Church learns of arrest of Hopi Mission School staff

(Mennonite Church USA/Mennonite Education Agency) — A complex case involving the Hopi Mission School of Kykotsmovi, Arizona, took another turn recently with the arrests last week of Thane and Michelle Epefanio.

Thane Epefanio, who has served as administrator of the school, and Michelle Epefanio, who teaches at the school, were arrested Tuesday, September 27, 2016, and had an initial appearance before Judge Deborah Fine in the United States District Court of Arizona on a complaint alleging that the Epefanios have committed Social Security fraud. Both Thane and Michelle Epefanio were released from custody on Friday, September 30, while the case is pending. This current development is separate from an ongoing lawsuit against the school by Mennonite Church USA.

“Mennonite Church USA has cooperated fully with any and all requests of law enforcement officials and will continue to do so,” Mennonite Church USA executive director Ervin Stutzman said.

Mennonite Church USA initially formed the Hopi Mission School Task Group in 2014 to investigate complaints about the administration of Hopi Mission School, which has a long relationship with the Mennonite church and is located on land that was deeded to Mennonite Church USA to carry out education and mission. The school’s administration and Board chose not to cooperate with the Task Group, refusing to turn over the school’s financial records. Mennonite Church USA asked the school administration and Board to vacate the property by June 30, 2015.

The Hopi Mission School Board and administration have contested the church’s right to ownership of the property and its authority to intervene in the operation of the school. With the counsel of the Task Group, Mennonite Church USA filed suit against the school in Arizona state court in September 2015. The matter now resides in the hands of the state courts in Navajo County.

“We continue to ask for prayer for all the persons involved,” Mennonite Education Agency executive director Carlos Romero said, “and for the lives that are impacted by the ministry of the Hopi Mission School.”

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—Mennonite Church USA staff