The Ludowici pastor at the center of a storm after his facilities were raided Wednesday night by agents from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Agency defended his school Thursday and acknowledged there were defects in the students' living quarters.
Faith Baptist Church Pastor Terry Sellars said in an interview Thursday that the Faith Baptist Christian Academy gym, which served as living quarters for the school’s 30 students, could have been better.
Sellars said he was aware there were things that needed to be fixed and was in the process of fixing them.
An inspection conducted Wednesday evening by Long County Fire Department Deputy Chief Shawn Smith revealed electrical sockets hanging from the wall, overloaded electrical extension cords, exit signs that were not illuminated, no smoke detectors and an alarm system that did not work. Based on his findings, Smith ordered the gym to be shut down until the necessary repairs were made.
Sellars said that until the repairs are made, the students will have to be relocated. With the assistance of Long County Emergency Management Director Bob Heffley, the students were placed in a Red Cross shelter at Cavalry Baptist Church, not far from the school. Heffley said that working with the Department of Family and Children Services, minor children were placed in foster homes while the students ages 18 through 22 where housed at Calvary.
Sellars said he is working on fixing the problems in the gym to return the students.
As to why the school was targeted by federal officials for criminal activity, Sellars believes it stems from a case of mistaken identity. Four students whose deplorable living conditions came to light while attending Lake Wales High School in Polk County, Florida, told authorities that they had come from a school in Gainesville, Georgia, called Faith Baptist Christian Academy North, which they said had even worse conditions.
According to a report from Fox 13 from Tampa, Florida, Lake Wales officials said coach Randy Lee helped bring four international students there from Faith Baptist Christian Academy North.
The Lake Wales students said they were issued F-1 visas to attend Faith Baptist Christian Academy in Ludowici, but they said when they got to the states, they were taken to the Faith Baptist Christian Academy North campus in Gainesville.
That campus was run by a man named George Flint, according to the boys. Flint has not returned requests for comment.
Also on Wednesday, investigators were at the foster home where the Lake Wales students are staying.
Three of the teens are from Cameroon, and one is from Serbia.
The teens came to America on what they thought was a full scholarship to play basketball and attend high school. In an interview with Fox 13's Hetal Gandhi, they described their living conditions while they were in Gainesville.
"The house was crowded. It was 20 people in the house and we were—half of us were sleeping on the floor, and it was in a basement. It was rough,” said the Serbian student, Stefan Nakic. “But then we moved to apartments, which are nearby the house. It was in a kind of… gang neighborhood. So, it was rough and that was the coldest period in Georgia, and we didn't have any heating or electricity. …”
"Georgia was like, it was really hard. It was not a good situation at all,” one of the Cameroonian students, Franck Tsoungui, added. “I mean, I remember for the first maybe two months I got there, we were sleeping on the floor in a room with like five other people. It was pretty hard, but life is not always easy. You have to go through some things before you get to where you want."
Lake Wales school officials described the conditions that the boys were living in when they first got to Florida as “deplorable," but the teens said it was much better than the conditions in Georgia.
Of Wednesday's raid, federal agents would only say that the case involved a criminal investigation.
The Polk County Sheriff's Office began a criminal investigation into the case following the Lake Wales coach's resignation earlier this month.
Sellars said he has yet to understand the criminality point of the raid of his school.
“Unless under my watch as the pastor and administrator in their mind the kids were in deplorable conditions, I do not think that's so,” he said. “What they were describing as being deplorable was in the north Georgia location. Deplorable and egregious is not here; we have nothing to do with those people.”
Sellars said he had sent a letter to the Gainesville facility asking it to cease and desist in using the Faith Baptist Christian Academy name. He was unable to show the letter because his computer and files were confiscated by the agents.
Sellars hopes his school’s name will be cleared once the report is finalized.
“We feed them, we take care of them, and we love them,” he said. “These kids have not been mistreated in any way.”