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"Everything about him was a fake'

To Victoria Lynn Barton, he was the perfect husband.

To Martha and James Sparks, he was a good son-in-law and a trusted friend.

To the congregation of Bethel Baptist Church, he was an inspirational minister.

In fact, Ferris Ladon Toole turned out to be none of these things, authorities say.

"Everything about him was a fake," said James Sparks, 69. "He'd preach and bring tears to your eyes. He was just the perfect man. That's what we thought anyway."

By the time "Donnie" Toole, as he was known to friends, skipped town in May 1996, authorities say, he had bilked the Sparkses of more than $100,000 _ their life savings.

Authorities arrested Toole on March 7 on a Pasco County warrant in Idaho Falls, Idaho, where he was preaching at a small church.

Toole, 34, was driving the same 1995 Chevrolet Blazer he stole from the Sparkses' driveway in Angus Valley, officials said.

Booked into the Pasco County jail on 25 counts of uttering forged checks and grand theft, Toole was being held Thursday on $110,000 bail.

Between October 1993 and May 1996, Toole stole dozens of checks from the Sparkses' personal and business accounts and cashed them with forged signatures, authorities said.

He typed up a phony contract to "sell" the Sparkses a large sum of Coca-Cola stock that he never actually owned, officials said. Mrs. Sparks gave Toole nearly all her retirement money from GTE, she said. Mrs. Sparks' daughter, Barton, told investigators that Toole also obtained cash from two other older couples, according to sheriff's reports.

Mrs. Sparks said Toole told them he grew up in Tampa and had attended divinity school.

He had phony papers from religious institutions he never attended, authorities said.

Also, he carried a photo identification card for MacDill Air Force Base that was later found to be phony, Mrs. Sparks said.

"He was a professional con man and we were fool enough to get taken," said Mrs. Sparks, 58. "When it got too hot, he moved on to another town."

James Sparks said he and his wife trusted Toole, whom they met in 1993 through church, with everything they had.

Their business, Sparkles Cleaning Service, has since gone under, and Mrs. Sparks has returned to cleaning houses for extra money.

The Sparkses notified Pasco sheriff's detectives in May 1996 after bank officials discovered stolen checks had been cashed in the Sparkses' names. The couple also went to Toole with their suspicions, according to sheriff's reports.

Toole told the Sparkses he had a gambling problem. The next day, he was gone.

The Sparkses eventually learned that Toole had been going out gambling at night when they thought he was working jobs for their cleaning company, Mr. Sparks said.

Officials with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were able to match the phony Coca-Cola contract to a typewriter found at the home on Twigg Street in Land O'Lakes where Toole had lived.

Authorities also found Toole's fingerprints on the stolen checks. Bank officials identified him as the man who had cashed the checks.

But the scam ran deeper than money, authorities said.

The Sparkses' daughter, Barton, 32, thought she had married Toole, Mrs. Sparks said. Barton later discovered there was no record of her marriage. Toole told her he had a friend at the courthouse who "took care of" the marriage license, Mrs. Sparks said.

Toole also "officiated" at the wedding of Mrs. Sparks' son, Mark.

The Rev. Buddy Mathis said he hired Toole as the youth minister at Bethel Baptist Church in 1993.

The church later asked Toole to leave for reasons Mathis wouldn't discuss.

"The thing of it is, in the time he worked here, he did a wonderful job," Mathis said. "Then things started to crack _ in the program and in him."

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