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Lawsuit filed against Ohio church in teen's death

By United Methodist News Service
April 30, 2007 | COLUMBUS, Ohio (UMNS)


Church of the Messiah

The family of a teenager who died during a 2006 church youth retreat has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the congregation, alleging foul play in the reported suicide of James McCoy III.

The lawsuit also says racial factors may have led to the death of McCoy, who is black and attended the primarily white Church of the Messiah, a United Methodist congregation in Westerville, a suburb of Columbus.

The suit was filed April 23 in Franklin County Common Pleas Court in Columbus, one day after the congregation held a memorial service in McCoy's memory on what would have been his 19th birthday.

McCoy was active in the church youth group and a member of the congregation's praise band.

"Our community loved James deeply," the Rev. Stan Ling wrote in an April 26 letter to the congregation after the lawsuit was filed. "We still grieve and miss him. I invite your prayers for all of those affected by this tragedy, including the family of James McCoy III."

The teen was found on April 22, 2006, hanging from a tree in the woods of Camp Cotubic, a Christian camp that is not affiliated with the United Methodist denomination.

The Logan County coroner ruled the death a suicide, but the lawsuit alleges he died as the result of a choking game that was "willfully or recklessly" forced on him as a birthday prank by four white youths on the retreat. The suit also says the youths later "gave false testimony to police suggesting that James McCoy had been depressed and had suicidal thoughts" and even "created writings as false evidence of such thoughts."

The lawsuit by his mother, Tonya Amoako-Okyere, is against the church, charging that church leaders did not properly supervise the retreat; four unnamed youths who were also on the retreat; and four unnamed Logan County authorities, alleging negligence in their investigation. It seeks a judgment exceeding $25,000.

The eight individuals were not named in the lawsuit pending the release of an FBI report requested by the family into the matter, according to Cliff Arnebeck, the family's attorney. Arnebeck expects the report will be released in the next month.

"Our community loved James deeply. … I invite your prayers for all of those affected by this tragedy, including the family of James McCoy III."
- The Rev. Stan Ling

The U.S. Department of Justice also investigated the family's "hate crime" complaint, concluding there was "insufficient evidence or legal authority" to prosecute, according to the department's March 9 letter to the family.

Bishop Bruce Ough, who leads United Methodists in the West Ohio Conference, said The United Methodist Church joins the Church of the Messiah in praying for all parties affected by the tragedy.

"The conference is supportive of the staff and leadership of Messiah as they seek truth and justice in this matter," Ough said.

While McCoy was active in the congregation, he and his family were not members. He was described by church and family members as socially popular, musically gifted and academically solid. He had been accepted to attend Mount Vernon (Ohio) Nazarene University and planned to become a minister of music.

Arnebeck said McCoy also had been dating a white teen.

Bishop Bruce Ough

"From all I can understand, James greatly enjoyed that church and was much appreciated," Arnebeck said in an interview with United Methodist News Service. "… But given the difficult history of race relations in our country, even if the church is committed in principle to equal treatment of all people and universal love and brotherhood, we have to recognize there are remnants of racial attitudes."

Arnebeck questioned why authorities were quick to accept explanations from other youths that McCoy was depressed and had committed suicide when his life suggested otherwise. "If you talked with any of the many people who loved this young man, he was not despondent. He was happy. He was exuberant as a person," he said.

The church's attorney, James Brudny Jr., declined to speak with United Methodist News Service, issuing a statement that "it would be inappropriate to comment at this time."

In his letter to the congregation, Ling offered assurances and asked for prayers.

"Because a lawsuit has been filed, please understand that we are limited in what we can say and/or do with respect to this situation," he said. "This by no means diminishes our emotions or feelings regarding this matter. We are a community that has stated that we value 'Open Hearts, Open Minds, and Open Doors.' I want each person in our congregation to be assured that we will do everything we can to stand for truth and justice."

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Church of the Messiah

West Ohio Conference

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