The former director of boys' lockup Thompson Academy, Renza "Craig" Ferguson, resigned under a cloud of suspicion in March. Staff members had made allegations that he was transporting young male inmates off campus and bringing them home to shower.
Now the lawyer who called to report those charges has filed suit against Thompson's owners on behalf of an alleged victim, with backup testimony from a number of former staff members. It details sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior by Ferguson.
Despite Ferguson's resignation and the pending closure of Thompson, the company has never acknowledged inappropriate behavior by Ferguson. This could force them to confront those charges in court.
The attorney, Michael Aaron Hoffman, has been unsuccessful so far in reaching a settlement with Youth Services International, which operates Thompson Academy.
The suit centers on the claims of "D.M.," a repeat offender with a low IQ whom Hoffman describes as "simple," with "borderline intellectual functioning." D.M. is now 18, but spent 9 months as a minor at Thompson Academy. He says that Ferguson took him and two other boys home on Easter Sunday.
The plaintiff alleges that in October 2011, Youth Services International had written notice of this off-campus trip but did nothing in response, perhaps in anticipation of the facility's upcoming quality assurance review in November.
The suit says Ferguson took a special liking to D.M., inviting him into his office after hours and peppering him with gifts and special privileges. The alleged behavior bears an eerie resemblance to the "grooming" of leadership figures like Jerry Sandusky: D.M. said that Ferguson took away things that his mother gave him, for example, and gave him new gifts himself like Black and Tan cigars, sneakers, and a rosary.
Thompson Academy went through at $400,000 renovation in April 2011, after settling a lawsuit from the Southern Poverty Law Center that alleged substandard living conditions. As part of the renovations, Ferguson got a new office that the lawsuit claims was more isolated then before.
Employees said that Ferguson used this side door to take three boys off the premises on Easter Sunday, 2011.
The lawsuit says he let them change into new clothes he had bought them the day before at Walmart, then led them to his Mercedes-Benz. D.M. said he then took the boys to Antioch Mission Baptist Church in Carol City, a mall parking lot where they posed for pictures with a cool car, Denny's, and Ferguson's two-story townhouse.
At Denny's, D.M. said, he got up to use the bathroom. Ferguson followed him, and approached him from behind while he was washing his hands. He "proceeded to press his body against him and wrap his arms around Plaintiff 'to help him wash his hands,'" the suit claims.
At the townhouse, D.M. said, the two other boys went upstairs with Ferguson for about 60 minutes while he remained downstairs because he was suspicious about Ferguson's motives.
Back in the office, "Director Ferguson would have D.M. write and copy down his daily notes... Ferguson would remove his shirt and sit directly next to Plaintiff at the conference table in his office, and touch him on his back, shoulders, and thighs."
In addition, the suit lists other youth who have alleged sexual harassment at the facility, and notes that Ferguson would allow boys to walk around with their shirts off. It also accuses Ferguson of flouting the rules and promoting those employees who would enable his behavior while disciplining those who raised trouble.
The case is pending trial in circuit court. C.J. Drake, a spokesman for the Department of Juvenile Justice, says that an investigation by the inspector general into the claims of Ferguson's abuse is still ongoing, and that the agency cannot comment further.
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