“At no time was anybody held against their will. There was no kidnapping,” Wimbish said. “There is no fraud here. This is simply a Christian man who was following his calling to help those who are in need. We cannot sit by and allow ministry to be attacked.”
The attorney and supporters spoke as Bankston’s wife was being booked into the Spalding County jail. Sophia Simm-Bankston, 56, was arrested Thursday morning in connection with the group home operation. She also faces a charge of false imprisonment.
According to police, the Bankstons held at least eight disabled patients against their will in an unlicensed group home they operated out of the basement of a house they leased along Valley Road. Investigators said the couple disguised it as a faith-based ministry of Curtis Bankston’s church, One Step of Faith 2nd Chance. They acted as “caretakers” and used a deadbolt to lock the patients in the basement during certain parts of each day, according to police.
Authorities alleged Bankston and his wife also controlled the victims’ finances, medications and public aid they received. The investigators said the disabled victims were often denied their medications and medical care.
Yet Wimbish called it a “zoning issue that has become criminalized” while speaking to reporters. He said the residents were fed three times each day, and told reporters he had checks to prove many of them had conservators controlling their finances that paid money directly to Bankston’s church for room and board.
Attorneys said Bankston registered the program with the state, but failed to get it licensed in compliance with local ordinances. Georgia Secretary of State records confirm Bankston registered the 2nd Chance Program as a nonprofit in August 2020 that offers room, boarding and food accommodations. Simm-Bankston was listed as the organization’s secretary.
The group home came under suspicion when EMS workers and Griffin firefighters responded to the residence early the morning of Jan. 13 to treat a resident having a seizure. Authorities said the first responders had to climb through a window to access the patient because the basement door was double-key locked.
According to Wimbish, the basement doors were locked at 8 p.m. each night as a security measure to keep mentally challenged residents from wandering away from the premises. The one resident who did have a key to unlock the basement was not at the group home the morning paramedics responded.
“That is poor judgment, it is unfortunate, it is likely a violation of a local ordinance,” Wimbish said. “But it is not kidnapping, and it’s not false imprisonment. And that’s what the narrative is.”
A police spokesperson did not respond when asked to comment on Thursday’s news conference, but the department posted on Facebook that the residents were between the ages of 25 and 65 and suffered from mental and physical disabilities. “Those that were wards of the state or willing to move have been placed in care homes,” according to the statement.
Bankston didn’t speak during the news conference. Wimbish said he advised the suspect, who remains under investigation, not to make a public statement because it can be used against him in court.
Several local church leaders spoke on behalf of Bankston and his wife, telling reporters they routinely fed the homeless, the poor and hungry members of the community in addition to running the shelter for disabled residents.
Some supporters said police subtly questioned Bankston’s his role as a religious figure. The Griffin Police Department’s news release said he claims to be a “pastor.”
Curtis Carter, pastor of 1st True Faith Deliverance Church in Decatur, said he’s known Bankston for more than 30 years and he has always focused on helping people in need.
“For me to hear the allegations against him, it disturbed my spirit because he’s worked with my church, he’s worked in my community and his character is beautiful,” Carter said. “He’s not a so-called pastor or so-called preacher. He is a man of God.”
Griffin police are asking anyone whose family member has been involved with the Bankstons to contact investigators at 770-229-6450, ext. 544 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.