Sex Crime Spurs Christian Groups’ Fight Over Idyllic Campground

Fort Bluff Camp in Dayton, Tenn. (CNS Photo/Daniel Jackson)

DAYTON, Tenn. (CN) – Just before Christmas, the National Association of Christian Athletes’ interim president sent a letter to the trustees of Bryan College, a Christian school in Tennessee, in an effort to head off a legal fight between the two organizations.

“We are a sister Christian organization,” John Ballinger wrote in the 13-page document, “with a mission to use sports camps, retreats and tournaments as a platform to evangelize the lost and encourage the body of Christ.”

Christian schools from across 20 states have sent students to attend NACA programs at Fort Bluff Camp, a 72-acre property that sits on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Dayton, Tennessee.  

For days, Ballinger pieced together the narrative on his vertically stacked dual-screen monitor in his office in Harrison, about 30 miles from Dayton, citing more than 50 documents including minutes of board meetings, emails and financial reports.

After analyzing thousands of companies, the risk management consultant said the situation NACA found itself in was one of the most egregious he had ever seen. And now, as interim president of the organization, Ballinger says he is trying to help NACA get out of deals set up by a former board of trustees that he believes had a conflict of interest,making deals detrimental to the organization.

Primarily, Ballinger wants Bryan College to return a $6 million camp he said its officers took from NACA.

The story began in 2009, when a Rhea County grand jury indicted NACA’s founder Mike Crain for sexually battering a 14-year-old girl and her mother, who worked at the camp.

In the 1970s, Crain made a name for himself as a traveling preacher who plied crowds with martial art demonstrations. Sports Illustrated profiled Crain as he ran a camp in Kentucky in 1973 and he even released a gospel album called “Karatist Preacher – God’s Power.”

Crain and his wife established Fort Bluff Camp and NACA. They lived on a house facing east, overlooking the bluff.

Two days after the Rhea County Sheriff’s Department filed its incident report, Naomi Crain submitted her resignation from the organization she and her husband founded. In its severance agreement, NACA offered to pay her $60,000 over two years at $5,000 a month, although $5,000 a month paid out over two years totals $120,000. But Naomi did not sign the agreement, according to documents NACA provided to Courthouse News.

She approached Stephen Livesay, the president of Bryan College, and asked the college to oversee NACA.

Formed after the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial that was held in Dayton, Bryan College was named after the celebrity prosecutor at the trial: Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan.

At a special meeting on Dec. 12, 2009, NACA’s executive committee agreed the organization needed to borrow money to continue operating for the next few months and that it would not borrow the money unless Livesay authorized it.

Almost a week later, on Dec. 18, NACA’s board of trustees met at the offices of Bryan College in Chattanooga. NACA said it would purchase the life estate of the Crains, including their house overlooking the bluff. After it paid the Crains $150,000, it would pay Naomi $5,000 a month for 20 years. 

The NACA board then agreed it would elect nine trustees that Livesay picked from Bryan College’s administration and board so that the majority of NACA’s board was also involved with the college.

Besides being Bryan College’s president, Livesay became the chairman of NACA’s board. Vance Berger, who is currently listed as the college’s controller in the finance and enrollment office, became NACA’s president.

On Jan. 1, 2010, Livesay signed a contract with Naomi for consulting services because of her contacts and experience as the organization’s co-founder. The agreement would only end if NACA filed bankruptcy, liquidated or she died. By the time NACA broke the contract, Naomi was being paid $1,500 a month.

A month later, Livesay signed a $310,000 promissory note for Craingiving him $3,447.31 a month for 18 years.

Crain pleaded guilty to sexually battering the 14-year-old girl but his charge of battering the woman went to trial. On Aug. 26, 2010 —a little over a year since the assault – a jury found him guilty.

The judge sentenced Crain to 90 days in prison and 18 months of probation.

Fort Bluff Camp in Dayton, Tenn. (CNS Photo/Daniel Jackson)

Meanwhile, the woman whom Crain sexually assaulted struggled. She reportedly endured taunts and accusations from her community and she lost her job at the camp where she made $320 a week. After, she could only find part-time work making between $100 to $150 a week as a bookkeeper for a local restaurant.

Boz Tchividjian, executive director of Godly Response of Abuse in the Christian Environment, or GRACE, told Courthouse News the scope of sexual abuse in evangelical Christian environments is unclear, although he expects it to be as widespread as the abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

“Each church is in some degree independent. And so, it’s much more difficult to track, and to identify and to address,” Tchividjian, a grandson of evangelist Billy Graham and former prosecutor, said in a phone interview.

Many times, when abuse is discovered, Tchividjian said the organization hides the truth and moves to protect itself and its reputation, such as allowing the alleged abuser to quietly resign and giving them a settlement or severance. 

“Rather than hold Mike Crain accountable for the sexual abuse of employees and children,” Ballinger wrote in his December letter, “the unfortunate circumstances of 2009 were used to convince the Bryan College-controlled NACA Board in 2016 that NACA had some obligation to Bryan College (and the alleged secret request of the Crains) which would lead the NACA Board to ‘contribute’ the $6.045 million real estate assets of the Fort Bluff Camp property to Bryan College for $1.” (Parentheses in original.)

While NACA paid Crain and his wife, its camp did not have enough money for necessary repairs, Ballinger said. In March 2013, a man sued the camp in federal court for $20 million because he allegedly became a paraplegic after injuring himself on Fort Bluff’s obstacle course called “The Crucible” when he dropped in a sitting position onto a mat of rotted foam.

Fast forward to February 2016. According to the NACA Board of Directors minutes for its Feb. 5 meeting, the board declined to sell NACA to another Christian organization. Instead, it voted unanimously to “transfer the assets and liabilities of NACA to Bryan College as soon as possible.”

On June 27, NACA’s board met again at Bryan College where it unanimously approved a lease agreement between the two organizations.

The agreement that Berger signed for NACA said the college would lease the camp NACA once owned back to NACA for $10,000 a month.

According to the minutes from the meeting, Livesay then announced that he could no longer sit on NACA’s board and be president of Bryan College. Doing so, he said, was a conflict of interest. He recommended that NACA acquire four members who were not associated with the school.

According to Ballinger’s letter, Bryan College was days away from ending its fiscal year with a deficit. On June 30, 2016, Fort Bluff changed hands. Bryan acquired the $6 million camp and ended its year $5 million in the black. The record of the transaction at the Rhea County Register of Deeds showed the college paid $1 for the property.

On Sept. 22, 2017, the Tennessee attorney general’s office sent a letter to Berger asking for information about the transfer of Fort Bluff.

According to the state government’s guidebook for nonprofits, such organizations are required to give written notice to the attorney general at least 45 days before the close of an extraordinary event, such as if the nonprofit dissolves or sells “substantially all” of its assets, to ensure the transaction is fair.

In response, Berger sent an information packet.

“There was no sale in this transaction; it was a contribution of assets from one charitable organization to another with similar ministries,” Berger wrote in his cover letter.

Almost a year later, on Nov. 26, 2018, the attorney general’s office wrote to NACA that because it formed in Delaware, “our office does not have jurisdiction to review or take action regarding the transfer of the Fort Bluff Camp to a Tennessee nonprofit…including the alleged unfairness or unlawfulness of the transaction.”

Last month, the Delaware Department of Justice also declined to look into the transfer of the camp.

“Unfortunately, Delaware’s Consumer Protection Unit would have no jurisdiction over a company that is not actually located in Delaware,” it wrote.

On Jan. 8, Ballinger received the answer to his letter from Bryan College. That’s when attorney Logan Threadgill of Chattanooga firm Chambliss, Bahner & Stophel filed a detainer summons against NACA in Rhea County General Sessions Court, alleging the organization failed to pay rent on the camp for nine months.

It was the second lawsuit leveled against the organization. Last September, Mike and Naomi Crain filed suit in Rhea County Chancery Court alleging NACA terminated its consulting agreement with Naomi last summer and stopped paying their promissory note.

“This was the first notice of any claimed failure to perform on Mrs. Crain’s part,” Chattanooga-based attorney Dee Hobbs wrote in the complaint, “and Mrs. Crain avers not only that she has remained willing and able to provide consulting services but also that the defendant has not made request for services which she has not performed.”

In October, NACA’s attorney John Konvalinka of Chattanooga’s Grant, Konvalinka & Harrison asked the court to extend the time allowed to answer the Crain’s complaint. Konvalinka said he needed time to obtain information from Bryan College, its attorneys and Livesay.

Courthouse News reached out to Hobbs, Konvalinka and Threadgill. It also made attempts to reach Livesay and Berger. None returned requests for comment.

Ballinger said in one of several in-person and phone interviews with Courthouse News that NACA was counseled to stop making the payments, as continued payment would have signaled the organization accepted the terms of the contracts in place.

Meanwhile, he has been fielding hundreds of texts, calls and emails from churches and schools planning to play in NACA’s scheduled tournaments.

“We’ve got some growing pains we’re going through,” Ballinger tells them.

Citing the legal action, Bryan College declined to answer a list of questions Courthouse News sent it.

 “We’ve been attentive landlords to NACA since 2016,” the college said in a statement. “However, we must also be prudent business people and good stewards of the Bryan College resources with which we’ve been entrusted. NACA was well aware of its obligations under the lease it signed.”

“When NACA later decided that it would no longer honor the agreement, we were forced to formally demand payment. NACA ignored our letter, leaving us with no alternative other than to file a detainer action to protect the college. This is an action to which we have given careful thought and consideration, and we are hopeful that NACA will take action to correct the situation.”

A court date in the suit Bryan College brought against NACA in Rhea County was set for Feb. 4, but it was rescheduled to March 18.

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