Fatal Van Accident Leaves Driver, Church At Odds

Tampa Tribune/September 21, 2003
By Michelle Bearden and Michael Fechter

The blue van swerved once, then again, before turning a horrifying pair of somersaults down the embankment along Florida's Turnpike near Fort Pierce.

Small bodies flew from the windows as the van rolled from rooftop to tires, rooftop to tires.

The 1997 seven-passenger Dodge came to rest on its right side. Pinned beneath was 14-year-old Solomon Bostick of Tampa. The Williams Middle School student died; eight other children were injured.

There, certainties about that June 8 accident seem to end. The answers to questions about how it happened, why the children were traveling, even who owned the van are lost in a fog of contradictory accounts, accusations and denials. Among them:


  • Although only Deeper Life Christian Church members were packed into the van, their trip had nothing to do with the Tampa church.


  • The 10 or so children among the passengers were enjoying a beach getaway, but were also selling m&m's on street corners - for 10 to 12 hours a day - to raise money for the church.


  • The wife of the driver - who says she wasn't really his wife - claims the accident happened when "something grabbed him and was fighting him.''

    The last assertion emerged Aug. 19, when Deeper Life officials and their lawyer, Dennis G. Brewer Sr., publicly discussed the accident for the first time in response to a request from The Tampa Tribune and WFLA, News Channel 8.

    The trip wasn't church- sanctioned, said Bishop Melvin B. Jefferson, Deeper Life's founder, though the van was one of three that left together for South Florida a few days before. All carried church members.

    "First of all, we would never send anybody out with vans that wasn't suitable,'' Jefferson said.

    And the church didn't own the van, he added. "All our vans are white. ... I don't know who it was owned by.''

    The van's title was in the name of a Valrico car dealership. A representative of that company told the Tribune the vehicle had been sold to Asian Auto Finance in the Sulphur Springs neighborhood.

    "We sold the van to the church,'' said Asian Auto President Moe Fariad, referring to Deeper Life. He had sold other vans to Deeper Life as well, he said.

    True, Jefferson agreed, "but not that one.''

    The Latest Wreck

    The accident was the third deadly wreck since 1998 involving vans carrying Deeper Life members, according to Florida Highway Patrol records.

    Four people have been killed.

    Jamie Perez of Gainesville vividly remembers the June 8 crash. She and her husband, Wilfredo, traveling a few car lengths behind the Dodge van, saw it overturn, saw the children flying from the windows.

    The couple stopped and tried to help.

    "Every single little person - something was wrong with them,'' Perez said.

    She and her husband moved from one screaming and bloodied child to the next, trying to comfort them. She asked a little boy where they had been.

    "He said they were out getting donations,'' she said.

    The van's driver, Abdoulaye Diakhate, said the same to the Tribune.

    Along with its 15 or so passengers, the van carried a large quantity of m&m's, so much that highway patrol investigators were puzzled.

    Former church members say Deeper Life relies heavily on street corner solicitations and candy sales, sending children as young as 4 out for money to "feed the homeless.''

    Diakhate, who had been driving on a suspended license, told the Tribune his account of the trip in an article published June 26. At the time of the interview, he lived in church-owned housing. He was immediately evicted. His wife, Cheryl Diakhate, stayed behind.

    A 'Strange' Thing

    The day the church opened its doors to the Tribune and WFLA, Deeper Life's lawyer asked the woman to step forward. She was in the van when it rolled off the turnpike and could give an eyewitness account.

    She sat between the lawyer and the bishop and said she no longer considers herself married to Diakhate and now goes by the name Cheryl Rich.

    Brewer, the attorney, refused to let reporters question Rich and said he would interview her instead.

    Recalling that Diakhate had a suspended license, Rich said Jefferson and a church pastor had told him not to drive. She spoke slowly, her words measured, her eyes downcast.

    "Now, would you tell us how it is that Abdoul operated the vehicle?'' Brewer asked. "Was it in a normal and safe manner do you think, or was there something strange about what happened that day?''

    "Yeah, it was strange,'' Rich said.

    "How was it strange?''

    "He was very edgy, very irritable,'' Rich said.

    "Did he tell you about feeling like someone was taking over his hands?'' Brewer pressed.

    "Yes he did,'' Rich answered. "He said while he was driving that something grabbed him and was fighting him with the wheel.''

    Diakhate, who has said he has no memory of the accident, reacted with disbelief to Rich's remarks.

    "All lies!'' he said.

    The accident remains under investigation. No charges have been filed, although the highway patrol has submitted its report to St. Lucie County prosecutors.

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