Georgia pastor, wife charged after 8 people with disabilities found in locked basement
Authorities say Curtis Keith Bankston and Sophia Simm-Bankston "essentially imprisoned" people "against their will"
A self-proclaimed Georgia pastor and his wife were accused last week of locking a group of disabled people inside an unlicensed “group home,” which the couple says is their church, according to authorities and multiple news sources.
Police in Griffin, Georgia have charged Curtis Keith Bankston, 55, and his wife Sophia Simm-Bankston, 56, with false imprisonment over the incident, according to a press release from the Griffin Police Department. Bankston was arrested on Jan. 14, according to Spalding County Jail officials. Simm-Bankston was arrested on Jan. 20, officials said.
“It is both frightening and disgusting to see the degree to which these individuals have been taken advantage of by people who were in a position of trust,” Griffin Police said in a statement.
Curtis Bankston’s attorney Dexter Wimbish and local supporters told NBC News that the couple was sincerely trying to help the people staying with them and that the accusations against them are bogus.
“There was absolutely no false imprisonment, no kidnapping,” Wimbish said. “You’re talking about somebody who is actually doing what God commanded us to do.”
The trouble began around 6:51 a.m. on Jan. 13 when local emergency medical personnel responded to a call about a patient having a seizure at the Bankstons’ alleged rented house, located at 102 Valley Road in Griffin, authorities said.
Investigators determined later that the Bankstons’ were operating their purported church called “One Step of Faith 2nd Chance” at the listed address.
The medical crew called Griffin Police after discovering the entry door to the house’s basement was locked with a deadbolt, which forced them to climb through a window to reach their patient.
Investigators eventually discovered eight people, between the ages of 25 and 65, were living in the basement where they were periodically “locked in” by “caretakers” later identified as the Bankstons’. Police said the couple was leasing the property for about 14 months.
Police said most if not all of the eight residents were physically or mentally disabled and essentially imprisoned “against their will” by the Bankstons’, which created an “extreme hazard” since the alleged captives “could not exit the residence if there was an emergency.”
Curtis Bankston, who police said identified himself as the “pastor” of the alleged church, was determined to be the person who locked in the disabled individuals with his wife’s help.
Police said the alleged captives were denied access to medical care and medicine after the Bankstons’ took control of their finances, medications, and public benefits.
Five of the eight alleged prisoners were wards of the state, police said. The local Department of Human Services later placed all the captive individuals into “suitable care and housing.”
“The city of Griffin, along with [Department of Human Services] will continue to use any resources available to ensure this does not happen again,” police said.
Wimbish told NBC News that the Bankstons’ have replaced the basement door bolt lock that gave emergency responders trouble. He acknowledged the couple should have obtained a license to operate the facility inside their home, but maintained that the people staying in the basement were free to come and go as they pleased.
Wimbish also showed canceled checks and other paperwork to reporters to prove the Bankstons’ were sincere in their efforts to help the people staying in their home.
“You’re not talking about somebody profiting off of the backs of the poor,” the attorney said. “There was absolutely no false imprisonment, no kidnapping.”
Local National Action Network Rev. Joseph Wheeler told reporters he’s worked with the Bankstons’ for three decades.
“They’re not criminals,” Wheeler told NBC News. “They are caring for the vulnerable among us in this community and other communities.”
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