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Alabama church named in lawsuit involving teens’ arrest in Florida

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (BP) — A lawsuit filed in Tuscaloosa County on July 7 alleges leaders of a church trip to the beach abandoned two boys who were accused but later cleared of sexual battery charges.

The suit was filed by mothers Melody Stephens and Aimee McKnight, whose juvenile sons traveled to Panama City Beach in June 2021 with a youth group from Taylorville Baptist Church.

The suit claims Keith Fair, a deputy with the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office who was on the trip with his child, punched and pinched one of the boys during a confrontation. The suit further claims Fair, who was not acting in a law enforcement capacity on the trip, conducted his own investigation after an incident involving what the suit labels “horseplay.”

According to the complaint, the boys, who are in their late teens, were playing with other youth from the church on the beach, including “lifting up certain other minor children by their arms and buttocks area and throwing them into the air where they would fall back into the water.”

Fair sought help from local law enforcement, and Florida investigators arrested the two older boys and charged them with felony sexual battery. The suit claims the church failed to contact the boys’ parents and left Florida without them.

“None of the parents for Plaintiffs were contacted or apprised of any of the events which had transpired,” according to the lawsuit. “Rather, the parents of [the boys] had to use GPS in order to locate their sons and determine that they had been retained and placed in the Bay County, Florida Jail facility.”

Investigators in Florida later cleared the boys of wrongdoing and dropped the charges against them.

The four-count lawsuit accuses the church and Fair of negligence, malicious prosecution, slander and assault and battery. The parents are seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

In a statement to local media, an attorney for the church, Paul Patterson, said the church was “not aware of the allegations in the complaint against Keith Fair until all the kids had already returned from the beach.”

Patterson said “church representatives concluded that the behavior did not warrant law enforcement investigation, however Mr. Fair, who was chaperoning as a parent, alerted the Bay County Sheriff’s Office to the matter and an investigation ensued.”

In the statement, Patterson denied claims the church did not contact the boys’ parents.

“The parents were told to come to Florida immediately to assist in efforts to gain the release of the youth involved,” he said. “Bay County law enforcement officers would not allow the church officials to contact parents while the youth were being detained and interrogated. These children were not abandoned by church officials at any time.”

This story first appeared on The Alabama Baptist.

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