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North Dakota woman escaped cult and earns college education

Erika Schumacher sits on her quarterhorse, Nutmeg, near her home south of Jamestown. (Dave Wallis/The Forum)

Erika Schumacher offered an odd answer in class when she was asked to write something about herself:

"I was abducted."

The 26-year-old who graduates from Valley City State University today has a life story that reads like a movie script, yet any disadvantages didn't stand in her way of academic success.

Members of a cult founded by her grandfather, Gordon Winrod, abducted Schumacher - then 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 the cult's Missouri farm.

They were not allowed to watch TV, listen to the radio or attend school.

The only year of education Schumacher had was fifth grade.

After she escaped from the cult in 2000, Schumacher studied on her own and earned a GED in 2002.

She enrolled at Valley City State in fall 2004 and graduates today cum laude with a triple major in health sciences, biology and chemistry.

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 the cult's farm.

Today is extra special for Schumacher because she's never had a graduation before.

"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."

Moving among caves

Schumacher spent a good chunk of her childhood in and out of court after her parents got divorced and when Winrod, her mother's father and an anti-Jewish cult leader, interfered with custody proceedings.

After Schumacher's father, Tim Leppert, got full custody of his children, members of the cult abducted Schumacher and her siblings. Abduction attempts of other siblings and her cousins soon followed.

Schumacher, who was 12 at the time, and her three younger siblings first hid in a North Dakota shelter belt before they were moved to an old mineshaft in an Arkansas forest.

They spent that winter huddled in the mineshaft by day to keep warm. They had to whisper and could only start fires at night so they wouldn't get caught by tourists or hunters.

In the spring, they were moved to different caves in the Ozark Mountains, but without any adults. They did their own cooking and sewing, grew a garden and butchered their own meat.

The children later moved to their grandfather's 600-acre farm in Missouri, where at first they could only go outside at night. They were taught to shoot guns and had to 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 kids 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 while she was building something for her aunt.

Winrod wasn't going to allow her to see a doctor, so Schumacher used fiberglass casting material they had on the farm 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 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.

Eager for an education

Schumacher lived with her father's mother after returning to North Dakota and was eager to gain an education.

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.

Her adviser, Hilde van Gijssel, said Schumacher came in with more determination and focus than most students.

There were sometimes things Schumacher didn't know, such as pop culture references she missed out on, but she was quick to catch up, van Gijssel said.

Math was Schumacher's biggest weakness, but rather than shy away from it, she took as much math as she could, said science professor Joe Stickler.

She also got married while in college - to 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, born six hours after Schumacher's last final exam that spring.

Schumacher was honored Friday as the university's outstanding chemistry student. She also has a prestigious scholarship at Iowa State.

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