Crash That Killed Church Member Unexplained

Tampa Tribune/September 20, 2003
By Keith Morelli

Tampa -- The crash of a minivan this week that killed a 14-year-old boy and injured eight other members of Deeper Life Ministries has raised questions about the circumstances leading up to the fatality.

Fifteen passengers, including eight children, were packed into a van built to carry seven. The driver, a "youth pastor in training,'' according to church officials, did not have a valid driver's license. And it is still not clear whether the members were on a church-sponsored excursion or who was supervising the children.

The crash Sunday on Florida's Turnpike near Fort Pierce was not the first fatal wreck involving members of Deeper Life Ministries.

In June 1998, a 1976 Ford van owned by the church crashed and overturned on Interstate 95 south of Duval County after a tire blew out. One person was killed, and nine were injured.

Pamela Reynolds, a church spokeswoman, told the St. Petersburg Times that last week's trip was "an end-of-year school trip'' and not a "church-authorized function.'' Some of the passengers told homicide investigators they were returning to Tampa after spending three days at a beachside Holiday Inn in Fort Lauderdale.

But Florine Bostick, the mother of the dead teenager, said Monday night that her son was with the group on church business. She declined to elaborate.

In the past, the church has raised money through the sale of candy at intersections and shopping malls. Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Pat Santangelo said Tuesday there was "a large amount of m&m's'' found in the van after the crash, which "seemed odd.''

"There were boxes and boxes,'' Santangelo said.

'There Will Be No More Statements'

Several church members contacted Tuesday said they had been instructed by church officials not to make public comments. In response to calls to the church, a man identifying himself as "Brother White'' told a reporter that "there will be no more statements issued to the press about the incident at this time.''

The 1997 Dodge minivan that crashed Sunday afternoon was registered to a leasing company, Santangelo said, but a state records check of the tag number came up empty.

Abdoulaye Diakhate, 45, the driver, did not have a valid license, Santangelo said.

State records show that after a crash in 1998, Diakhate's license was suspended indefinitely.

State records also show he was arrested in Jacksonville in 1998 and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia. He pleaded no contest, and adjudication was withheld. He spent one day in jail on the misdemeanor charge, records show.

Diakhate was arrested in Hillsborough County two months ago on a warrant issued after he failed to appear in court on a charge of roadside solicitation, records show. The disposition of the case was unavailable Tuesday afternoon. Diakhate was released after posting a $63 bail, jail records show.

Diakhate, who gave the Deeper Life Ministries' Nebraska Avenue address as his home address, was not seriously injured, but 14-year-old Solomon Bostick was killed in Sunday's crash.

Troopers wanted to arrest Diakhate after the crash for the suspended license, but a prosecutor who came to the scene recommended waiting to verify the license was suspended. Charges are pending.

Troopers obtained a blood sample from Diakhate to see whether there was alcohol in his system, but those tests won't be completed for a couple of weeks, Santangelo said.

"We don't suspect DUI,'' Santangelo said, "but we took it anyway.''

Diakhate could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Church Convicted Of Felony, Fined

Deeper Life Ministries in Tampa is no stranger to controversy.

The church's leader, Melvin Jefferson, and five other pastors were charged in a food stamp fraud case four years ago in which court probationers who were sent to the church to do community service handed over food stamps in exchange for the church's saying the probationers were there when they weren't.

Charges against Jefferson and one of his pastors were dropped. The other pastors pleaded guilty, three to food stamp fraud and one to dealing in stolen property. Each was placed on three years' probation.

The church, as a corporation, was convicted of a felony arising from the scheme and ordered to pay $28,000 in fines and investigative costs.

The church's mission, officials have said, is to help down-and-outters - homeless people, prostitutes, drug addicts - by turning them into evangelists. But in Tampa and other cities where Deeper Life operates, its practice of raising money by putting solicitors with buckets, including children, on street corners has drawn complaints and legal action. The church's center in Tampa is at 3300 N. Nebraska Ave.

Jefferson lives in Brandon in a home valued at $445,000 in 2001. Nearly a dozen vehicles are registered to his Hidden Lake address. Records show the church owns dozens of properties, including homes, small businesses and churches. More than 40 vehicles are registered to Tampa's Deeper Life, including a 2002 Cadillac, 2002 Lincoln and two late-model Mercedes-Benzes.

Solomon's funeral will be at 11 a.m. today at the Nebraska Avenue church.

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