CRESTVIEW — Authorities have arrested a downtown ministry's pastor following a month's investigation of child abuse and neglect allegations.
At 8 a.m. today, the Crestview Police Department executed a search warrant on Harvest Vineyard Ministries on Main Street, and officers found nearly 80 people — including convicted felons and sex offenders — living there with children, Police Chief Tony Taylor said during an evening news conference at police headquarters.
Police S.W.A.T. team members entered the building simultaneously from three entrances, Taylor said, adding the operation "was done very meticulously and orderly without incident."
Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office deputies arrested the Rev. Alex E. Thompson at his Lake Ella Road residence shortly afterward. Thompson was charged with child neglect without great bodily harm and remanded to the Okaloosa County Jail.
Harvest Vineyard residents cooperated with officers and assembled in the ministry sanctuary, where each was identified, according to Taylor. During identification, two people with outstanding warrants were found and arrested.
Residents who enter the facility frequently operate car washes at host businesses on State Road 85 in Crestview, which earn money toward their residencies.
Because of the large number of inhabitants, police called the Crestview Fire Department to investigate the safety of the premises, a commercial building opposite the county courthouse.
Fire officials called the city building inspector and "they determined the building was uninhabitable," Taylor said.
After authorities closed the facility, Harvest Vineyard staffers relocated residents to a church in Covington County, Ala., Taylor said.
The investigation was spurred by reports that a female juvenile remanded to the facility had twice run away, he said.
Police have heard allegations of food stamp misuse and residents living in servitude, but those have not been substantiated and have not been entered into the investigation, Taylor said. However, given the large volume of documents and computers seized during the warrant's execution, further charges could be pending, he said.
"It's going to take days to sort through all the materials we found," Taylor said.
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