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Explainer: Q&A on the ‘Midland Christian Five’ federal lawsuit

A primer on key details about the case filed by Christian school educators against a West Texas city and police.

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A second round of arrests? A pattern of charges not sticking? The West Texas case assigned to a judge in … Dallas?

Learn more details about the federal lawsuit filed by the “Midland Christian Five” against the City of Midland, Texas, and three police officers:

What specific claims does the federal lawsuit make against the police?

The lawsuit asserts more than a dozen knowing or reckless falsehoods or omissions in the arrest affidavit submitted by the police, including these inaccuracies:

  • that secondary school Principal Dana Ellis knew one of the baseball players “had a baseball bat shoved into his anus”;
  • that Superintendent Jared Lee refused to cooperate with the investigation when requesting a search warrant;
  • that the Midland Christian Five “have continually attempted to conceal the incident of abuse from authorities”;
  • that emails between the complaining parent and the school officials made it clear a sexual assault had occurred.

Why were three of the Midland Christian Five — Ellis, Lee and assistant principal Matthew Counts — arrested a second time?

During the summer of 2022, the Midland Christian Five notified the City of Midland that they planned to file their civil rights complaint. And within weeks, the plaintiffs say, Midland police responded by arresting three of the five once again on charges related to a separate incident — seeking a “do-over.” 

Midland police claimed in the new charges that Lee, Ellis and Counts failed to report a different incident from November 2021 in which a sophomore student was hit in the head with a baseball bat by another student and suffered a concussion. But those three say while they weren’t present when the injury took place, everyone involved agreed it was an accident, so reporting the injury as abuse would not have been appropriate or required under state law.

Related: ‘Midland Christian Five’ say wrongful arrests devastated their lives and careers

The fact that police detective Jennie Alonzo and the Midland police chose to charge three of the Midland Christian Five and none of the adults who were actually present for the injury is more evidence that it was in retaliation for their plans to sue, they claim. According to a recently amended filing in their case against Midland and the three police officers involved, the five say Midland police were able to secure a grand jury indictment in late 2022 against the three only because they provided grand jurors an improper definition of “accident.”

The police and prosecutors “maliciously conspired to present the legally insufficient and retaliatory charges to the grand jury and in doing so, tainted the grand jury process to ensure they obtained indictments of Plaintiffs Lee Ellis, and Counts,” the lawsuit states. And they did so with the approval of the city’s mayor, city manager and chief of police.

Regardless, the Midland County District Attorney’s Office eventually recused itself from pursuing these second round of charges against the three and passed the case off to the district attorney in next-door Ector County. 

Within weeks of taking over the second case, the Ector County District Attorney’s Office moved to drop the indictments, saying that the evidence did not support the charges.

Have the defendants responded to the lawsuit’s claims about the second round of arrests?

The City of Midland has responded by saying its police acted properly in bringing its second round of charges and that the former Midland Christian educators have not shown that the prosecution was in any way related to the first charges. In legal documents, the city says the Midland Christian Five have no evidence Alonzo or the other officers misled the grand jury to obtain the indictment. 

Why do the plaintiffs allege their arrests were part of a pattern by Midland authorities?

As evidence of a pattern of misconduct by local police, the Midland Christian Five point to a strikingly similar incident initiated by the same police detective in the weeks after their initial arrest. Four members of the staff of the Trinity School of Midland, another private Christian school in the city, were arrested in spring of 2022 by Alonzo on the exact same charge and were paraded in handcuffs through the school in much the same way, as well. 

Those educators, referred to as the “Trinity Four,” have filed a separate federal civil rights suit and say their arrests were orchestrated much like those of the Midland Christian educators — through lies and material omissions in police affidavits. Detective Alonzo presented false and misleading evidence to a grand jury that a 15-year-old girl was sexually assaulted at the school and that the administrators failed to report it and concealed it, that lawsuit claims.

Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit are, from left, Gregory McClendon, Dana Ellis, Matthew Counts, Jared Lee and Barry Russell.

Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit are, from left, Gregory McClendon, Dana Ellis, Matthew Counts, Jared Lee and Barry Russell.

The charges against the Trinity Four were dismissed eight days into that trial, in April 2023, after Alonzo claimed she received “marching orders” from the district attorney and arrested the four at her direction.

That abortive trial of the Trinity Four last year apparently opened a rift in Midland between the county district attorney and the city police department. In dismissing the case last year, Midland District Attorney Laura Nodolf said Alonzo “testified falsely” about getting direction from the DA to arrest the Trinity Four and the Midland Christian Five and that Alonzo “is no longer a credible or reliable witness.” The City of Midland and the Midland District Attorney’s Office then issued competing press releases contradicting one another.

The Trinity Four are asking for $1 million in actual damages, plus even more in punitive damages.

What is the status of the Midland Christian Five’s lawsuit? When will it go to trial?

The case has been assigned to a senior federal court judge in Dallas rather than being heard by any of the judges in the Western District of Texas because Matthew Counts, one of the five plaintiffs, is the son of U.S. District Judge David Counts in Midland.

Senior U.S. District Judge Barbara M.G. Lynn is still hearing motions in the case, which already has spanned 18 months and involved a flurry of court filings. 

An attempt at mediation earlier this year failed to reach a settlement. Lynn next is set to hear arguments April 12 on Midland’s most recent motion to dismiss the case. She has not set a trial date, which potentially could be months, if not more than a year, away.

The arrests of five Christian school educators in Midland, Texas, sparked a federal lawsuit.

The arrests of five Christian school educators in Midland, Texas, sparked a federal lawsuit.

KENNETH PYBUS is a professor of journalism and mass communication at Abilene Christian University and a First Amendment attorney. Reach him at [email protected].

BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

Filed under: Christian schools federal lawsuit Jared Lee et al. v. City of Midland et al. K-12 Christian schools Midland Christian Five Midland Christian School Midland Texas National News Partners police Top Stories

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