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Officers with guns drawn serve church court order

The property and assets of Greater Ministries International Church, accused of an investment scheme, are frozen.

Securities regulators with the states of Alabama and Ohio obtained a federal court order Friday freezing the assets and property of Greater Ministries International Church, which stands accused of operating a religious Ponzi scheme nationwide.

Concern about the possibility of violent resistance by members of the church led to the order being served Friday evening by several armed U.S. marshals at the church's headquarters at 715 E Bird St.

Several unmarked cars quietly rolled into place on various sides of the church's building about 7 p.m. The men inside wore vests marked "Police."

Minutes later, heavily armed officers entered through the front door. Some carried rifles, other entered with pistols drawn. In addition to officers from the U.S. Marshals Service, the Tampa Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office participated.

A block away, safely behind a small abandoned brick building in an adjacent parking lot, lawyers and officials from Florida, Alabama and Ohio waited for officers to secure the building before they entered. They declined to comment or give their names.

Several people inside the building when the officers arrived were allowed to leave.

In seeking the court order, lawyers representing the Alabama Securities Commission and the Ohio Division of Securities repeated allegations that have already been lodged against Greater Ministries by a federal grand jury in Tampa and authorities in Pennsylvania.

They accused the church and its officers of operating a fraudulent "Double Your Money Gift Exchange Program," which promised Christians that their contributions would be doubled in 17 months. Church officials said the generous returns came from overseas gold mines and other investments.

Investors were quoted the passage from Luke 6:38: "Give, and it shall be given unto you." Church officials said state or federal securities laws didn't apply to them because they treated all the transactions as gifts.

But federal prosecutors and securities regulators characterized the program as a fraudulent investment scheme. They allege that the high returns were financed by the money of the newest investors _ some of whom haven't gotten any money back. They also noted that the church elders kept 5 percent of the contributions they solicited from the faithful _ commissions termed "gas money."

The Alabama and Florida officials said in court pleadings that the church has accumulated large sums of cash at its headquarters _ at one time, as much as $26-million in a single room there. They expressed concern that the money might be shipped out of the country before it could be returned to fraud victims in their home states.

The officials also asked the court to appoint a receiver to take control of the church's property, to make sure that no books or records of the program's finances were moved or destroyed.

After hearing from the officials ex parte _ that is, without a representative of Greater Ministries present _ U.S. District Judge Richard A. Lazzara signed the order at 11:35 a.m. Friday.

Attempts to reach Greater Ministries officials Friday night were unsuccessful.