Ministry at center of Texas captives case

July 25, 2013 - 5:37 PM
Elderly Captives Texas

File - In this July 19, 2013 file photo, authorities investigate a home in Houston, where police say four homeless men were found in deplorable conditions. The nonprofit operating out of the home had apparently been started with the best of intentions: to feed and shelter homeless individuals. But Regina’s Faith Ministries soon ran afoul of its philanthropic goals as it lost its nonprofit status, violated state licensing regulations and, according to authorities, ended up turning its shelter into a dungeon-like prison where three of the four men say they were held against their wills so their captor could cash their public assistance checks. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan, File)

HOUSTON (AP) — The former nonprofit operating out of the purple-trimmed, one-story brick home in north Houston apparently started with the best of intentions: to feed and shelter homeless individuals.

But Regina's Faith Ministries soon ran afoul of its philanthropic goals as it lost its nonprofit status, violated state licensing regulations and, according to authorities, ended up turning its shelter into a dungeon-like prison where three men say they were held against their will so their captor could cash public assistance checks.

Police said the men, who lived in the home's garage at least a year, were lured by promises of food and cigarettes. Police had initially indicated four men were held captive but later revised the number to three.

Walter Renard Jones, 31, has been charged with two counts of injury to an elderly individual and is being held in the Harris County Jail on bonds totaling $400,000. The three men, as well as another man and four women — three with mental disabilities — were discovered in the house last Friday. Authorities say the investigation isn't over.

Jones is the son of Regina Jones, who is listed in state records as one of the former nonprofit's directors. Walter Jones' attorney, Jerome Godinich Jr., did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Another of the ministries' directors, Henry Bolden, said he was shocked by last week's discovery.

"I thought they were doing good," said Bolden, who is the pastor of New Rock of Salvation Holiness Church in Houston.

The three men —ages 80, 74 and 65 — told authorities they were forced to live in the home's garage, which had locks on its doors, one chair, no bed or bathroom and a possibly malfunctioning air conditioner. Police say the men were given scraps to eat. They were hospitalized for malnutrition but have since been released and placed at an assisted living facility, police said.

Property records show the home is owned by Essie Mae Scranton, Regina Jones' mother. The brother of Regina Jones said their 81-year-old mother had nothing to do with the nonprofit or with the men found there.

"That's not no shelter," Karey Scranton said. "I don't know what my sister did or what she conjured up or whatever."

Various attempts to reach Regina Jones, 57, this week were unsuccessful. Court records show Jones, also known as Regina Nelson, was previously convicted of several theft charges.

Karey Scranton defended Walter Jones, his nephew.

"The boy would give the shirt off his back to help somebody. He's not no bad person," Scranton said. Court records show Walter Jones previously had been convicted of theft and marijuana possession charges.

Regina's Faith Ministries registered with the state as a nonprofit in December 2008. Bolden said Regina Jones, who was a member of his church, was already running the shelter when she approached him for help. The pastor said he bought 10 mattresses for the facility and sometimes would supply it with food, but had little else to do with it.

"I thought they were feeding them pretty good. Maybe I should have checked in there more," he said.

In 2010, Texas revoked the group's nonprofit status because of tax reporting issues.

The Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, a nonprofit which coordinates various local efforts, had not heard of Regina's Faith Ministries before last week, said Marilyn Brown, the group's president and CEO.

Brown said some facilities call themselves group homes, though she said, "Some of them are more legitimate than others."

Regulation of such facilities, which provide personal care services such as feeding and dressing, falls to the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services. They are required to be state-licensed only if they provide services to four or more individuals, agency spokeswoman Cecilia Cavuto said.

The agency did investigate the Houston home in November 2011 and spoke with four residents. Cavuto said the four "expressed satisfaction" about how the home was run.

"So our staff did not see any conditions which concerned them related to the health and safety of the residents," she said.

However, the home was found to be in violation of licensure requirements. In a December 2011 letter, Regina Jones told the agency she would drop to three residents, thus no longer requiring a license.

Brown said the extreme conditions these men lived in are rare for such facilities.

She said the hope is that this case re-opens a conversation about gathering more detailed data on what happens to individuals after they use services by the Coalition's members. One of the men found in the home had stayed four nights at a Coalition shelter in August 2010, a review showed, but there was no other record of him.

"People fall into homelessness for many different reasons. ... It's often coupled with mental incapacities, physical disabilities. And so that person may not have the mental capability to recognize when something is questionable and so they do become vulnerable to those who would take advantage (or provide) unacceptable care such as these men found themselves in," Brown said.

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