By James Quiggle
Preachers rarely defraud their insurers and worshipers, but embezzlement happens nearly weekly and many cases go unreported.
Carva White possessed an unheavenly urge to convert his burned-up church’s ash to cash.
White was the music director at the Sunflower Missionary Baptist Church in Leavenworth, KS. He convinced the head pastor to help hatch a devilish plot: torch the place, fool insurers into paying for repairs, then extract large bribes from contractors who would submit inflated bills for the work.
Pulpit-poisoning insurance schemes by unholy holy men and women such as White are rare. But ministering to insurance fraud does happen, leaving trails of betrayed parishioners, fleeced churches, stolen insurance money and ruined reputations.
Preachers appear to rarely defraud their insurers and worshipers. There’s no known data on the frequency or severity of insurance crimes ministered by ministers, but devilish insurance cons do happen.
Insurance schemes by ministers exact a large toll on congregations who are betrayed by spiritual leaders in a high position of trust. Worshippers’ spiritual and personal lives are disrupted. They’re forced to piece together a damaged congregation when a church burns or the minister suddenly leaves after being exposed as an unholy insurance crook. Sometimes worshippers or bystanders themselves are fleeced out of thousands of dollars.
White’s first fire came up short. It caused $20,000 to $30,000 in damage, which wouldn’t soak enough bribe money from contractors, White quickly decided. So he told head pastor Marvin Clay that he’d reload his matches and ignite a bigger blaze to line their pockets with more cash.
Second fire burned up church
Clay grew wobbly and tried to back out. But the undivine duo were in way too deep to quit, White retorted. So Clay continued along despite his misgivings. Big mistake.
Call it fate or coincidence, the next night was Halloween. White tried again, and this blaze caused far more damage.
Clay made the fraudulent insurance claim, and Church Mutual Insurance Company paid out $103,236 to make Sunflower Baptist whole again. But federal investigators later questioned Clay. He lied that, heavens, he couldn’t imagine who would want to hurt the church.
But the plot unraveled. The fire had started in several places inside the church, investigators discovered. That was a clear sign that shifty human hands were behind the blaze. The criminal charges came down hard.
The misguided music director finally faced the music: White received 12 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine. Clay also was convicted.
In good company
Life has spiraled steadily downward for Christopher Daniels, former pastor of the Blue Ridge Baptist Church in Belton, S.C. He was serving 15 years for several crimes, including burning the church for insurance money. Not content to serve out his sentence, Daniels walked away from a work detail, lived life as a fugitive and broke into an office trailer before being recaptured in July. This time he may be assigned to a maximum-security prison.
Rev. Charles Shifflett headed up the Calvary Baptist Church in the Culpepper, VA area. Shifflett claimed he hurt his back unloading a pony at a church function. But he inflated his income to fraudulently increase his workers compensation benefits, receiving more than $27,000 over six years. He also received four years in prison.
Rev. Roland Gray insisted insurance fraud was his spiritual calling. But he rendered unto Caesar four and a half years in prison for raking in $500,000 in insurance money by staging nearly 200 car accidents, plus fake slip-and-fall injuries in hotels and retail stores.
“I let the Lord lead me and this is the way He instructed me,” the Baptist minister from Chicago said. Gray recruited parishioners and even his brother, also a minister. Many cars crashed, ran off the road or collided with deer or pedestrians, his gang lied to insurers. Cronies claimed they were hurt in four crashes on the same day.
Pastor Kenneth Leigh Montgomery headed up the Hilltop Community Church in Virginia Beach, VA. He received 10 months for lying to his church’s insurer that someone stole property from the church. The insurer paid the bogus claims. Montgomery then lied that the “stolen” possessions were his, convincing the church to reimburse him for the phantom goods.
Life policy redirected
Indiana pastor Janie Lee Espinoza stole more than $250,000 from a military life policy intended for the six-year-old daughter of her own son, a solider who’d died in Iraq. Espinoza blew the loot on cars, jewelry, a timeshare in Florida, church pews and a baby grand piano. She received a maximum of four years.
And Denver-area Rev. Acen Phillips stole life-insurance money by forging signatures to policies, making himself beneficiary of much of the payouts, prosecutors contended. Nor did he tell a widow that the proceeds of a legitimate life policy whose payout he administered was $120,000 rather than $50,000. He pocketed much of the difference. Phillips received eight years of probation for the latter crime. Prosecutors didn’t charge him for the forgeries, in exchange for which he agreed to repay $500,000 in a plea deal.
Founder of the New Birth Temple of Praise Community Baptist Church, Phillips insisted his conviction imbued him with contrition. “I would like to apologize to the court and my community,” he said. “I would certainly like an opportunity to redeem myself to the community.” Amen to that.
Jim Quiggle is communications director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, Washington, D.C. www.insurancefraud.org
Why churches need financial controls
Every other month or so Church Executive reports in its news pages cases of embezzlement and fraud by clergy and volunteers, the latter often in positions of trust as church secretary or financial director. One has only to set a Google Alert to “church theft” and the police cases roll in regularly. Two recent cases have breached the million dollar mark:
• Hyde Park Christian Church lost some $6,752 in thefts by Louanne Aponte, where she volunteered as treasurer of a grants committee, reports the American-Statesman in Austin, TX. But when added to the indictments against her for thefts from Family Connections Inc, a nonprofit she led for more than a decade, she is accused of taking $1.26 million. She was arrested in December after stepping off a plane from Venezuela.
• Barbara Whitt embezzled more than $1.5 million from First Baptist Church in Morristown, TN. She was accused of writing 1,647 checks to herself over two and a half years, totaling more than $50,000 each month. Her son Michael, 42, was accused of money laundering.
• Donna F. Briggs, 41, used her position as treasurer to steal more than $18,000 from the East Hills Middle School Parent Association, says The Morning Call of Allentown, PA, and then tried to cover it up by taking $13,000 from her church, Messiah Evangelical Luthern Church, Bethlehem, PA. She agreed to reimburse both, and said she made sure her two children know that what she did was horribly wrong.
• Monroe, LA, police in December arrested Megan Kay Wilson, 35, a former financial bookkeeper for St. Paul Methodist Church after she reportedly gave herself extra payroll checks and put charges on credit cards she opened in the church’s name.
• John William Elder was alleged in December to have stolen thousands of dollars from Calvary United Methodist church, Bremen, OH, where he was church treasurer and insurance agent, and had grown up in the congregation. WBNS-10TV said he stole the money to cover up fraudulent insurance policies he had written and premium checks from clients that he diverted into his personal account.
• Jacalyn O’Boyle, 49, was charged last November with theft of $185,000 from St. Edward On-the-Lake Catholic Church, Port Huron, MI, where she worked. She pleaded guilty to the theft that was fueled by her gambling problems.