Georgia pastor, wife charged with false imprisonment after people found in locked basement

NBC News [New York NY]

January 21, 2022

By Elisha Fieldstadt

Investigators determined that the eight people in the basement, all with mental or physical disabilities, or both, were “essentially imprisoned against their will.”

A Georgia pastor and his wife were arrested on charges of false imprisonment after officials found up to eight people locked in their basement, police said.

Curtis Keith Bankston and Sophia Simm-Bankston were running the unlicensed “group home” out of their rented Griffin house “under the guise of a church known as One Step of Faith 2nd Chance,” the Griffin Police Department said in a statement.

Griffin Fire last week responded to a call about someone having a seizure at the home and noticed a deadbolt on the basement door, according to police. Crews had to climb through a window to reach the patient.

Investigators determined the people in the basement, all with mental or physical disabilities, or both, were “essentially imprisoned against their will, which created an extreme hazard as the individuals could not exit the residence if there were an emergency,” police said.

The Bankstons controlled the finances, medications and public benefits of the people they were keeping in the basement and had sometimes denied them their medications and medical care, according to police.

The people, who range in age from 25 to 65, were all placed into housing by the Georgia Department of Human Services. Five of the people kept in the basement are wards of the state, police said.

Curtis Keith Bankston, 55, and Sophia Simm-Bankston, 56, will likely face additional charges, police 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,” the police statement said.

A bio on One Step Of Faith Ministries’ website said Curtis Keith Bankston is committed to “feeding the hungry,” “clothing the naked,” “housing the homeless” and “helping the brokenhearted find a way out through Christ.”

His attorney, Dexter Wimbish, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

But in a statement, Wimbish said police statements were “fraught with misinformation,” NBC affiliate WXIA of Atlanta reported.

“First, One Step of Faith 2nd Chance Ministries has not been operating a group home but a Christian Ministry that supplies room and board to individuals who have oftentimes been homeless or wards of the state,” Wimbish said.

“Everybody inside this home was here on their own free will, they were free to come and go as they please. No one was kept, held hostage,” Wimbish said. 

Wimbish admitted that the Bankstons did not have the necessary local license to operate the home, but said they would get it.

He said the Bankstons deny the residents were held against their will, and had repaired a faulty bolt lock on the basement door.

“You’re not talking about somebody profiting off of the backs of the poor, you’re talking about somebody who’s actually doing what God commanded us to do—go out into the byways and the highways, spread his message, and feed individuals and clothe individuals. He’s doing what his God has called him to do,” Wimbish said.

“We’re going to fight it with everything that we have,” Wimbish said of the charges. “There is no intention to have a plea. They have not done anything wrong. Their community is standing behind them. Their family’s standing behind them.”