few times, the affidavit says.
The man said he felt trapped because he was required to live at the location because Hartman had bonded him out. If he left, he knew Hartman would turn him in, the affidavit states. He believed Hartman would have kicked him out if he did not comply with the sexual contact, the affidavit states.
Hartman admitted in his interview with investigators to engaging in sex acts with the man several times, but said he thought the contact was consensual, according to the affidavit.
Hartman is charged with third-degree sexual assault in Benton County Circuit Court. He entered a not guilty plea at his arraignment Feb. 28.
The men staying at Wings of Peace were mostly middle-aged with histories of substance abuse.
The ministry was incorporated with the state of Arkansas May 7, 2021, and the nonprofit recognition with the IRS as a 501(c)3 was granted in October 2021, according to information that had been on the organization's website. The incorporation is now listed by the Arkansas secretary of state as not current.
Watson said he believes Hartman's intent was to reach out and help others who were in need because of his own past problems.
"The idea of it was a sober living community. I think that's the best way to sort of wrap it up, post-incarceration of men who had been disenfranchised from their families because of all different sorts of self-defeating behaviors," Watson said.
"And so the idea was to have a safe place for them to be able to overcome their hurt, habits and hangups, the end result hopefully being able to successfully live in society and in their own families."
But, Watson said he thinks the inner demons Hartman struggled with got the better of him with terrible results and still unfolding consequences.
"The internal challenges that he faced became external challenges, and those choices that he made blew up the life that he was hoping to live and the work that he was hoping to do and now all of that is done because of the choices that he made," Watson said.
Watson said Wings of Peace has been disbanded and he and another former board member are liquidating the assets by donating them to other ministries and closing out the 501(c)3.
After the arrests, the only message on the website stated, "Wings of Peace is no longer providing any sober living services. Please reach out to other organizations for assistance."