Over a long, emotionally taxing night in January, three foreign students told Roseville police how they had been abused by a man who brought them to this country to play at his fledgling basketball academy. At 2 a.m., they were done, and the question arose: Where do they go now?
Amy Gordon, a teacher in charge of monitoring the boys' schooling, had cajoled them into telling their story and had accompanied them to the police station. She said she wasn't about to let the boys be taken to a county group home. "I started to cry and told them 'no,' " Gordon said.
She took the bleary-eyed youngsters home that night and three months later they haven't left. With the support of her husband, Eric, and friends, she is trying to get the youngsters' American experience off to a fresh start.
While avoiding the criminal case now pending against the students' former mentor, the Gordons and the three basketball players Cristian, 20, from Pouso Alegre, Brazil; Adilio, 18, from Lyon, France; and "Jacques," 15, from Paris agreed to share their story with The Bee. The newspaper is using only the first names of Cristian and Adilio. The third boy is being identified by the pseudonym "Jacques" because he is a minor.
The boys previously lived with Francis Ngissah, the head of CCSE Preparatory Academy, which was run out of a six-bedroom home in the affluent Blue Oaks neighborhood of Roseville. He was arrested in January after the boys and a local player went to police with allegations of abuse including the use of zip ties to restrain the students and putting clothespins on their nipples to punish them.
Cristian said he thought CCSE would help him reach his goals.
"Since I was 15 years old, I had a dream of coming to the United States to play basketball," said the 6-foot-10 center who, with a verbal commitment to play for the University of Oregon, is close to reaching that goal.
Adilio, who stands 6-foot-6, said he, too, "wanted to go to the States to play basketball, to go to college."
The boys said that within a month and a half of their arrival last year they had figured out something was wrong. But they said they felt their options for leaving were limited. They had entrusted their passports to Ngissah and had limited access to the Internet.
Ngissah, who declined to speak to The Bee for this story, has denied the boys' allegations. After posting bail and being rearrested several times, he remains in custody in Placer County with bail set at $235,000. He faces 15 charges, ranging from inflicting corporal punishment to passing bad checks. He's scheduled to appear in court again on April 12.
Players recruited globally
Founded in the summer of 2012, the academy recruited players locally and from around the world with promises of a top-notch education and a chance to compete with world-class basketball talent.
Keith Moss, a former assistant basketball coach at Saint Mary's College in Moraga who lives in Roseville, helped recruit some of the players. After conducting a scouting combine locally in May, Moss flew to France in June. There, he attended a practice that featured Jacques and Adilio.
A CCSE team roster subsequently listed nine players, from Russia, Brazil, France and Canada.
In several cases, Ngissah helped players attend by agreeing to waive the $10,000 annual tuition and the $5,000 boarding fee, police said.
Amy Gordon first met Cristian, Adilio and Jacques last fall.
Ngissah, after failing to establish a relationship with Horizon Charter Schools for the academy's educational component in October, turned to CORE Placer, a charter school supporting families who home-school their children.
Gordon, 34, was the teacher assigned to track the students' progress. At the time, there were five or six boys living at the Woodleaf Circle home. She met with them once or twice a week to check on their progress.
"In the beginning, everything had a nice shine on it," she said, but soon things got weird.
First, she noted Ngissah answering the door in his robe even though he wasn't supposed to be living there. The students weren't making much academic progress between visits. And she said she felt Ngissah was a curious choice for a board to pick to run a school.
"Every week, it fell apart a little more," she said. "There was never enough food in the house. Never enough fresh fruits and vegetables."
She said she also perceived an uneasiness in the students' relationship to Ngissah. By Thanksgiving, she said she was sure something was wrong.
"I said, I have to get to the bottom of this because something really wrong is happening," said Gordon.
Boys confided in teacher
Over the Christmas holiday, two students left the academy and did not return. With only four left, the academy didn't have enough players to field a team, but a more important thought occurred to Gordon: She realized she could fit all the remaining students in her car.
She figured they might open up if she could get them away from Ngissah. She convinced him to let her take the boys to her house to complete an assignment. That's where the students began to tell her the stories that led to Ngissah's Jan. 9 arrest.
But before calling Child Protective Services, Gordon called Moss.
According to Gordon, the boys told her they had already told Moss at least some of the story and were waiting for him to find them a way out.
"I asked (Moss) why he hadn't called (CPS). Anyone who works with kids should protect them. This is not something they should endure while you find them a new school," Gordon said.
"I think they thought Keith was going to find them another place any day now."
Moss said he didn't hear about the alleged abuse until right around Christmas.
"I was trying to gather some information. I was fact-finding," said Moss, who had left the program by that time because he had not been paid. "I wanted to talk to Francis and get his side of the story before I jumped to any conclusions."
He said Ngissah denied the allegations. Still, Moss said he had the young men spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with his family.
But the next day, he had to leave town to be with his son at a basketball tournament. He said he felt comfortable putting the boys back in the CCSE home because Ngissah was expected to be away on a recruiting trip.
While he was gone, Moss said his wife checked in on the boys, who were alone in the house.
While Moss wanted to hear Ngissah's side of the story, Gordon went to CPS, as the law requires teachers and other mandated reporters to do.
Gordon said CPS officials instructed her to go directly to the police.
Family mushrooms to 7
After the police interviews, Gordon took the young men to her home. She and husband Eric had talked about hosting an exchange student at some point down the road, but suddenly they had three.
"I said, thank you for not thinking I'm crazy," Amy Gordon recalled telling her husband. "He said, 'No, you are crazy. But this is the right thing to do.' Talk about taking your work home with you."
Each of the boys' mothers agreed to let them stay in California.
For Cristian, the logic was simple. If he is to get the SAT and English proficiency scores he needs to play college basketball, he has a better chance of doing it under Amy Gordon's guidance than from his home in Brazil.
He said his dream is bigger than what happened at the Roseville house.
Now, the boys are settling in the Gordon family, which includes the couple's 2- and 3-year-old daughters.
"It's much better. They really care about us," said Adilio, who along with Jacques is enrolled at Del Oro High School. Adilio is a junior, while Jacques is a freshman.
The Gordons' house, just outside Newcastle, sits at the end of a private unmarked drive atop a bluff overlooking lush green hills. Fortuitously, it came with a sturdy basketball hoop right next to the chicken coop.
With the Gordons playing the lead role and with help from friends, the boys are getting more of the American experience they wanted.
In addition to playing lots of club league basketball, they're out a lot more these days.
They've been to the snow, toured the Coloma gold discovery site, taken a trip to San Francisco and attended a Sacramento Kings game.
Adilio also took part in an American tradition attending prom. He didn't get to go with the girl he had asked, but he was consoled by going with a large group and doing the "Harlem Shake" at the dance.
After a recent midweek dinner at their new home, the boys helped clear the table while the Gordons' 3-year-old daughter prepared "treats" in her plastic kitchen.
Eric Gordon said the girls are adjusting well. "They definitely have a little less of our time, but they like the boys," he said.
The boys adhere to a no-phone-during-dinner rule, but Adilio was quickly on the phone to video conference with a girl from school shortly afterward.
"It's tough. You never get our own time. It was hard enough with the little ones," Eric Gordon said after finishing the meal. "We're getting a crash course in teenagers."
HOW TO HELP
Contributions are being accepted to support the former academy students' stay in Placer County. Donations will be used for food, school supplies, tutoring, activities and basketball-related expenses. Make contributions online at gofundme.com/rebound.
Call The Bee's Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @newsfletch.