TAMPA — Bishop Melvin Jefferson and his wife, Brenda, have a busy travel schedule this year as they spread the word of their Tampa-based ministry. Atlanta; New Orleans; Austin, Texas; Kenya.
There's one stop they didn't tout: a court-ordered trip to Detroit on Aug. 30.
For 13 years, Melvin Jefferson and his Deeper Life Christian Church have failed to pay a $1.5 million judgment stemming from their aborted purchase of a historic theater in Detroit. Officials there want to grill the 68-year-old Jefferson on his financial affairs as they try to determine whether he and the church should be forced to pay up.
In the three decades since Jefferson founded the Deeper Life ministry, the evangelist has been dogged by accusations over how the church's money is spent. Deeper Life has dispatched members across the country to solicit money supposedly for the homeless. Meanwhile, Jefferson and his relatives have lived in luxury, dodging accountability.
Public records show the Jeffersons' questionable financial dealings have continued over this past year:
• After the Michigan judgment was filed in Hillsborough County, the Jeffersons paid nearly $1 million for a 9,500-square-foot bayfront mansion in Apollo Beach. Homesteaded residences in Florida are exempt from seizure to satisfy judgments.
• The Jeffersons and Deeper Life transferred 10 properties that possibly could be used to pay the judgment out of their names and into the name of Brenda Jefferson's daughter.
• Even with the transfers, the Jeffersons and Deeper Life still have real estate holdings worth at least $3.2 million not counting the bayfront house.
• Brenda's son, Calvin, also a pastor, bought his own waterfront home and boat slip in May for nearly $400,000.
Four years ago, Melvin Gavron rented his mansion on Lake Tarpon to the Jefferson family after being assured they could afford the $10,000 a month rent — Calvin told him that his parents got a $12,000 housing allowance from the church every month.
But Gavron's initial impression of the Jeffersons as "good, religious people" changed after they moved out in June. Now he's suing them, claiming they caused tens of thousand of dollars in damage and took chandeliers, sinks and even an air compressor without paying for them.
"I never would have expected this kind of behavior from religious leaders in the community," Gavron said.
The Jeffersons did not return requests for comment placed through their public relations firm and left in person with one of their representatives.
In a radio interview last year, Melvin Jefferson portrayed his ministry as one of caring and compassion.
"We help," he said. "We feed, house and cloth 24/7. You want a place to go; we have a place to go."
But several years ago, the Jeffersons moved their ministry from a blighted section of Nebraska Avenue. They now hold services miles away in a building they rent for $8,000 a month in the more affluent community of Bloomingdale.
Meanwhile, their Deeper Life Christian Church on Nebraska sits empty. Some of the run-down, church-owned houses nearby appear to be occupied but no one would talk to a reporter. The Jeffersons handed out food in the area last Thanksgiving and doled out free school supplies in July, but most of their activities are now at the Bloomingdale church, their Facebook pages show.
Sara Romeo is executive director of Tampa Crossroads, a nonprofit organization that helps the needy throughout Tampa Bay. She has long been frustrated by Deeper Life's lack of cooperation with other agencies and its refusal to participate in Hillsborough's annual Point-in-Time event to count and assess the needs of the homeless population.
"I've noticed large groups of homeless people who congregate around their properties (along Nebraska) constantly seven days a week," Romeo said. "I just see people kind of hanging out there looking like they really need some assistance. We have a very serious problem with homeless individuals but I don't see them doing anything at all even though they have massive amount of assets and readily available funds."
Romeo calls Deeper Life "The Church of Deeper Pockets."
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"Look where I came from," Jefferson said in last year's radio interview. "Look where I am now."
Originally from Texas, Jefferson fought in Vietnam, moved to Tampa with a tent revival and incorporated Deeper Life in 1992. He called himself a bishop although he had no formal religious training. Yet by the early 2000s, he had grown Deeper Life into a ministry with branches in several states and more than 1,000 members who packed the Nebraska Avenue church each Sunday.
Many of the members were alcoholics, drug addicts and petty criminals. Dozens lived in shabby church-owned houses with no air conditioning and led a cult-like existence in which they were required to memorize 50 Bible verses and encouraged to marry within the fold. In return for lodging, they were put to work, dispatched across the country to stand at busy intersections and beg for money for the poor.
Some never came back. Three died when vans carrying church members flipped over.
Others, though, returned copious amounts to the church and to Jefferson and his third wife, Brenda, a gospel singer and songwriter several years his junior.
"I know without a shadow of a doubt I raised $4 million to $5 million in all the time I was there," Darrin Rich, who spent seven years with Deeper Life, told the Tampa Tribune and WFLA-TV in 2003 "I had to send it all back, all to Florida accounts. Lots of accounts, in different family members' names."
Church members were urged to donate what little money they had.
"When you give money, if you are sowing a seed, you're going to get your money back," Jefferson would tell his congregation. "Everyone say, 'Money!' "
"Mon-eeeeee!" the congregation would holler in return.
Deeper Life also took members' food stamps, resulting in the arrest of the Jeffersons and five church members in the late 1990s. Charges against the couple were dropped in exchange for the church pleading guilty to one count of food stamp fraud and paying a $5,000 fine. The other five received probation.
As the money poured in, the church invested millions in real estate including the Eastown Theater, Detroit's last surviving movie palace. The Jeffersons lived in a 10,000-square-foot mansion in Brandon, rode in a Bentley and traveled the country by private jet.
After a rash of stories on the couple's extravagance and their exploitation of church members, the Jeffersons seemed to lower their public profile. In 2010, they left the Nebraska Avenue church and started the Living in Victory Christian Church in Bloomingdale.
Jefferson told the Tampa Bay Times in 2010 that they were shifting focus from a housing ministry to one of worship services and youth programs.
"We've been in the inner city every since we've been in Florida," Jefferson said at the time. "Now we come out here not so much to bring the needy out but to bring the neighborhood out."
But evidence surfaced last year that Jeffersons once again were deploying church members to raise money under the guise of helping the poor.
In March 2016, a Pennsylvania newspaper reported that three men with buckets in hand periodically showed up on the streets of Easton, Pa. They said they were with New Life Church and needed money for homeless children.
Only after the men were arrested and forced to identify themselves was it discovered that all three lived in Tampa in properties owned by Deeper Life Christian Church.
Rick Ross, who has kept close tabs on the Jeffersons through his New Jersey-based Cult Education Institute, says they have a history of preying on society's most vulnerable.
"I think it's fair to say that the Jeffersons fit within the pantheon of some of the most awful evangelists notorious for exploiting the disadavantaged," Ross said.
• • •
Even with a $1.5 million judgment hanging over them, the Jeffersons continue to live well.
In January, they bought the Apollo Beach mansion on Tampa Bay. It was an unusual transaction that involved the same Sarasota company from which they rent the Bloomingdale church building.
In June 2016, the company purchased the house for $1 million. Seven months later, it sold the house to the Jeffersons for $935,000 even though property values were rapidly rising. The company also took back a mortgage for the full sale price.
Now assessed at $1.5 million, the house has had an exterior makeover including paint job and landscaping. Gavron, who rented his Lake Tarpon house to the Jeffersons, wonders if the Apollo Beach house contains items he says they took from him.
"That explains a lot of things," Gavron said after learning the Jeffersons had moved to a big home of their own. "Why would anyone steal an air compressor?"
Gavron met Melvin and Brenda Jefferson a few times, but dealt with their 41-year-old son Calvin.
"He was represented to be the family CFO, who handles all the financial matters and he actually issued the rent checks," Gavron said. "He said that his father didn't like to put anything in his name and didn't like to sign checks and handle money. He wanted no fingerprints.''
Gavron said Calvin told him the family owned a condo in the Dominican Republic. Melvin and Brenda Jefferson also own four undeveloped lots in Wimauma assessed at a total of $360,000 and two Tampa buildings that house their Dare 2 Dream Salon and Eagle Tire used tire store.
Although the judgment against Melvin Jefferson and Deeper Life is from 2004 when they defaulted on payments for the Detroit theater, a bankruptcy trustee found it last year while looking for assets to pay creditors in a Michigan case.
Attorney Stephen Stella said the trustee's office probably would not go after occupied church-owned houses, but could pursue properties owned or recently transferred by the Jeffersons.
Melvin Jefferson is not only a preacher and property investor, but an author, too. His latest book? Change Your Thoughts, Change Your World: Moving From Poverty to Prosperity.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate