3 convicted for child abuse at religious Alabama private school
It was a case that almost didn't make it to trial.
"Everybody, from Alabama, Maine, Dallas, Houston, New York - it was a herculean task and it took a lot of people at the DA's office working hard to make it happen," said Keith Blackwood, Mobile County assistant district attorney, "to make sure I had what I needed to prove my case."
In the end, three leaders of a religious Alabama bootcamp for troubled teens were convicted on multiple counts of aggravated child abuse for what they did to the children in their care.
The convictions were thanks in large part to the testimony of five former students, who told the court about the physical and mental abuse they suffered at the school.
Despite multiple investigations by the Mobile County DA's office, local law enforcement and the Alabama Department of Human Resources, it took officials five years to close down the school and another seven months to arrest the employees accused of the worst of the abuse.
On Jan. 13, 55-year-old pastor John David Young was convicted on five counts of aggravated child abuse at the Saving Youth Foundation, a bootcamp-style residential school in Mobile for troubled teens that was associated with Young's Solid Rock Ministries church.
Two other school leaders, boys' instructor William Knott, 48, and girls' instructor Aleshia Moffett, 42, were convicted on three counts each of aggravated child abuse. None of the attorneys for Young, Knott or Moffett have returned AL.com's calls or emails asking for comment.
Punishment and abuse
The prosecution built its case around specific instances of abuse involving isolation, handcuffs, and excessive exercise.
"We were able to put in front of the jury a lot of good testimony and evidence about what these people were doing to these teenagers at the Saving Youth Foundation," said Blackwood.
"The jury got to hear about the isolation chambers, kids being put in restraints for punishment and transport, and the excessive physical training over several hours with no breaks."
AL.com previously reported stories shared by former students about their experiences at the Saving Youth Foundation and its predecessor camp, the Restoration Youth Academy, also run by Young and Knott. Students talked about being locked in isolation cells for weeks at a time, with little or no clothing, a single bulb burning overhead day and night.
They shared stories of other students being handcuffed to beds as punishment, and being forced to exercise outdoors in the south Alabama heat for hours.
The five former students who testified at trial, now young adults, were all from out of state. Some have substance abuse problems, some have mental health disorders.
Some of their fellow students who were originally going to testify found the idea of a trial too much to take.
"When two of (our potential witnesses) heard about the trial," said Blackwood, "they made suicide attempts and had to be hospitalized." He had to drop the charges associated with those students. "One of them was in basic training with the Army. He had a total PTSD reaction and had to be put on suicide watch."
The DA's office had indictments for three more witnesses who disappeared; their families aren't sure where they are, he said.
"One of our witnesses who did end up testifying, when she found out the trial was going to take place a couple of months ago, she went on a heroin bender and almost overdosed," said Blackwood. "She was actually incarcerated, and we had to have two of our investigators fly up (to the state where she lives) and bring her back in custody so she could testify."
State law loophole
The Saving Youth Foundation operated without license or regulation of any kind because Alabama laws allow church schools to operate without regulation or oversight. State law does not require church-affiliated schools to file any registration papers to let the state know they exist, how many students they have or who is teaching them.
Young originally opened a similar church-affiliated boot camp for troubled teens in Pritchard, Ala., called Restoration Youth Academy. Despite occasional investigation by local law enforcement, Young only closed the school in 2012 after being ordered to pay $27,000 in back rent to the city.
Within weeks, he reopened in Mobile, renaming the school and operating it under his church, Solid Rock Ministries. An investigation by the Mobile Press-Register in 2012 found that multiple school employees had criminal records.
Police raided Saving Youth Foundation in March 2015. Alabama DHR removed 36 children from two campuses - one for boys, one for girls - following allegations of child abuse and deplorable living conditions.
While Alabama does have a few basic reporting requirements for private schools, it exempts those that are church schools in every instance. Teachers don't have to undergo background checks and schools don't have to be inspected.
Blackwood said recruiting students from out of state is part of the reason these kinds of schools can operate without investigation. It's difficult for out-of-state parents to have a clear understanding of how their kids are being treated. If the schools are shut down, it can be an uphill battle to convict operators because prosecutors have to build a case around testimony from the students that are willing and able to come back to the state to testify.
"These schools pop up all over the country and it's the same sorts of people running them," said Blackwood. "They'll open them as a quote 'religious school,' and there's no licensing requirement in Alabama for them.
"Their M.O. is to advertise themselves as something they're not," he said. "The Saving Youth Foundation had a very sophisticated website where they advertised they had a full-time therapist on staff, full-time teachers.
"Of course they had none of that. Their teacher was the janitor, and there was no therapy, period."
Blackwood told the jury that Young and his staff defrauded parents, charging them $20,000 a year for tuition. The staff supervised all communication in and out of the school so the children couldn't tell their parents what was happening. If they did, they were punished.
"That's what it's all about, keeping them here and cashing their checks," said Blackwood. "They were bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year keeping these kids down here. That's a lot harder to do if you have local parents able to get in there and visit the facility."
During the trial, Knott was caught tampering with one of the witnesses. The young man, from Texas, was at the school for years and is still friendly with Knott. Blackwood said after the school was shut down and the boy turned 18, he went back to live with Knott: "Very often the abused will start to identify with their abusers."
One day during the trial, on a lunch break Knott called the former student and told him to water down his testimony.
"I think (the former student's) exact words were that William Knott called him to tell him to say the restraints never happened, the isolation never happened," said Blackwood. The student took the stand and minimized the testimony he had originally given police, making the abuse sound less serious.
When the prosecution learned of Knott's call, they "got to the bottom of it, and the witness ended up testifying again and was truthful," said Blackwood.
He said the witnesses have since said "it was very liberating for them to be able to come here and finally tell their story," he said. "From what I've heard back, actually being able to testify and bring justice was a positive experience for them."
Sentencing for Young, Knott and Moffett is scheduled for Feb. 22. Aggravated child abuse is a Class B felony and comes with a sentencing range of 2-20 years per count.
"It took a lot of people, a lot of resources for us to do this, and the jury did the right thing in sending the message we're not going to tolerate a fake school like this in Mobile County," said Blackwood. "We're not going to tolerate people hiding behind a church or anything else in order to abuse kids."