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Georgia pastor and wife sue police chief: ‘Viral’ allegations of homeless imprisonment at unlicensed group home were ‘libelous’

Booking photos of Curtis Keith Bankston and Sophia Simm-Bankston.

Curtis Keith Bankston and Sophia Simm-Bankston, pictured in a Spalding County Sheriff’s Office mugshots

A Georgia couple has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Griffin, the Griffin Police Department and its police chief more than a year after the pastor and his wife were arrested and charged with falsely imprisoning people at an unlicensed group home.

The civil lawsuit asserted that defendants, including Griffin Police Chief Michael Yates, violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment rights of Rev. Curtis Bankston and Sophia Bankston and damaged plaintiffs’ reputations by launching an “unfounded campaign of public disparagement accompanied by the deprivation of Plaintiffs’ property rights.”

When the allegations against the Bankstons were made public, police alleged that investigators found eight people between the ages of 25 and 65 living at an unlicensed group home in a leased space after learning that someone there was having a seizure. The couple, described by police as purported caretakers, were accused of falsely imprisoning mentally ill or physically disabled people in the basement of the property and taking control of their “finances, medication, and public benefits.”

“The ‘caretakers’ have been leasing this property for approximately fourteen months, using the basement as a personal care home for the individuals, which essentially imprisoned them against their will, which created an extreme hazard as the individuals could not exit the residence if there were an emergency,” the police department said at the time. “It was further determined that most, if not all, of the individuals residing in the basement were mentally and/or physically disabled.”

Cops further referred to Curtis Bankston as an individual who “claims to be a ‘Pastor.”

Just as quickly as authorities made those allegations, however, defense attorney Dexter Wimbish attempted to dispel them. The attorney said that his client has served as a pastor for more than 30 years and was merely helping the needy.

“At no time was anybody held against their will,” attorney Dexter Wimbish, according to The Atlanta-Journal Constitution. “There was no kidnapping. 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 also said that authorities had effectively taken charity for the homeless and criminalized it as a “zoning issue.”

“That is poor judgment,” Wimbish reportedly added. “It is unfortunate. It is likely a violation of a local ordinance, but it is not kidnapping, and it’s not false imprisonment. And that’s what the narrative is.”

Federal court records reviewed by Law&Crime show that the attorney filed the civil lawsuit in mid-January; summonses were issued in the first two weeks of February.

In the filing, Wimbish suggested that his clients still have not been indicted more than a year later because the case is baseless and the allegations are fundamentally “untrue.”

“Following the arrest, Police Chief Michael Yates issued a press statement outlining the charges and made untrue accusations accusing the Plaintiffs of falsely imprisoning residents of the home,” the filing said. “In addition, Chief Michael Yates questioned the authenticity of the ministerial status of Pastor Curtis Bankston.”

“In addition, false allegations were made that the Defendants were managing the finances of the individuals residing in the residence,” the plaintiff continued. “The statements by Griffin Police Chief Michael Yates were defamatory and the press release was libelous.”

The Bankstons have sought a jury trial in the civil case, arguing that the damage done to their reputations and personal lives has been far-reaching and painful:

Due to the malicious prosecution the mother of Defendant Sophia Bankston was forcibly removed from the Defendants who were her primary caregivers.

Defendants mother and mother law [sic] subsequently died causing extreme mental anguish for the Defendants.

Plaintiffs alleged that defendants deprived them of their rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and caused reputational injury through “false arrest” and “malicious prosecution. The couple accused Police Chief Yates, in his individual capacity, of violating state defamation law and committing libel against them.

“The press release went viral,” plaintiffs noted.

In a parting shot, the lawsuit accused Yates of making those claims to “cover up that the City of Griffin had arrested a pastor for trying to help people who were homeless”:

Defendant Yates published each of these false, defamatory, and damaging statements about the Defendants. The statements went viral with more than 10 million views on the internet and painted Rev. Curtis Bankston and Sophia Bankston as monsters who had eight people locked up in a dark basement.

The publication of these false and defamatory statements was designed to injure the Defendants personal reputation and professional trade. As such, these statements were damaging per se.

Defendant Yates has not offered a retraction of the defamatory statements about Plaintiffs.

Defendant Yates acted with malice and with a reckless disregard for known consequences and is therefore subject to an assessment of punitive damages. Defendant Yates acted with a specific intent to harm the Plaintiffs.

The Office of the City Manager told Law&Crime it was unable to comment on pending litigation. Law&Crime also reached out to Wimbish for comment.

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.