Driver Challenges Deeper Life Church In Deadly Crash

Tampa Tribune/September 20, 2003
By Michelle Bearden

Tampa -- The driver of an overloaded van that crashed this month, leaving one child dead and eight others injured, is disputing an assertion by the Deeper Life Christian Church that the trip to South Florida was not a church-authorized function.

Further, driver Abdoulaye Diakhate said, the church tried several times to have him sign a waiver absolving Deeper Life of responsibility for the trip. He declined.

"The truth is, we went down there to collect donations for the church,'' Diakhate, 45, said Wednesday. "They were very aware of what we were doing. And now they're trying to hang me out to dry and make me take the blame.''

Diakhate, who lives on church-owned property and works for the ministry, said his decision to speak out and hire an attorney, Sami Thalji of Taracks & Associates in Tampa, will likely end his relationship with the church on Nebraska Avenue.

But he said his conscience would not allow him to remain silent.

Pamela Reynolds, a church spokeswoman, said she stood by a previous statement that the excursion was an "end-of-year school trip'' and not a church function. When told Wednesday that a church member was providing a different account, she said, "I've already told you I'm not going to comment on this anymore.''

Patrol Report May Prompt Charges

Diakhate faces the possibility of charges in the accident June 8 on Florida's Turnpike near Fort Pierce, which claimed the life of 14-year-old Solomon Bostick, a student at Williams Middle School. Diakhate's license had been suspended after a crash in 1998 when he failed to pay court-ordered fines in St. John's County.

A spokeswoman at the St. Lucie State Attorney's Office said prosecutors are waiting for the Florida Highway Patrol to release its report on the Fort Pierce crash before deciding whether to file charges against Diakhate.

According to Diakhate, he and several other adults took a few dozen children from the church in three vans to sell candy June 5 through 7 at intersections in South Florida. He said the children, ages 7 to 14, typically work 12-hour days soliciting donations to raise funds. Many of the children live with their families in homes owned by Deeper Life.

Diakhate said the group worked from about noon to past midnight, staying the first night in a Miami hotel and the next two nights in a Fort Lauderdale Holiday Inn near the beach. Hotel managers contacted by the Tribune said they either had no records of the group's reservations or would not release such information on guests because of privacy policies.

According to state records, Deeper Life is registered as a nonprofit business. Fort Lauderdale requires solicitors to have city permits, but the city did not have records showing that Deeper Life had received a permit those days.

Diakhate said another one of the adult supervisors from the church told him at the end of the trip that he would stay behind with one of the vans. The supervisor, Diakhate said, instructed him to take both vans' passengers back to Tampa in a single van.

The two men argued, Diakhate recalled.

"I told him it would not be safe,'' he said. "But this is what he ordered me to do. He personally put the kids in there, packing them in like sardines.''

Diakhate said the crash happened a few hours later, with 16 passengers - 11 children and five adults - in a seven-seat 1997 Dodge minivan. According to the police report, Diakhate drifted onto the grass median. When he turned the steering wheel sharply to get back on the roadway, the van overturned several times.

By the time it came to rest, nearly all the passengers had been thrown from the van.

M&M's In Van 'Seemed Odd'

Bostick died at the scene, pinned under the vehicle on the passenger side. Only Diakhate, who suffered minor injuries and was treated at the hospital and released, was wearing a seat belt.

"He was a great kid,'' Diakhate said of the teenager, "a very well-mannered child.''

According to highway patrol Lt. Pat Santangelo, officers found a "large amount of M&M's'' candy in the van after the crash, which "seemed odd.''

"There were boxes and boxes,'' he told the Tribune.

One former and one current church member told the Tribune that taking children on trips to collect donations is routine practice for the church, which caters to the homeless, addicts, prostitutes and troubled people.

Deeper Life was convicted of trafficking in food stamps and dealing in stolen property in 1999. Sheriff's investigators charged that the church had laundered up to $20,000 a month in illegally obtained food stamps through meat markets and delis it owns. The church was ordered to pay $28,000 in fines and investigative costs.

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