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Duped by faith?

Published Sep. 3, 2005

A scam always looks obvious from the outside.

A wealthy Christian died in New York who, out of the goodness of his heart, made provisions in his will for believers all over the country to buy luxury cars for a couple thousand dollars each. By the grace of God, you can reap the blessings of this deal. Your car will arrive after the property is released from probate, which will take about a year. Make your cashier's checks payable to . . .

Yeah, right, you say. Suuuure.

But you're reading the story in the newspaper.

Now put yourself in a pew, looking toward the pulpit. The person discussing the plan is the same person whose advice you trusted to save your marriage, the one who encouraged you to live righteously, the one who prayed with you in times of trouble, the preacher whom you called "the man of God."

Federal authorities say hundreds of people across the country fell for the fictitious story of a man named John Bowers who died and left "miracle cars" for believers. The scam touched home when at least 20 people at Breakthrough Christian Center in St. Petersburg bought into it, too. More than a year ago, they borrowed money from relatives, took out loans and dipped into their savings for cars that don't exist.

These "miracle cars" netted more than $19-million from New York to California from October 1998 to June when the U.S. Attorney's Office arrested three people whom investigators say were the masterminds and charged them with conspiracy, fraud and money laundering.

As the story unfolded, people shook their heads and asked the same question many of the victims asked: "How could they be so gullible?'

But authorities say scams targeting religious groups are unique. They make victims believe their investments go beyond material things. They manipulate the one thing they know they can find among people who believe in a God they have never seen _ faith.

Last August, the North American Securities Administrators Association arranged a news conference to warn people that religious investment schemes were more widespread than ever, after losses from just three national cases approached $1.5-billion.

One of them was the Tampa-based Greater Ministries International Church scam, which operated from March 1993 to January 1999. Authorities called it one of the largest pyramid schemes ever investigated.

Church elders promised to double investors' money in 17 months under a "Double Your Blessing Gift Exchange" and a "Faith Promises Program," thanks to gold mines and profitable overseas investments the church claimed it had.

But the funds returned to some investors actually came from money put up by investors at a later time. Last year, several church leaders received lengthy prison sentences for their roles in the pyramid scheme, which involved 18,000 victims who lost $448-million during the 1990s.

Other scams to bamboozle believers are continually under way _ each proving that when you think you've heard it all, you haven't.

In April, the former pastor of a Pittsburgh-area church pleaded no contest to 100 charges of defrauding the congregation, stealing church property and violating state securities laws in a highly publicized case featured on Dateline NBC. W. Michael Altman had been hired as pastor of the congregation, now known as Grace Christian Ministries, just a few months after his release from prison for submitting a false statement on a loan application at a bank in Birmingham, Ala., according to a story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Altman convinced 43 people to participate in an investment plan that caused them to lose about $355,500.

In March, Illinois law enforcement authorities arrested retired police officer Bill Bresnahan, 54, whom they say falsely told churchgoers he rescued bodies from World Trade Center rubble and prayed with survivors on Sept. 11. Teary-eyed believers put about $3,200 in the collection plate for the "hero."

Con artists gain the trust of their victims by professing that they share similar spiritual beliefs. They gain credibility by quoting Scripture and kneeling in prayer beside the very people they hope to cheat.

"One of the most effective sales techniques is to use word of mouth," said Les Henderson, who wrote Crimes of Persuasion: Schemes, Scams, Frauds. "Scammers use this to their advantage by infiltrating a known circle of those with shared interests. Once they convince one key person, they use subtle peer pressure to influence others who gladly relinquish decision-making to the recommendations of those they know and trust."

At Breakthrough Christian Center in St. Petersburg, the miracle cars scam played out like this:

Senior pastor Glenn Miller told his congregation last year that the car deal would be an "uncommon harvest" of blessings for their small storefront church. Members, some who had unreliable transportation or none at all, were told they could buy all kinds of cars on the cheap _ a 1998 Toyota Camry for $1,000, a Lexus for $3,000, a Cadillac Escalade for $6,500.

Church members took his endorsement as a guarantee. To them, he is a "prophet," a person who sees divine visions from God. Some never saw pictures of their intended cars, didn't know what color they would be, or whether they would be two-door or four-door cars.

Miller also told members that the Rev. Creflo Dollar, the well-known founder of Georgia-based World Changers Church International, with more than 20,000 members, had also participated in the deal and was expecting cars. That made Breakthrough members believe they were in good company.

A spokesman for Dollar recently told the St. Petersburg Times that not only had World Changers not participated in such a car deal, but that no one had ever even approached Dollar or church leaders with the idea.

In late June, Calvester Benjamin-Anderson, a member who had taken out a $4,000 loan to buy a used Lexus and pickup truck wanted an update. She called a number listed on paperwork that came along with a receipt she got in the mail. Someone at the number referred her to a toll-free line. She dialed. It was a recording at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Missouri.

"There are no cars," the recording said. Four people had been arrested on charges including conspiracy, fraud and money laundering. Gwendolyn Baker, 51, of Memphis, James R. Nichols, 26, and Robert Gomez, 27, both of California were masterminds in the massive scheme. Corinne Conway of Missouri was also arrested.

Baker's was the name some Breakthrough members were told to put on their cashier's checks. According to federal authorities, Nichols posed as executor of the Bowers estate and, along with the others, collected millions since October 1998 for more than 7,000 vehicles that investigators say never existed. Investigators say that some of the victims' money was deposited into Nichols' player's account at a California casino.

Ashley Baker, a spokesman for the North American Securities Administrators Association, said there is a key to any religious scheme:

"They make faith in God synonymous with the investment scheme," Baker said.

Once that happens, victims are loath to concede that they've been taken. They believe giving up on their investment would indicate a lack of faith in God, Baker said.

And even when they do realize it was a scheme, they try to handle the matter among themselves, Baker said. "You're asking people to not only admit that they were duped, but that their faith was misplaced," he said.

After hearing from Benjamin-Anderson, Miller called a meeting of car buyers at Breakthrough. About 20 people showed up, several of whom had also bought cars for family members.

Some left the meeting believing that talk of a scam was an "attack of the enemy" and that their cars were still coming.

"There's two sides to every story," one member told a Times reporter.

The following Sunday, about 70 people gathered for worship. Miller, a stout man with white hair and a white pinstriped suit, sang along with his congregation.

Spent from the vigorous praise, he wiped the sweat from his brow with a bright yellow hand towel that coordinated perfectly with his yellow tie and handkerchief. Members had a joyous time last Sunday during the evening healing service, he said before starting his sermon. One woman came with legs two different lengths, he said. But by God's healing power, she didn't leave that way.

"A leg that was shorter than the other grew out to normal size!" Miller proclaimed, as amens and hallelujahs filled the room.

He had a word from the Lord this morning. That word is "pray."

"Pray, and don't get impatient," he said. "Prayer keeps the river flowing. Glory to the lamb of God!"

A miracle is about to take place at Breakthrough, he said. "You ought to tell somebody, "I'm on my way!' "

Worshipers turn to their neighbors: "I'm on my way!"

"The Lord spoke to my spirit man and said, "I have put the church, not only Breakthrough, but the body of Christ, through a test,' " Miller told the congregation.

Some people have failed the test by gossiping, complaining and "crying over a little piece of money," Miller said, apparently referring to the members who spoke openly about losses in the car deal.

You just don't know, he said, God's got "millions in store for you!"

The service took place inside a conference room at the Hilton in downtown St. Petersburg. The week before, Breakthrough had left its location inside a strip shopping center on 49th Street S in light of eviction proceedings. According to court records, Miller failed to pay landlord Ashok Shah nearly $32,000 in rent over three years.

Shah said Miller consistently failed to pay the monthly $1,800, not including taxes, he owed for three units since entering into the lease in June 1999. In the beginning, Shah said, Miller would tell him that members' checks had bounced and that the church would make good on its debts.

Shah, who is a Christian, said he believed Miller, who also said God would bless Shah "because I was blessing the church."

In a brief talk with a Times reporter, Miller said he knew little about the car deal. He said he didn't know whether it was a scam or not. Miller said, he also put money into the deal, but would not say how much or what the money was used for. He said he had heard from other sources that Dollar participated and relayed that information to his congregation. Miller said the roof at the strip shopping center leaked, but declined to talk about the eviction in detail.

Isabell Reivas, known as "Mother Isabell" to people younger than her 64 years, was not able to make it to church that Sunday. With two strokes, open-heart surgery and diabetes in her medical history, it's difficult for her to get around.

She doesn't drive. Still, she had been happy to hear about the car deal. A Toyota Camry for $1,000? She couldn't pass it up. Her daughter, who lives in the area and catches the bus to check on her mother, could use the car to take Reivas places. With the car, Reivas wouldn't have to pay the $7 to $10 per cab ride for trips to the doctor's office and to church _ money she couldn't afford on her Social Security check, she said.

Reivas said she asked family members to give her the money. Then, with the patience of Job, she waited. The car would come soon, she believed.

Only after calling another member for a ride in mid July did she realize it might not.

"Oh Lord, have mercy!" she said, wiping tears from her cheeks. "We scrambled to get this money . . . I just will pray and ask God to give me direction," she said, looking upward. "God is love. What else can I say? God is love."