‘These kids were so stressed’: Neighborhood action helped unmask alleged fraudulent charity

On a steaming hot summer afternoon in 2020, Paula Maddox and her husband were leaving the grocery store near their Roswell home when a child approached them carrying an oversized blue bin. The boy, who Maddox estimated was around 10 years old, showed the couple a laminated flyer for the Georgia Peach Youth Club of America and asked for a donation to the organization in exchange for a piece of candy.

The encounter set off alarm bells for Maddox.

“This little boy said he had been dropped off after breakfast and it was 1 p.m. and 96 degrees,” Maddox said. The child told her that his adult supervisors would be back that night to pick him up.

Maddox and her husband made a donation, but on the way home from the encounter, she repeated the organization’s name in her head so she could look it up. As she began researching the Georgia Peach Youth Club, she fell down a rabbit hole that became what she described as a temporary obsession.

ExploreCharity for at-risk youth funneled money directly to gang, Georgia AG says

On Aug. 10, 14 people connected to the Georgia Peach Youth Club were indicted on a variety of charges, including human trafficking, racketeering, criminal street gang activity, charity fraud and money laundering. The indictment included the CEO, CFO and secretary of the nonprofit organization.

GPYC representatives did not respond to inquiries from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The indictment was validation for Maddox who, along with her community, had begun a grassroots investigation nearly a year earlier.

Maddox said her first concern was for the child.

“I assumed he was a kid from the neighborhood and that his family might need help, so I posted about it on Nextdoor,” Maddox said.

Others started responding to say they’d seen other children with the same oversized blue bins asking for donations outside of stores. Some neighbors said children had come to their homes requesting donations.

An accountant by trade, Maddox said she was familiar with the world of nonprofits from both personal and professional experience. She started by looking up the GPYC organization through the Secretary of State’s Office, finding that it was registered as a nonprofit but not licensed as a charity. Then she broadened her search.

“When I looked up the term ‘youth club of America,’ that’s when a lot of other organizations came up,” Maddox said.

Credit: Georgia Peach Youth Club of American, Inc.

Credit: Georgia Peach Youth Club of American, Inc.

She found more than a handful of similar organizations, along with familiar online complaints and chatter questioning the legitimacy of the clubs. She also began to notice a pattern: Many of the other organizations were registered by the same people, some of whom are named in Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr’s recent indictment in Cherokee County.

Jamainne Hall was listed as one of the registered officers for GPYC as well as the Connecticut Youth Club of America. Aaron Abdullah was a registered agent for the defunct Peach State Youth Club as well as the Tennessee Youth Club. Maddox also found similar “youth club” organizations in Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Hall and Abdullah were named in the Aug. 10 indictment.

In October 2018, Hall and another man indicted in Georgia, Kavon Thompson, were arrested in Long Island, New York, on charges of child endangerment, ABC 7 Eyewitness News reported at the time. The two men were accused of dropping off eight children in Plainview to sell treats for the New York Youth Club and leaving them unattended and without the necessary cold-weather attire.

Earlier that same year, South Carolina Secretary of State Mark Hammond blocked an organization called the Carolina Youth Club from soliciting donations in the state, his office said in a news release. At the time, Hammond said the directors of the club operated similar organizations in several other states, including Georgia.

GPYC’s nonprofit registration history stretches back to 2015, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s records.

On its surface, GPYC had many of the trappings of a traditional charitable organization. It was registered with the Secretary of State’s Office, filed paperwork with the IRS and had a relatively up-to-date website and social media presence. However, it had not filed the paperwork to register as a charity, which is distinct from a nonprofit, according to Frances Watson, chief investigator for the Secretary of State’s Office.

To register as a charity in Georgia, organizing officers must submit much more detailed information about their background than they would for a nonprofit. Applicants must provide their employment history going back 10 years and the organization’s recent financial statements.

According to Maddox, GPYC’s web presence raised additional questions for her. As she researched the network of similarly named youth clubs, she noticed that many photos of children were recycled.

“It was like the same six kids in every picture,” she said.

As Maddox compiled research on the organizations online, she and her neighbors attempted to make contact with the children who continued to solicit donations in Roswell without adult supervision. Comparing it to “whack-a-mole,” Maddox said she and other neighbors would see posts about GPYC kids on Nextdoor and rush to their location to talk with them. Their efforts rarely resulted in gleaning useful information from the children.

Maddox said her neighbors often got the impression the children involved with GPYC were under pressure.

“These kids were so stressed,” she said.

Some of Maddox’s neighbors described children pleading with them for donations, worried that they’d be yelled at for not collecting enough money when they were picked up.

Maddox even spoke directly with Thompson, one of the men arrested in New York, after she saw him driving a group of children through her neighborhood in a van. She was taken aback by his openness about the expectations imposed on the children.

“He was telling me that they teach salesmanship and how to excel under pressure,” Maddox said. “But a 9-year-old doesn’t need to know how to make sales under pressure.”

Watson, the case’s lead investigator, said the Secretary of State’s Office quickly involved other state agencies in the case as they realized that GPYC’s practices could be in violation of labor and trafficking laws. Her team referred the case to the state’s multi-agency human trafficking task force.

“Using children to wheedle money from generous Georgians to finance gang activity is unforgivable,” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said in a news release. “I’m proud that the skills of our professional investigators sparked what became a multiagency crackdown and will mean protecting children and donors from a horrible scam.”

Officials did not say if the current indictment could lead to federal charges. No information has been released about the amount of money collected by GPYC, though IRS filings show the organization claimed less than $50,000 in receipts in three recent years.

A representative for the state Attorney General’s office would not say why the indictments were made in Cherokee. The office has not released additional information in the interest of protecting its prosecutorial strategy.

Of the 14 people indicted on Monday, Hall, Miguel J. Baez and Robert Peter Blackwood face the most serious charges. The three men, who are listed as the CEO, CFO and secretary of GPYC, respectively, are each charged with four counts of violating the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act, in addition to other charges.

Five people were charged with five counts of money laundering each: Jule W. Huston, who is listed as the organization’s registered agent; Ronald John Crowe; and Hall, Baez and Blackwood.

The remaining defendants include the previously mentioned Abdullah and Thompson, as well as Romaine Matthew Roberts, Kiya A. Jefferson, Dominique Provost, Kiva Viola Clarke, Isaiah Reuben Cordero, Nathan James Jackson and Raheem Icarus Popley Carvey.

All 14 defendants are facing charges of racketeering, charity fraud and four counts each of human trafficking.

For her part, Maddox is exhilarated that her research has fueled real-world results in the form of Monday’s indictment. She got a personalized email from Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, thanking her for her effort.

“He just said that what I’d sent them gave their team a great head start,” Maddox said.