SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- South Charleston city officials are making arrangements to get nearly 20 kids home safely after they were apparently duped into thinking they were coming to South Charleston to attend a basketball academy.
"We found around 16 to 18 kids in a two-bedroom apartment sleeping on the floor," said South Charleston Mayor Frank Mullens. "They hadn't eaten in two days."
Mullens said it appears that Daniel Hicks, a South Charleston resident, recruited students from around the world to attend a fictitious prep school, brought them to the area and then "pulled a disappearing act."
"We're out now trying to take care of these kids who are here, even from overseas -- France and Africa -- that are under the impression they're going to a prep academy to get an education and play basketball," said Mullens.
Two coaches, who asked their names not be used, also were apparently tricked into coming to South Charleston from Oklahoma and North Carolina.
In a telephone call to the Gazette on Sunday night, Hicks said his prep academy was legitimate, and was located on Second Avenue on Charleston's West Side. As for the teenagers in South Charleston, Hicks said a coach brought them to the area without his knowledge.
"Some of those kids are 20 years old, with no birth certificates," said Hicks, who played college basketball at New Mexico State and Concord. "How could I put them in my school?"
In April, Hicks told the Gazette he was creating the school for athletes. After some of the information Hicks provided didn't check out, the Gazette published a column headlined "Do homework before hitting proposed prep academy" that warned students to "beware" before signing up.
Betty Jordan, who handles private school requests as executive assistant to the state superintendent of schools, said at the time she didn't have any information about the school. Kanawha County school officials also said they hadn't heard about the proposal.
Hicks said Sunday night that he had a letter from Jordan dated July 22 that said his school had been approved.
Mullens, the South Charleston mayor, said the city got a call on Friday from a mother in Indiana who was worried about her son.
"She told us her son was there under false pretenses," the mayor said. "She said Hicks called her saying he needed another $500 and then she got suspicious."
Over the weekend, the city was able to get some of the kids home, Mullens said.
"We were able to get some of them on a Greyhound bus," he said.
For now, Mullens said, the Ramada hotel in South Charleston has agreed to let the around seven or eight boys who are left stay there.
South Charleston Police Chief Brad Rinehart said he's investigating.
"This is very complex and we're just breaking the iceberg on a lot of it," he said. "We've spoken with the on-duty prosecutor. This could be a federal issue, or a state issue, and that's something we're trying to determine."
Mullens said the FBI is also investigating, because children from all over the country are involved.
Rinehart said he didn't know how much money the kids paid to attend, but said they felt cheated.
"They're good kids. I put about seven of them on the bus last night and a couple of them hugged me goodbye," he said. "They felt cheated, like they got scammed and let down -- they put their trust in [Hicks]."
Sports editor Mitch Vingle contributed to this report. Reach Kate White at kate.wh...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.