Roy Johnson said he has come to hate bats.

In April 2018, the biggest project of Johnson’s life was underway.

He had taken on the task of organizing, constructing and operating Christians of Faith Academy, an endeavor he wasn’t taking lightly, he said.

“Being a new father, the thought that constantly ran through my mind is that people like me would be entrusting their future with myself and the church and the people that were involved,” he said. “You get that sense of excitement because it’s a really exciting to do, but at the same time it’s a sense of concern that you want to make sure everybody is on the same page and that you’re doing the best that you can do.”

Johnson also operates the Richard Allen Group, which he has described as the “economic-development arm” of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Third District, the regional entity of the massive international AME Church organization.

He said he was tasked with assembling COF Academy, a private Christian school tied to the church, with a plan to use a powerhouse football program to give underprivileged and low-income students a shot at higher education.

Finally, after months of work, the pieces were falling into place, he said.

Johnson had a few dozen kids interested in the school. A local church was ready to donate 7 acres in Columbus for the campus, he said.

Johnson said the AME Church, where he was a member, also was backing him, and he was proud of what he was about to accomplish.

Now he just had to deal with the bats.

In Ohio, work that involves tree removal almost always occurs between October and March. That’s because the Indiana bat, a federally protected endangered species, can nest in central Ohio trees. Endangered-species protections say the animals cannot be disturbed.

So that April, Johnson realized construction likely would be delayed – or at least altered – by the bats’ presence.

“I hate those things. I just want to get a BB gun,” he said with a laugh, aiming down the sights of a pretend rifle.

Progress came to a halt, but Johnson expected it to be a minor inconvenience, he said.

But the tree-clearing and construction never restarted, he said.

And 10 months later, at no fault of the bats, Johnson has found himself in a whirlwind of legal battles, arguing in both the court of law and public opinion that plans for the school ever existed and fighting to convince others the AME Church left him holding the bag.

****

COF Academy was supposed to be Johnson’s most important work.

The plan was to build a massive campus near Easton Town Center.

Inspired by IMG Academy in Florida, the goal would be to use athletics – beginning with football and basketball – as a way to get students to college, Johnson said.

“This was a faith-based school that guides young men through life,” he said. “You do that through innovation of technology and sports and education and a place where you could come and be safe. And it’s not just for the underprivileged kids, but also the kids who are good athletes from good homes. I believed that if you bring those kids in, it will help lift the other kids who are there.”

Johnson said he served as the “face” for the school while well-connected friends and AME Church-goers would supplement the team.

Jay Richardson, an old friend of Johnson’s and a former Ohio State University and NFL player who is a regular analyst on WSYX-TV’s “The Football Fever,” was listed as the athletics director in early documents. He also helped fund parts of the project.

In addition, Johnson’s Richard Allen Group was involved.

Johnson said he began working with the AME Church in economic development as far back as 2013. Eventually, he said, he and church leaders decided to take his work outside the church, at which point the Richard Allen Group was formed.

Richard Allen, the organization’s namesake, was born into slavery in the 18th century and eventually became a Christian bishop who founded the AME Church, a now-massive international organization. The use of his name is not exclusive to the Richard Allen Group; it appears to be used by the church itself (for example, the Richard Allen AME Church in Bermuda) and organizations whose official ties to the church are unclear (the Richard Allen Schools in western Ohio).

According to Ohio Secretary of State records, the Richard Allen Group was formed in December 2014. Johnson is listed as the incorporator. In November 2015, Richardson was named in a document amending that filing.

Johnson said – and documents obtained by ThisWeek show – the Richard Allen Group handled a variety of financial and development issues for the church, including conversations with banks, opening a realty office and spearheading projects like COF Academy.

****

After months of planning for the school, Johnson had enlisted Mike Egan, a developer who has 35 years of experience building sports arenas and athletics fields “all over the world,” including for the Atlanta Olympics, Beijing Olympics and a variety of sports facilities, from the U.S. to China. He owns Sport Choice, a sports-development company based in California.

I convinced a lot of contractors and people to get involved, and they all really wanted to get involved and really put their time and effort in. And a lot of it wasn’t even charged. A lot of it was, ‘We get the cause. We want to be supportive and help.’ It was never about the money. Mike Egan

Egan said he became involved because of the project’s goal to help underprivileged kids.

And when he realized the scope of the project, he said, he felt obligated to stay and help see it through.

“At first, I thought I was going to come help build some football fields and some athletic facilities,” Egan said. “One thing led to another and I got more involved. After visiting with them and talking to some folks, I really realized they needed to have some input and help and people who had motivation and motive to get involved and help see this thing through.”

From the beginning, he said, a selling point was the involvement of the AME Church.

“There was no way that you could do a project of this size and not have a main supporter with deeper pockets or at least deeper resources to help organize and support it,” Egan said. “And more than just the money support, it was also having the cultural and moral guidance of the AME Church. It was never an individual thing.”

In a stroke of fortune, the project’s land was going to be donated by New Salem Baptist Church, Johnson said.

According to emails among Johnson and officials from the AME Church and New Salem, 7 acres on Codet Road would be donated to the project. The land is just south of Easton Town Center.

Codet Unity LLC was formed through an attorney, and a March 8, 2018, email from New Salem Pastor Adam Troy confirms there were no “points of departure” from the plan laid out by Egan and his team.

Later in the process, Johnson said, New Salem officials and members of the congregation would become crucial in helping assist with meals and other resources for students in his care. New Salem officials did not return calls in January or February for comment on this story.

Over the course of his months working with Johnson on the project, Egan said, the AME Church’s presence was constant.

“I talked with people within the AME Church – administrators, staff and everything – confirming the relationship between (the Richard Allen Group and the church),” he said. “And most of the time when we were having discussions about what we were going to do, I would say, ‘Let’s do this,’ and Roy would stop me and say, ‘Well, I have to go back and make sure it’s OK with the church first.’

“It was always this guidance that was always there. I personally had face-to-face meetings with folks at the AME Church. It was all officials of the AME Third District.”

However, Egan said, he didn’t recall names, and he declined to speculate.

By early 2018, Jeff Kellam, the owner of Indiana-based construction company Kellam Inc., also had become part of the project. Like Egan, Kellam said he was drawn to the project because of its goals.

But what really sold him, he said, was a meeting the morning of Feb. 12, 2018.

Later that night, Johnson and COF Academy leaders had scheduled an “unveiling” of the grand plan for the school.

A master plan for the site was developed by Egan and his team. Plans and renderings showed a modern campus with eight fields, including a football stadium, and a massive school building and campus.

A detailed site plan came with the presentation, proving that Egan had done his homework down to the meter.

However, Kellam said, before the unveiling, he, Egan, Johnson and others sat in a meeting with multiple AME Church Third District officials, including Third District assistant accountant Rev. Taylor Thompson, and a collection of bank representatives who were discussing financing options.

He said he was not aware of the other AME officials’ names.

“There was a strategy to it all,” Egan said. “It was clear that the AME Church said, ‘We’d like to see you do this project without us putting hard cash into it up front. But you can use our resources, our finances, leverage it and get things started.’ ”

In that meeting, Kellam said, he remembered Thompson standing up and declaring Third District resources could back a debt of several million dollars.

“I have memory of the church representatives saying they were behind the project, and they said that to the banks,” he said. “They were going to service the interim debt while they were raising donations and getting the money from the bank for what I’d call phase 1.”

Later that night, the unveiling was held at the Third District headquarters, 112 Jefferson Ave. in Columbus, the same place classes for COF Academy were expected to be held until the campus was ready, according to Johnson.

There, the team planned to unveil its plans to people from a variety of fields, including city, church and athletics leaders, according to Johnson.

Johnson said he invited more than 100 people but set up tables and coordinated food for about 50.

“When you’re inviting all these people – these are renowned people – you invite them and tell them what you want to do, and you have all these big-time people you invited, but you don’t think they’re going to come,” he said. “Then all the sudden ... you’re looking and before you know it, there’s a room full of people and not enough food.”

Johnson said he had to stop preparing for his speech and coordinate extra food. It was more successful than he could have imagined, he said, and he seemed to have all the backing he needed.

“All the sudden a concept becomes a reality,” he said. “Because now, you have the support of people. You have these people who are affluent and can make things happen. You have a builder there who’s built plenty of things around the country. You look at that and you’re like, ‘Man, these people really want to help.’ ”

Johnson, Richardson, Egan and Kellam, along with one source who did not want to be named, confirmed the event had occurred at the church.

After what the team believed was the backing of the AME Church and a successful unveiling event, and with about six months before football season was to begin, Kellam said, the leaders involved were motivated and moving quickly.

“We took off in a hurry, like a ball of fire,” he said.

****

After the February meeting, the goal was to finish a football field and a classroom space by August or September so the team could play home games.

That was a tall task, and one that Egan said wasn’t possible without major backing.

“There was no way that you could do a project of this size and not have a main supporter with deeper pockets or at least deeper resources to help organize and support it,” he said. “And more than just the money support: It was also having the cultural and moral guidance of the AME Church. It was never an individual thing.”

Like Egan, Kellam said the church’s presence was reassuring, all the way through the beginning of tree-clearing and construction preparation.

“Everyone at the AME Church and New Salem church ... there was no doubt that everyone knew we were out there working on that site on their behalf – everyone,” he said. “Everybody knew that we were out there doing that work.”

Using his connections, Egan said, he had attracted a variety of contractors and others, all of whom were working “always at a reduced price” due to the nature of the project.

“I convinced a lot of contractors and people to get involved, and they all really wanted to get involved and really put their time and effort in,” he said. “And a lot of it wasn’t even charged. A lot of it was, ‘We get the cause. We want to be supportive and help.’ It was never about the money.”

Despite all the challenges, Egan said, the plan was advancing. With the site seemingly resolved, a variety of contractors on board and the financial backing of the AME Church, it began to seem like the group could pull off the project.

“In a lot of ways, things happened exactly how they were supposed to,” he said. “But as far as the issues toward the end, that’s the part where I’m still scratching my head.”

When tree-clearing and site preparation was paused in mid-2018, Johnson said, contact from the church started to fall off.

Emails became cryptic, Johnson said, and he didn’t hear anything more on financing from banks, though he still was receiving regular communications, including detailed financial documents, from Thompson.

“The spring flew by,” he said. “Suddenly, it’s June, July, and we’re not getting calls back. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint when I thought, ‘Oh no.’ But I never really thought, ‘Oh no,’ because people are still flying out and working. So it was kind of like, ‘Well, we’re fine.’ ”

Egan said he and and others noticed the change, too.

“The AME Church side of it just went away,” he said. “They just started denying everything, which made no sense. All I could think was that there was either some type of very big misunderstanding on their side. I didn’t know if there was a vindictiveness; I didn’t know if there was something else. But it was a real easy fix.”

At that point, contractors like Kellam began pulling out of the project.

“I’m still involved if they need my help,” he said. “But my involvement at the time stopped when I stopped being paid.”

He said he left the project in summer 2018 but wasn’t sure of the exact date.

Finally, by Sept. 18 – but likely weeks earlier, according to Johnson – the AME Church had released a statement on its website saying the Third District “has not authorized any person, whether they be officers, staff, pastors or anyone associated with the Third District to commit the Third District, in any form or fashion to any activities of the COF Academy.”

Johnson said he was not sure when the statement was posted on the website, but it likely would have been sometime after the close of the Third District’s Tawawa Christian Education Congress in July 2018, which was when the website post said the statement first was issued. The post was removed from the Third District website sometime last fall – Johnson said he believes it was in October. ThisWeek retained a screenshot of the statement.

It didn’t matter – the project had been dead in the water for months, according to Johnson. And no one involved in the COF Academy project appears to know why.

“I spent countless hours in travel and convincing others to get involved because of the cause,” Egan said. “I had personal conversations with the administrators within the AME Church about this project. And then to find out that people, including the bishop (McKinley Young, who died Jan. 16), had said that they have denied it is just very complex for me. I don’t understand it at all. It’s very disappointing.”

****

Johnson never solved his bat problem, and the COF Academy project never took off in earnest.

The Codet Road property still belongs to New Salem Baptist Church, according to the Franklin County Auditor’s website, and Kellam and others said they still haven’t been paid.

Johnson said it is hard to explain his complicated feelings about the project meant to be his crown jewel, or how he sees the church that he thought was making it happen.

“Mad and disappointing, they hang out around the same line,” he said. “I’m disappointed in the fact that a lot of kids were affected, and I’m hurt more than anything else. I’m also scared. ... Naturally, you get upset and disappointed and they’re all kind of the same. And you get angry because that’s the natural way to lash out.

“I would’ve been disappointed if they had said, ‘We don’t want to do it.’ But now they’ve denied us and lied and I’m mad. ... That starts to wear down on you.”

As a result, the lives of Johnson, Richardson and dozens of students who were promised a state-of-the-art second chance have been changed – maybe forever.

But against all odds, the plan worked for some students on the football field.

Though two of the Ironmen’s 12 scheduled games – Lakewood St. Edward near Cleveland and IMG Academy in Florida – were canceled, they were able to add Reigning Sports Academy in Columbus and Cornerstone Christian in San Antonio.

“Both of them heard what happened and called us up,” Johnson said.

The team won two of its 12 games, beating Reigning Sports Academy and Birmingham Brother Rice in Michigan, he said.

Despite the challenges of operating the school through donations, personal bank accounts and the goodwill of others, multiple COF Academy athletes have earned attention from universities, according to Johnson. Some even have been offered scholarships, he said.

For others, however, the experiment left them with a lost semester or even year. Students lived in hotels, faced an even less certain future and flew across the country for a broken promise.

aking@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekAndrew