Mission Coffee has been a staple at the Carmel Farmers Market, practicing “entrepreneurial philanthropy” by donating its proceeds to a medical mission in Panama, according to Mission Coffee founder Peter Beering.
But others who have spent time at Panama Christian Evangelism in Boquete, Panama, said the mission isn’t what it seems to be. They said it serves as a shelter for its founder, Dr. Alan Handt, to sexually abuse teenage girls who are dependent on him for jobs and security for their families.
Beering adamantly denies the allegations against his longtime friend and colleague.
“This has been a nightmare to deal with, because if there were anything to it, I wouldn’t have anything to do with any of these people,” he said. “When it began, it mushroomed. Well-intended souls got in the middle of it. They were convinced they had better ideas and they needed to take it over.”
Alan Handt, 79, was detained in Panama last week and will voluntarily return to the U.S. in the coming days, Beering said. A spokeswoman at the U.S. Embassy in Panama said authorities detained Handt through migration law articles 50 and 63, which outline requirements for emigrating or leaving a country temporarily and give the ministry of the interior authority to expel a foreigner whose presence is contrary to national interests. She did not have additional information on the specifics of why he was detained.
When reached by phone before the detainment to discuss previous allegations of sexual abuse, Alan Handt, 79, former director of public safety for the City of Indianapolis and former senior vice president of medical and academic affairs at St. Vincent hospital, said that questions should be directed to Beering and referenced an email sent from his wife Deborah’s account to Current.
“The people that have reached out to you (about this matter) are mistaken and misguided,” the email states. “I have publicly pointed out that they’re not acting on my behalf and have misrepresented the facts and my statements to further their malicious agenda.”
But several people who have spent time living and serving at the mission tell a different story.
‘Much more serious’
Lynn Pike of Anderson spent a week at the mission in May 2014. A campus minister’s wife and veteran of short-term mission trips, Pike said she spent the week delousing children’s hair, picking up trash and assisting students with homework.
In some ways the trip was like many of the other trips she’s done. But throughout the week she said she witnessed several events that put up red flags in her mind, from Alan Handt yelling at her to remove a fussy child in the exam room from his presence to “sensing a heaviness, a sadness and feeling of fear” while conversing with female employees at the mission.
Pike said she befriended Deborah Handt in the early days of the trip, but as the week progressed she became concerned with Deborah’s emotional health. Shortly before returning to Indiana, Pike said she read a letter to Deborah Handt she wrote to encourage her, but Deborah’s response was not what she expected.
“She explained that the positive things we saw were not representative of what was really happening and the health of the mission,” Pike said.
Pike said she kept in touch with Deborah Handt after returning home. She said Deborah told her about her husband’s issues with control, anger, manipulation and inappropriate behavior with girls at the mission.
“As I pondered what I had experienced in a week’s time, all Debbie had told me and what the Panamanian teenage employee shared, I began to suspect that my new friend was quite depressed and perhaps suffered from a learned helplessness in the face of an angry, controlling, manipulative and emotionally abusive husband,” Pike said. “I also suspected that his inappropriate behavior with the young girls was not simply inappropriate but much more serious.”
So one night she reached out to the Panamanian teen to see if her suspicions were correct. When she awoke the next morning, she said she found a string of messages detailing the sexual abuse the girl said she suffered at the mission between ages 12 and 15.
“My 19-year-old friend begged me not to tell a soul. Her mother, brother and she all owed their livelihood to and were dependent on this angry, abusive husband, doctor and director of the medical mission in a third world where men and white skin wield the power and influence over those they deem of lesser intellect and value,” Pike said.
After much “distress and prayer,” Pike said she contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement to report what she had learned. An official with ICE referred Current to the United States District Court for more information. USDC Spokesman Tim Horty stated in an email that he could neither confirm nor deny a criminal investigation before formal charges are filed.
Although Deborah Handt, who lives in Zionsville when not in Panama, had previously cut off communication with Pike, Pike said she messaged her through Facebook to let her know that she had contacted ICE. On Aug. 28, 2014, Deborah Handt spoke with Panamanian authorities, asking them to investigate allegations that her husband had sexually abused young girls.
Court documents show Deborah Handt stated that a 19-year-old female said Alan Handt inappropriately touched her when she was 13 or 14 years old, and by age 15 the two had sexual relations.
In the document Deborah Handt outlines other allegations of sexual abuse she heard about from the young employee, including an alleged incident from earlier in the summer of 2014 involving a 15-year-old student/employee and allegations that Alan Handt had sexual relations with a student in 2007 and required her to get an abortion.
“I had heard rumors that Alan had sexual relations with minors, but I didn’t believe it considering that one time he started to touch a girl in public and I called him out on it and he told me he wouldn’t do it again and he didn’t do it again,” Deborah Handt states in the complaint, translated from Spanish. “I did see that Alan, while giving temporary jobs to the girls, gave them gifts and responsibilities that called for them to be near him. We had several arguments because I was not in favor of this action, but I didn’t suspect that there were sexual offenses behind all these attentions.”
Deborah Handt declined to discuss the matter in detail with Current, but Beering said she retracted the statement she gave to authorities. When asked to provide Deborah Handt’s retraction, Beering provided a screenshot of a reply to a post by former mission volunteers Gary and Deborah Pearcy in an online forum about Boquete, Panama, describing concerns they had during their time at the mission beginning in 2013. Posted by “Wife” on March 3, 2016, Beering said it was a response from Deborah Handt.
“Without going into detail, I would like to say that I regret the way I handled this very delicate personal situation in 2014, as well as some of the people I confided in,” the reply states. “Also, what I said at that time was often said out of anger, misunderstanding and/or frustration.”
At least two girls gave testimony to Panamanian authorities in November 2014, after Deborah Handt made her statement, outlining how Alan Handt had allegedly sexually abused them.
One girl stated that Alan Handt repeatedly had sex with her despite her objections beginning when she was 15 years old. She also stated that she tried to commit suicide. Another girl stated that Alan Handt touched her private areas when she was 12 years old.
Beering said there was evidence the girls were “badgered” into making the statements by misinformed people who had a “vendetta” against Alan Handt in large part because of his management style.
“None of the people who have been particularly sanctimonious about this speak very good Spanish, and that’s a problem,” he said. “They overheard things and misunderstood them and misinterpreted them, and they assumed that people would come and tell them the truth when that is absolutely not what happened.”
On May 18, 2015, the Panamanian court dismissed the complaints, as authorities were unable to prove that a punishable act could be tied to Handt.
But this wasn’t the first time Alan Handt had faced allegations of sexual abuse.
‘Not what it looks like’
In October 2007, three sisters who were 9, 12 and 14 years old at the time gave statements to Panamanian authorities accusing Alan Handt of sexual abuse. The statements outline details of the alleged abuse and state that Alan Handt threatened to fire the girls’ father. The oldest girl is one of the alleged victims Deborah Handt referenced in her 2014 statement given to the Panamanian authorities.
The oldest girl stated that Alan Handt forced her to have sex with him repeatedly beginning when she was 12 years old. Her 12-year-old sister stated that he touched her private areas, and her 9-year-old sister stated that he grabbed her private areas.
On Feb. 28, 2008, authorities dismissed the charges, stating that medical examinations showed that all three sisters were virgins and that Alan Handt suffered from a condition that made some of the allegations impossible.
Beering said that the girls’ allegations occurred because their father, an employee at the mission, was trying to “get double his vacation money.”
“The employee was trying to extort money, which is a very, very, very common thing in Panama,” Beering said. He also said the girls later told investigators that Alan Handt had never touched them.
But others had been raising questions about Alan Handt’s interactions with young girls in the years leading up to the formal complaint.
Tammy Huey and her family sold almost everything they owned to move to the Boquete mission indefinitely in May 2005. A nurse now living in San Antonio, she said she helped do a lot of good during her time there, even attempting to help a very sick baby who had been dropped off, unwanted, get adopted.
The family enjoyed working with the local population so much that they’d like to still be serving there. But they left in August 2006 after finding it nearly impossible to work with Alan Handt, whom they had been warned about by another missionary family before heading to Panama.
“They told us, ‘It’s not what it looks like,’” Huey said. “They told us they suspected Alan was abusing girls. They didn’t have any proof, but they suspected it.”
At first Huey said she didn’t suspect anything malicious was happening, although it didn’t take long for her to notice that Alan Handt “disliked the boys” and “spent a lot of time with the girls.”
“It was always weird to us, this man who has all this money but yet he wants to run around with little girls all the time,” said Huey, adding that she never saw him touch anyone inappropriately.
Huey said she was troubled to see that Alan Handt would have young girls spend the night at his house when his wife was gone.
“That was totally inappropriate,” Huey said. “We just knew you couldn’t say anything to him about it.”
But looking back, she wishes she had done more. She said she wasn’t surprised to learn of the content of the allegations against Alan Handt, but she was shocked that the girls shared details with the authorities.
“He has so much power down there. I couldn’t believe they had stood up against him like that,” Huey said. “If you make him mad he will make your life hell.”
The Hueys worked at the mission alongside Donna Emberson, who moved to the mission in 2006 straight out of high school, eager to serve people in need.
She spent several months living in the Handt’s home before being tasked with becoming a live-in mentor to local girls, ages 12 to 17, who were going to live in a new dorm on the property.
“I was very much excited about the idea that I could be like a dorm mom and take care of the six girls,” Emberson said. “I think (Alan Handt) was excited about it because he could easily control what went on there.”
Emberson, who was 18 at the time, said she never saw Alan Handt do anything inappropriate with the girls, but despite her admitted naivety she “knew something was wrong” as “there was rarely a time there weren’t little girls following him around.”
“Two of them were his favorites,” Emberson said. “As they got older they stopped being his favorites.”
Emberson had intended to serve in Panama for a year before starting her college career. But she found Alan Handt to be harsh, controlling and deceptive and left after seven months.
Now 30 years old and living in Frederick, Md., Emberson is still troubled by her time in Panama and often wonders about the fate of the girls.
“I wish that I had stood up to him more,” she said.
The board backs out
The missionaries weren’t the only ones questioning Alan Handt’s actions. The mission, Panama Christian Evangelism, originally operated as a nonprofit, governed by a board of directors. As early as 2006, board members were troubled by Alan Handt’s interactions with young girls.
Board chair Joanie Grimm, a resident of Conyers, Ga., who previously served alongside Alan Handt on the Fellowship of Associates of Medical Evangelism nonprofit board, wrote a letter to her longtime friend on behalf of the PCE board in 2006 outlining several steps they’d like to see him take to improve the mission and its image.
Among administrative requests, the letter requested that Alan Handt be more careful about his interaction with the girls at the mission.
“It should be agreed that girls, regardless of the number, not be in Alan’s home, truck or anywhere alone with him,” it states. “Visiting, even when Debbie or others are there should be limited to once a week. I am not suggesting any inappropriate behavior is happening, but there have been enough questions from people working on the field, from people visiting during mission trips and from Board Members that it is essential to guard against any misunderstanding.”
Grimm said that Alan Handt didn’t seem to make any of the recommended changes and continued to see the girls, so the board agreed to dissolve. She alerted supporters that PCE would no longer need their funds. In 2012, the IRS automatically revoked PCE’s nonprofit status because it hadn’t received a filing in three years.
Beering said that the dissolution of the nonprofit had to do with paperwork issues. He said the board was primarily a “marketing exercise” that mostly existed to “make some of the contributing churches feel happy.” Most of the operations at the mission were – and still are – funded out of Alan Handt’s pocket, he said.
“You have the minority contributors who wanted to set all the policy,” Beering said. “Some of the policies that these people were advocating for work very well in a suburban Georgia church, but they don’t work at all on the side of a mountain in Central America.”
Beering said the mission is now associated with another nonprofit, Panama Vision. His business, Mission Coffee, has never operated as a nonprofit and has not claimed to be one.
Beering, who worked with Alan Handt in the City of Indianapolis public safety department in the 1990s, maintains that his longtime friend has not done anything inappropriate with young girls.
“This has been investigated three different times by three different levels of government and everybody concluded that there wasn’t anything to it,” Beering said.