Preying on the faithful
By SHARON TUBBS, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Calvester Benjamin-Anderson thought she would be driving a Lexus LS 400 by now.
More than a year ago, she heard the pastor of the Breakthrough Christian Center in St. Petersburg tell the small congregation about an exciting car deal.
It went like this: A wealthy New York Christian named John Bowers had died and wanted to reward other believers. In his will, he made provisions for a slew of cars that were part of his estate to be distributed throughout the country. Cadillac Escalades, Volvos, BMWs, Ford pickup trucks, Honda Accords -- all would be sold for a pittance ($1,000 for a 1998 Accord, $6,500 for an Escalade).
Tired of her 1985 Cadillac, which lacks air conditioning, Benjamin-Anderson took out a $4,000 loan. From a long list, she chose a 1998 Lexus for $3,000 and a 1998 Ford pickup truck for $1,000.
But federal authorities say Benjamin-Anderson will never get the cars.
Officials with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Missouri say she fell victim to a scam that netted more than $19-million and targeted people of faith from New York to California.
Arrested were James R. Nichols, 26, and Robert Gomez, 27, both of California, and Gwendolyn Baker, 51, of Memphis.
According to a 23-count indictment, the three were behind what has been dubbed the "miracle cars" scheme. Nichols posed as executor of the fictitious Bowers estate and, along with the others, collected millions since October 1998 for more than 7,000 vehicles that never existed.
Baker and Nichols told purchasers that they had seen the vehicles belonging to the Bowers estate. Investigators say Nichols was a professional gambler who deposited proceeds from church car deals into his player's account at a California casino. When police arrested Nichols, he had more than $800,000 in gambling chips in his possession, said Don Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Missouri.
"Finders" stationed throughout the country were also part of the scheme, working for commissions, officials said. Corinne Conway, 61, of Higginsville, Mo., was arrested last week, suspected of acting as a finder. She operated the Virtuous Women International Ministry, which had contacts with religious groups nationwide.
Apparently to keep the scam going, organizers refunded about $7-million over the years to buyers who grew impatient, Ledford said. Those refunds only legitimized the deal for others who believed.
Karin Alozade of St. Petersburg paid $1,000 for a 1998 Honda Civic and persuaded her 20-year-old daughter to spend $1,000 for a 1998 Honda Accord. "I figured, for that price, I can't go wrong," Alozade said.
Members of the Breakthrough Christian Center said their faith in the deal was bolstered by Glenn Miller, the church's senior pastor, who assured them it was legitimate. He called it an "uncommon harvest" of blessings, members said.
In a voice mail message to a St. Petersburg Times reporter Monday, Miller said he had little information about the investigation and that he was also a victim.
Even as talk of a federal case filtered through church this week, some still had hope that if they were patient, God would send the cars, she said. One church member approached her Sunday to reassure her, Benjamin-Anderson said.
"The cars are coming," he told her.
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