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'Miracle car' scam preys on the faithful

Calvester Benjamin-Anderson burns paperwork from a scam artist on her back porch Thursday. She says burning the fraudulent paperwork helps put the experience behind her.

JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times

Calvester Benjamin-Anderson burns paperwork from a scam artist on her back porch Thursday. She says burning the fraudulent paperwork helps put the experience behind her.

Isabell Reivas is a woman of faith. So she believed when her St. Petersburg pastor told her about a program that would let her buy a late-model car at a rock-bottom price.

She paid $1,000 and waited. And waited.

Today, years later, she is still waiting, but her hopes have changed. She just wants her money back.

This week she learned that the money might finally be on the way. But it is a pittance, about 6 percent of what she paid, pennies on the dollar.

At least 20 members of a St. Petersburg church fell victim to a "miracle cars" scheme that stole more than $20-million from believers across the country between Oct. 1, 1998, and June 25, 2002.

According to a spokesman in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Kansas City, Mo., the hoax ensnared 182 victims in Florida for a total loss of $964,850.

In recent weeks, about 2,300 people have begun receiving restitution payments after being conned in the nationwide, multimillion-dollar scam that promised lightly used, high quality vehicles for as low as $1,000.

"Most of the losses ranged from $1,000 to $5,000," said Don Ledford of the U.S. Attorney's Office.

The price was higher for others. A Sarasota buyer lost $66,600, another in Jacksonville, $10,000, and one in Orlando, $34,000. A Miami resident lost $31,000.

"Some of the victims were buying for themselves, and some of them were treating it like an investment, buying vehicles they were hoping to sell," Ledford said.

For Reivas, 70, a check for 6 percent of what she lost is better than nothing.

"I will be very, very thankful for it," the Trinidad immigrant said during a telephone interview from her daughter's home in Maryland.

"Whatever little, I am pleased and thankful."

Reivas, who has had open-heart surgery and several strokes, borrowed money from her grandson to buy a $1,000 Camry she hoped one of her daughters could use to take her around. Her pastor promised that she and other congregation members would get their vehicles in two to three months, she said.

Her daughter, Charmain Rivas, said she tried to dissuade her mother from the purchase.

"It sounded too good to be true, but my mom was so adamant about getting these cars, and she didn't listen to me," Rivas said.

"I wish she would get everything back, but if she gets a part of it back, it's a small justice."

• • •

Calvester Benjamin-Anderson's check was for $263.10. It arrived two weeks ago, long after she had repaid the $4,000 she borrowed to pay for what turned out to be phantom vehicles.

Benjamin-Anderson and Reivas are among almost two dozen members and former members of Breakthrough Christian Center in St. Petersburg defrauded in the nationwide conspiracy. Some are too embarrassed to talk about the incident.

A former member who did not want her name used said she and her daughter lost $1,000 each in their quest to buy the bargain cars. Three weeks ago, she and her daughter each received a restitution check for a little over $60.

The masterminds behind the scheme were two California men, Robert "Buddha" Gomez, 28, sentenced in 2003, and James Nichols, also 28 at the time. Targeting churches and religious organizations, the two men concocted a tale about a man of faith named John Bowers who died and left a multimillion-dollar estate with a fleet of vehicles to be sold at bargain prices to fellow believers.

Gomez claimed to be the fictitious John Bowers' adopted son and sole heir. He and Nichols spread word of the deal through nationwide "finders" who told the story to congregations and religious groups.

Gomez was found guilty of fraud and money laundering and sentenced to 21 years and 10 months in federal prison and ordered to pay over $12-million in restitution. Nichols got 24 years and four months without parole and also was ordered to pay restitution. Two "finders" got less severe sentences.

The scam became the subject of a book, God Wants You to Roll! The $21-million "Miracle Cars" Scam: How Two Boys Fleeced America's Churchgoers by John Phillips III.

Reivas, Benjamin-Anderson and other members of St. Petersburg's Breakthrough Christian Center learned about the miracle cars from their late pastor, the Rev. Glenn Miller. He encouraged his congregation to take advantage of the unexpected blessing.

Pastor Norma Miller, who took over the church after her husband's death three years ago, said she and her husband also were victims of the scam. She declined to say how much money they lost.

Benjamin-Anderson, 55, of St. Petersburg no longer attends the church. This year she ran unsuccessfully for the State House District 55 seat, and planned to replace her aging Cadillac with a late-model Lexus and a pickup truck — all for $4,000.

She now drives a 2005 pre-owned Suzuki.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727)892-2283.

. FAST FACTS

For information

Restitution checks are being mailed through May 31. Those who have not received their checks by then should call the U.S. District Court at (816) 512-5000 and ask for the finance department. Additional information is available at www.usdoj.gov/usao/mow/miracle

cars.html.

'Miracle car' scam preys on the faithful 05/12/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2008 11:00am]
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