FBI raids Augusta church and 2 others: What we know
AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Authorities are keeping a tight lid on information about a raid Thursday at an Augusta church. But there are a lot of things we do know about it.
Why was the church raided?
FBI spokeswoman Jenna Sellitto confirmed the raid at the Assembly of Prayer church was for a search warrant.
She said no arrests were made but wouldn’t give further details.
A separate FBI staff member directed us to the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General to learn more about the investigation.
That office wouldn’t confirm or deny an investigation.
Were any other locations raided?
The FBI served the search warrant at the Assembly of Prayer church on Old Tobacco Road just outside Gate 5 of Fort Gordon.
At the same time, the agency served search warrants at a sister church, the House of Prayer, near Hinesville in the Savannah area. The FBI confirmed the raids were connected.
The FBI confirmed those two raids were connected.
In Georgia, FBI spokeswoman Jenna Sellitto said: “I can confirm that the FBI is on scene executing a court-authorized search warrant. No arrests have been made. Our investigation is ongoing, so I cannot provide further details at this time.”
Also Thursday, the FBI conducted a similar operation at the Assembly of Prayer Christian Church at 1013 Massey Street in North Killeen, Texas.
“I can confirm the FBI was executing court-authorized law enforcement activity today in the vicinity of the intersection of Massey St. and E. Rancier Ave., in Killeen, Texas. No additional information will be released at this time,” FBI Special Agent Carmen Portillo said in an emailed statement.
All three churches are in communities with military installations – the Augusta location near Fort Gordon, the Hinesville location near Fort Stewart, and the Texas location near Fort Hood.
There was zero activity Thursday at a storefront location the church also has at 3025 Milledgeville Road in Augusta.
What is the church?
In Augusta, the church says it’s a ministry to Fort Gordon.
A Fort Gordon spokeswoman said it was aware of the organization “through our law enforcement channels” but the post had no bans against the organization or any official dealings with it.
Critics of the organization have called it a cult that targets members of the military.
When we called the Augusta church, the person answering the phone said it had no comment.
Despite the raid in Augusta, people were there in the evening for Thursday services.
Who are these critics?
The House of Prayer Christian Church in Hinesville has been the focus of protests. In 2017, ex-members alleged abuse, and members of the crowd shouted insults directed at the church leader and shared stories of how the church separated their families.
Some protesters expressed their belief that the church is a cult.
Many of the protesters identified themselves as part of a group of former church members and ministers.
The Coastal Courier has reported extensively on criticism of the Hinesville church, and there are many posts and allegations about the church on a forum of the Cult Education Institute website and at the website http://www.hopcc.com.
Two years before the FBI came knocking on the door, a nonprofit for veterans tried to sound an alarm.
The organization ‘Veterans Education Success’ alleged House of Prayer locations around the country were defrauding vets of GI Bill money.
According to the VA website, the House of Prayer provides seminary schooling.
“In some cases, courses were lengthened to allow students to stay there for a longer time so that the school could continue to collect their valuable GI bill benefits. It’s quite unclear what they were delivering in terms of value,” said William Hubbard, VP of Veterans and Military Policy.
The churches are on an approved list of schools from the VA.
In the last calendar year, the Hephzibah location collected money from two students. The Killeen location had 12, and the Hinesville church had 55 people enrolled.
“Potentially they were collecting roughly $30,000 per student over the last couple of years,” said Hubbard. “What we’re hoping for is the VA cuts the school off and makes sure that other veterans don’t get roped into losing their valuable GI Bill benefits.”
We spoke with two ex-members.
“Most of the people, they cut off communication with their family,” said Gladys Jordan, whose son is still a member of the Augusta church.
She said her son hasn’t spoken to her since she left the group.
“I miss him,” she said through tears. “It’s been six years. I don’t know anything about him. If he gets sick, if he gets in a car accident, I don’t know anything about him.”
Jordan left the church back in September of 2016. She says he’s been going to the church since he was 6 but hasn’t talked to her since she left.
“My son stopped calling me. I called him, and every time I would find his phone number, he would say, ‘Ma’am, ma’am.’ He wouldn’t even call me mom. He’s like, ‘Ma’am, how did you get my number?’” she said.
Jordan and another former member, Jenessa Wright, say they started having concerns about the organization years ago when they were attending the Hinesville location.
“I woke up like really woke up when he said the rapture date and he was going the day before to prepare a place for us,” Wright said. “That is when I kind of was like, ‘What is going on?’”
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