Lawsuit Says Tuscaloosa Church Abandoned Boys Who Were Jailed on Bogus Charges in Florida
An explosive lawsuit filed in Tuscaloosa County earlier this month claims an area church abandoned two boys who were falsely accused of sexual battery in a Florida jail last summer.
The suit was filed by two Tuscaloosa mothers, Melody Stephens and Aimee McKnight, whose juvenile sons traveled to Panama City Beach in early June 2021 on a youth trip with Taylorville Baptist Church.
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."
Later that day, a youth minister with the church told the two boys that some of the other members of the group felt uncomfortable with the "horseplay" that took place. The duo reportedly acknowledged the complaint and agreed to not engage in any more "roughhousing" on the trip.
That wasn't enough for one chaperone, though -- the lawsuit claims that Keith Fair, a deputy with the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office was with his child on the trip and was not acting in a law enforcement capacity there.
According to the suit, Fair "conducted his own 'private investigation' of the matter and ultimately concluded on his own that the conduct engaged in by [the boys] was inappropriate and illegal."
Fair reportedly spoke to a number of the other children who were on the beach that day and asked if they had been touched inappropriately or penetrated in any way during the "horseplay."
The lawsuit claims Fair "coerced" children to "make false allegations" against the two older boys.
Fair also allegedly punched and pinched one of the two older boys during a confrontation that the complaint called the "intentional, malicious and unprovoked" assault and battery of a juvenile.
Eventually, Fair sought help from local law enforcement and Florida investigators held informal interviews with some of the Tuscaloosa teens who were on the beach that day. They ultimately arrested the two older boys and both were charged with felony sexual battery.
Perhaps most shockingly, the lawsuit claims no one at Taylorville Baptist Church ever contacted Stephens, McKnight or the fathers of the older boys, even after they were arrested, and that eventually, the entire group returned to Tuscaloosa 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."
When the rest of the group returned, Fair allegedly held a meeting back at Taylorville Baptist Church and told the parents of the other youth on the trip that the older boys were "child rapists" and "sexual predators."
Things began to unravel, though, when investigators in Florida followed up with interviews under oath about what happened on the beach that day.
"Contrary to the informal statements given by certain of these minor children to the Bay County Sheriff's Office, every single alleged victim who testified denied that they had been penetrated in any fashion by [the older boys]," the lawsuit claims. "Ultimately and primarily based upon the fact that none of the minor children supported the allegations elicited and coerced by Fair when they were placed under oath and had to testify, felony charges against [the boys] were dismissed."
The boys' mothers, Stephens and McKnight, are suing both Taylorville Baptist Church and Fair, the off-duty deputy who was acting as a chaperone on the trip.
"The actions of the defendants which resulted in felony sex charges wrongfully being brought against [the boys] resulted in extremely serious financial, psychological, emotional, and other damages," the mothers said in their complaint. "At all times, Defendant Taylorville Baptist Church and its ministers/agents/employees had an obligation to protect all of the children from the malicious and false allegations elicited by Fair and the minor children he coerced into making statements to the [Bay County] Sheriff's Department."
The four-count lawsuit accuses the church and the deputy of negligence, malicious prosecution, slander and assault and battery.
The parents are seeking compensatory and punitive damages to be determined by a jury for the suffering the boys and their families have endured since the trip last summer.
The case, filed on July 7th, will be heard by Tuscaloosa County Circuit Judge Jim Roberts.
The plaintiffs are being represented by Birmingham attorney Perry Shuttlesworth, Jr. The church has retained the services of Tuscaloosa's Paul Patterson.
Patterson provided the Tuscaloosa Thread with a statement from Taylorville Baptist Church Tuesday morning.
"The church has received a lawsuit that named them as a defendant and a chaperone, Mr. Keith Fair, as a co-defendant. 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. "My office has conducted its own internal investigation into this matter and we will be responding in the next few weeks. Taylorville Baptist Church is a wonderful church that took all the facts of what occurred in public at the pool and at the beach, and they addressed the behavior immediately upon learning of it. 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."
UPDATE, 9 P.M. MONDAY: Patterson has provided another statement on behalf of the church:
"It's important to note that church officials contacted the parents of these young men as soon as they were taken into custody. The parents were told to come to Florida immediately to assist in efforts to gain the release of the youth involved. 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 anytime."
EDITOR'S NOTES: The names of the mothers and plaintiffs in this case are being published with their consent.
A spokesperson for the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office confirmed Fair was a deputy at the time of the trip and remains in that role, but because he is being sued as an individual and not in his capacity as a law enforcement officer, TCSO did not comment on the case further.
Deputy Fair will be represented by a third attorney, but court records did not indicate who will serve in that role and no direct contact information for Fair was available at the time of this report's publication.