(405) 425-5070
The arrests of five Christian school educators in Midland, Texas, sparked a federal lawsuit.
Top Stories
Midland, Texas, photo via Shutterstock

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

Former educators open up about the federal lawsuit they filed — and their desire for an apology.

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Before life as they knew it disintegrated — before their jobs disappeared — Midland Christian School meant everything to Jared Lee and Dana Ellis.

Both grew up in the K-12 Christian school and devoted their educational careers to the West Texas campus — Lee serving as superintendent and Ellis as secondary school principal.

“That’s where I went to school all through junior high and high school, and my sisters all went there,” said Ellis, 44, a 1998 graduate. “And I have four kids, and all four of my kids went to Midland Christian.

“So Midland Christian was way more than a job for us,” she added. “For my family, it was our home.”

Lee’s roots with the 1,200-student school, which is associated with Churches of Christ, ran even deeper. 

Midland, a city of about 130,000, is an oil industry hub in the Permian Basin.

“My history with the school started when I was in my mom’s womb,” said Lee, 43, a 1999 graduate. “My dad was the high school principal at Midland Christian whenever I was born. Five years later, he became the superintendent of Midland Christian and served as superintendent for 33 years.”

When Eddie Lee retired in 2018, his son succeeded him as the school’s top administrator.

“Midland Christian … was not only a job, it was my life. It was my ministry.”

“So Midland Christian, as Dana said, was not only a job, it was my life,” Jared Lee said. “It was my ministry.”

But that all changed on Feb. 15, 2022, when Jared Lee, Ellis and three other school employees were arrested and accused — wrongly and maliciously, they contend — of trying to conceal a student’s alleged sexual assault from police.

Three months later — in May 2022 — a Texas grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict Lee, Ellis or the others.

Still working to restore their reputations two years later, Lee, Ellis and former head baseball coach Barry Russell talked to The Christian Chronicle about the ongoing federal lawsuit they filed over their arrests and the motivations behind it. 

The other two plaintiffs, former assistant principal Matthew Counts and former athletic director Gregory McClendon, were unavailable for interviews. 

“Indeed, this lawsuit is about five lives … which were irreparably harmed, but it’s also about these individuals’ constitutional rights,” said Jennifer Brevorka, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, along with prominent Houston lawyer Rusty Hardin.

Defendants include the City of Midland and three Midland police officers: Jennie Alonzo, Rosemary Sharp and Camilo Fonseca. Their attorney, Norman Ray Giles, declined to comment for this story.


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


“For obvious reasons, my clients and I are not making any statements to the media during the litigation,” Giles said in an email.

Four of the “Midland Christian Five,” as the plaintiffs refer to themselves in legal filings, never returned to work at the school, while Counts was demoted from his assistant principal position, according to the lawsuit.

“The wrong can never be righted, but the truth will come out,” Ellis said in the Chronicle interview. “This is the first opportunity we’ve had — it’s the first time anybody’s ever asked our side.”

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.

Disputed locker room incident

“Shock, heartbreak and disappointment” is how Ellis describes her  experience the day of the arrests.

“From the moment that police got involved, we were very open and transparent and more than willing to work with the police,” the former principal said. “And we did everything very ethically and very sound and very much in line with our morals, our beliefs and the school’s policies and procedures. 

“So to say that we were shocked,” she said of the arrests, “would be an understatement, a colossal understatement.”

“From the moment that police got involved, we were very open and transparent and more than willing to work with the police.”

The Midland Christian Five allege they were charged with felony crimes based on lies and omissions by the Midland Police Department. 

And once the case was dismissed, and the educators notified the city they planned to file a civil rights lawsuit, they say Midland police retaliated by arresting three of them — Lee, Ellis and Counts — a second time on separate but equally baseless charges that also were ultimately dropped.

The arrests and subsequent lawsuit arose from a locker room incident in early 2022 involving members of Midland Christian’s baseball team.

Brevorka advised her clients not to answer the Chronicle’s questions about their specific roles looking into that incident.

“Only because they will eventually be deposed on this, and they’ll be questioned undoubtedly about prior statements,” the attorney said. “I think the (lawsuit) complaint adequately describes what they did.”

According to the lawsuit, Ellis heard about the incident two days after it happened, and school officials immediately began investigating.

The plaintiffs maintain that interviews with team members revealed the incident amounted to “locker room horseplay” or “roughhousing” in which a sophomore poked a freshman’s buttocks — over his clothes — with a baseball bat. It was not something, they say they quickly discovered, that qualified as sexual assault of a child under state law, and as such, it did not require police notification.

But Midland police learned of the incident several days later from the parent of a student and launched their own investigation, interviewing the educators and students. In their lawsuit, the Midland Christian Five describe themselves as the victims of a “bizarre and unfortunate game of ‘telephone’” in which the incident was mischaracterized and fictionalized, with police acting on rumors claiming fellow players had sodomized the student.


Related: Midland Christian School employees ‘no-billed’ in sexual assault reporting case


The five say, based on that “unreliable hearsay from a perpetually disgruntled parent whose child was neither a victim nor a witness to the incident,” Midland police officers quickly launched a “tunnel-visioned and biased investigation.” 

And they say Alonzo, a police detective, grew angry when Lee, in an effort to comply with federal educational privacy laws, asked for a warrant before allowing police to search the school.

At the heart of the lawsuit, filed in August 2022, is the claim that Alonzo and other Midland police lied and omitted important facts when seeking arrest warrants, creating the false impression that the Midland Christian educators knew a student had been sexually assaulted and tried to cover it up. And the educators allege Midland police concocted the concealment element to bump the case from a misdemeanor to a felony and to justify the public nature of their arrests.

Responses filed by the city to the lawsuit and the initial arrest warrants paint a different picture. 

Responses filed by the city to the lawsuit and the initial arrest warrants paint a different picture. 

The assault, Midland says, was more than just “horseplay” but instead part of a “freshman initiation day” in which the student was held down in the darkened locker room and told he was not allowed to fight back as he was assaulted with the baseball bat.

Despite the fact the student was clothed during the incident, the city says, it still met the legal definitions of assault and sexual assault. The educators should have reported it, the defendants argue, especially when prompted to do so by a concerned parent.

And the failure of the county district attorney to secure an indictment from the grand jury, the city asserts, does not negate the fact that police had probable cause to arrest the educators based on the investigators’ evidence and interviews. A judge independently decided enough probable cause existed for the arrests, the defendants note.

Finally, the city argues the law sets a bar for malicious prosecution that is much higher than the plaintiffs have proven.

An international news story

All along, the Midland Christian Five maintained their innocence.

Despite that, police handcuffed them and paraded them out of the school — in front of students and cameras that spread the story around the world.

“There were children out front — my personal children and children at the school — that saw us,” Ellis told the Chronicle. “And we asked for that not to happen.”

Jared Lee is the former superintendent of Midland Christian School in West Texas.

Jared Lee is the former superintendent of Midland Christian School in West Texas.

Said Lee: “When we were taken out, the police officers asked us to stand up and put our hands behind our backs. I was the one that said, ‘Can we not turn ourselves in?’ Not because we believed we had done anything wrong — please make sure that you understand us clearly — but instead, we wanted … to protect the children from seeing this.”

Russell, 64, said he was out sick with COVID-19 during the locker room incident, and police never interviewed him before his arrest.

Unlike Lee and Ellis, Russell did not have a long history at Midland Christian. Inducted into the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame last year, he previously coached at Midland High School for 22 seasons. 

“I was devastated,” Russell said of his arrest.

The Midland Christian Five spent hours in jail before their release that day.

Even behind bars, they took advantage of opportunities to share their faith, they said.

“To speak to what a man of God that Jared is,” Ellis said, “we’re sitting there waiting (for processing at the jail), and there was another man being booked for something, going through a really hard time. And in our own really awful place, Jared stopped and prayed for that young man to have the strength to make it through that day.

“And we just had faith,” she added through tears, “that God was going to see us through this. We believed we did nothing wrong. We still believe we did nothing wrong.”

Russell said he, too, remembers Lee praying with the fellow inmate.


Related: Federal lawsuit filed over arrests of five Midland Christian School educators


“I believe he was there on a drug charge or something,” the coach said of the other inmate. “The whole thing — having to go strip down and put on an orange jumpsuit, put on orange flip-flops, and the bathroom was nasty — I remember all of that as if it was yesterday.”

Ellis said she talked to a female inmate and encouraged her to finish college “and not let this moment define her.”

“There were definitely God moments in that moment,” Ellis said. “It was just really hard to see at the time.”

Midland, with a population of about 130,000, is an oil industry hub in West Texas.

Midland, with a population of about 130,000, is an oil industry hub in West Texas.

‘They turned their backs on us’

Midland Christian School put the five arrested employees on paid administrative leave at the time of their arrests.

The school tapped Kelly Moore, a former president of both the National Christian School Association and Fort Worth Christian School, to serve as interim superintendent. 

Moore, who filled that role for eight months, recalls the aftermath of the arrests as a difficult time that challenged everyone associated with Midland Christian.

“The people on that school board made decisions that they felt were in the best interests of the school,” Moore said. “Midland Christian is a bellwether school in our Church of Christ community. It was, is and continues to be an outstanding school.”

“Midland Christian is a bellwether school in our Church of Christ community. It was, is and continues to be an outstanding school.”

After the grand jury declined to indict the Midland Christian Five, the school board issued statements of support and praised the five for handling “themselves gracefully in the face of these extremely difficult circumstances, all while holding firm to their faith.”

But to their surprise, the five did not get their old jobs back, they said.

“They allowed me to resign,” Lee said.

The former superintendent pointed to a quote attributed to Napoleon: “The world suffers a lot. Not because the violence of bad people. But because of the silence of the good people.”

“What we five saw more than anything,” Lee said, “was men of faith, women of faith … who laid their hands on us in weeks prior to this arrest, who loved us, who cared for us. They turned their backs on us when times got hard, when fear entered their hearts.”

“They did not support us in the way that I believe God calls us to do as Christians. And it was just devastating for me.”

Asked why the five were not returned to their former positions, Midland Christian’s board issued this statement: “Midland Christian School does not comment on personnel matters. That said, MCS appreciates the service each rendered to the school and its students and desire for them the best in their future endeavors for the Kingdom.”

Ellis said her children — now 18, 15, 14 and 11 — suffered immensely as the result of her high-profile arrest.

“My children received death threats from people all over the world,” she said, her voice choking with emotion. “My children were told people were going to come to their house and rape them. … And they were told they should be taken away from me because I’m not an adequate mom. 

“My children’s lives being threatened and their safety being threatened was truly the lowest of the low,” she continued. “I would literally sit in jail for 1,000 more years to prevent my children from ever receiving the text messages and the calls that they received. Because they’re just babies.”

Russell said he was old enough to retire, so the ordeal did not harm his livelihood as much as the others.

“My career was done, basically,” he said. “But it ruined four people’s lives and their families. And it’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous. It shouldn’t have happened.”

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.

Seeking an apology

Both Lee and Ellis and their families eventually moved away from Midland.

Now living in the Dallas-Fort Worth area — roughly 300 miles away — the two former colleagues said they hope to start fresh by launching a new business together. They did not share specific details on those plans.

Ellis said she appreciates the support of her loved ones since her arrest, but the Midland Christian Five enjoy a special connection with each other.

Dana Ellis is the former secondary school principal of Midland Christian School in West Texas.

Dana Ellis is the former secondary school principal of Midland Christian School in West Texas.

“There are only four other people in this world that truly feel the trauma that I’ve been through,” Ellis said, “and I rely heavily on those four people because they walked our walk.

“We’re a little bruised, and we’re a little broken, and we’re a lot hurt and a lot disappointed,” she said of the ordeal, “but it didn’t take us out.”

While the Midland Christian Five have not put a specific dollar amount on their damages, they say they have suffered “the deprivation of liberty, reputational harm, public humiliation, distress, pain, and suffering.” 

And they say because the police acted with malice and with intentional disregard for their constitutional rights, they are entitled to punitive damages.

Their legal complaint, amended in December, includes 10 counts against the city and the police officers related to the original arrest and the second arrests, including false arrest, filing criminal charges without probable cause, failure by the city to properly supervise its police and retaliation for the civil suit, a violation of the plaintiffs’ First, Fourth and 14th Amendment rights.

“At the very core of this, not only are these people of faith, but these are true patriots,” Brevorka said. “These are individuals who have decided to exercise the rights that we as Americans all have under the Bill of Rights.”

“At the very core of this, not only are these people of faith, but these are true patriots.”

Ultimately, the Midland Christian Five pray the lawsuit shines a light on what happened, brings accountability to the public officials involved and results in an apology, Lee told the Chronicle.

“That’s not going to change anything necessarily,” he said of a possible apology. “But we hope … we’ll regain some of our reputation. We know that that’s a longshot, but we hope that that does happen.”

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

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

Filed under: Christian schools federal lawsuit K-12 Christian schools Midland Christian School Midland Texas National News Partners police Texas Top Stories West Texas wrongful arrests

Don’t miss out on more stories like this.

Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.

Did you enjoy this article?

Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.

$
Personal Info

Dedicate this Donation

In Honor/Memory of Details

Card Notification Details

Credit Card Info
This is a secure SSL encrypted payment.
Billing Details

Donation Total: $3 One Time