Church folk stuck when they gave pastor their faith and their money

Michael Wilkerson, his wife, and two others face charges in an alleged $6.3 million mortgage and Ponzi scheme.
Michael Wilkerson, his wife, and two others face charges in an alleged $6.3 million mortgage and Ponzi scheme.
Posted: October 30, 2011

From the pulpit of his modest Spring City church, Pastor Michael Wilkerson delivered electric sermons on God's desire to shower down riches upon his faithful adherents.

And with a Lexus and Escalade in its garage, his $1.7 million Schwenksville home seemed convincing proof. How else but by faith, his congregants wondered, could a man raised on Pottstown's urban streets have risen to such heights?

Through religion and smart investing, the 45-year-old minister persuaded members of his New Millennium Life Restoration Fellowship that they, too, could follow in his footsteps.

Five years later, those who bought in are still stinging from their losses.

Last month, federal prosecutors accused Wilkerson; his wife, Joyce; and two others of conspiring in a $6.3 million mortgage fraud and Ponzi scheme that left a handful of lower-middle-class congregants on the hook for inflated home loans worth far more than the properties purchased in their names.

Each was promised an easy profit if they pitched in to buy suburban houses valued at more than $1 million apiece. But instead of a cash payout, investors found themselves chasing nonexistent profits.

"He put himself out as a pastor - a man who purports to speak the word of the Lord - but his actions have shown him to be a man that's just out there for himself," said Jeremy Lupo, an assistant Montgomery County district attorney who recently prosecuted Wilkerson on a separate fraud charge.

Wilkerson, who declined a request for an interview, has denied he knowingly broke the law in the federal case.

The alleged crimes are only the latest example of what investigators have identified as a troubling stream of hard-luck tales emerging from the 2008 economic downturn.

Amid the rush of easy home loans and get-rich-quick schemes that preceded the subprime mortgage collapse, there are similar stories of people encouraged to make risky financial decisions by church leaders.

A 2006 study by the North American Securities Administrators Association estimated that losses from religion-based affinity fraud had reached $2 billion. Those rip-offs have only become more common since, said Ole Anthony, who helms the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, a watchdog group that investigates the financial misdeeds of religious figures.

"In the past several years, I've seen more and more fraud in the name of God," he said. "It remains a serious problem."

Wilkerson, a broad-shouldered, engaging speaker, is hardly the first American pastor to build a ministry or - as alleged - a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme based on the idea of religion's value in spiritual and material rewards.

Since the 1950s, this so-called prosperity gospel has attracted adherents in Pentecostal and nondenominational ministries across the United States. Pointing to verses such as John 10:10 - "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly" - its adherents maintain that faith, positive thinking, and steady tithing pave the way to wealth.

But while religion scholars had long viewed prosperity gospel as a fringe theological movement, the boom-and-bust cultural mood of the late 1990s and early 2000s proved fertile ground for the dogma.

While most prosperity churches espouse a benign belief that God will one day bless the faithful with riches, securities analysts across the country began noticing fraudsters using prosperity gospel to dupe the faithful.

In 2009, a federal jury convicted a Georgia pastor of bilking nearly $9 million from 1,600 small, predominantly black churches nationwide - including about 40 in the Philadelphia area - with a plan to open a string of Christian resorts and promises of up to $500,000 in returns.

Countrywide Home Loans uncovered in 2006 what was at the time one of the largest mortgage fraud schemes to date, involving a lay minister in Martinsville, Va., who had signed up dozens of her fellow congregants for mortgages worth a combined $40 million.

And that same year, another Georgia minister was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison for a bold spread-the-wealth scheme.

Already serving a sentence for mortgage fraud, Dr. W. Sherrod Milton bribed guards to let him out of his minimum-security prison so he could lure churches, nonprofits, and individual investors into a real estate scheme he cooked up behind bars. By the time authorities caught on, he had bilked an additional $20 million out of potential investors. His sales pitch: God had blessed him. He wanted to spread the wealth.

"The whole key is just building up a level of trust where you purport to share certain values," said Pennsylvania Securities Commissioner Steven D. Irwin. "When you can say that you invest with a certain zeal, and that will lead to your salvation, you get an added value right from the start."

Whether Wilkerson intentionally set out to defraud members of his New Millennium congregation remains an unsettled question. But the losses he incurred are no longer in doubt.

None of the preacher's alleged victims agreed to be interviewed. Their stories emerge in testimony given as part of a 2009 civil suit filed after the collapse of his alleged investment scheme.

Among them was Vincent Hall, a 43-year-old auto mechanic. When the pastor approached him with a plan in 2006 to put $15,000 in his pocket, Hall said, it seemed as if finally the blessings promised weekly from New Millennium's pulpit had arrived.

"He explained that because he was fortunate enough to have great wealth, he wanted to help other people," Hall testified at a 2009 court hearing. "He told me it would help build my credit."

Sure, Hall and the four others that eventually signed up might have been more wary of their investment adviser's past. By the time he started New Millennium, Wilkerson already had a lengthy rap sheet including arrests for drug trafficking and theft in his youth. But he had given up that life once he found God, he told them.

He allegedly dreamed up his latest scheme and the New Millennium church while serving a stint in prison after a 2001 conviction for cheating contractors building a mansion in Washington County.

And the plan seemed simple enough: Each investor would receive $15,000 in exchange for lending their names and their credit to Wilkerson's company so it could acquire mortgages on suburban homes in Schwenksville and Glenmoore. The company would cover mortgage payments and rent out the properties until the homes could be flipped for a profit.

It wasn't until Wilkerson called them together in late 2007 to inform them he could no longer afford the payments that they realized they had a problem.

Since then, the pastor's legal problems have only mounted. In 2009, Wilkerson was arrested for writing a $111,000 bad check for a new Mercedes. Although sentenced to 1½ to 7 years in that case earlier this month, he still maintains the incident was nothing but a misunderstanding with his wife over shuffling money between accounts.

Then, in November, he was arrested again - this time in Philadelphia - on an attempted-murder charge stemming from an altercation with the boyfriend of a woman whom police described as his mistress.

As for his fraud charges, Wilkerson has maintained in court filings that he genuinely hoped to help his congregation.

"I caused a great deal of trouble," he said at his Oct. 21 sentencing on the check charge. "It looks like I'm going to be incarcerated for a long period of time."


Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @inqmontco on Twitter. Read his blog, "MontCo Memo," at www.philly.com/montcomemo.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|