The principals of Greater Ministries, a Florida 'church' that promised to double investors' money, face federal charges.
Standing at the podium of the Indianapolis Baptist Temple, Brother Patrick Henry Talbert was heating up his audience. Already, he'd told them about how his Florida-based Greater Ministries filed 61 "violations" against judges in Florida, the resignation of 240 judges and the 300 cases Greater brought before the Supreme Court.
Now he was getting to the meat of it.
"God says give, and it shall be given," Talbert said. "You give a gift, we basically take it offshore — and we've been doing this for nine years, nobody's ever lost a dime — and we multiply it back through the body of Christ. ... We don't promise you nothing. We just say nobody's lost a dime in nine years, and we double everything."
The audience, captured in an October 1997 videotape, was wide awake now.
"The Bible tells us about the end-times transfer of wealth. ... God teaches all through the Scriptures that in the last days he's going to take all those people that stole from you, the heathen, and give it back to the righteous... . We've given out over $500 million... .
"It's not our money, it's God's, but we know how to make it, and we know how to give it out so people give gifts to our ministry and we give it back to them double. ...
"It's like Christmas day every day at our ministry."
Christmas Turns to Ashes
Or so it was. This March, in the culmination of a major, three-year probe, a federal grand jury indicted Greater Ministries International Church elder Talbert, founder Gerald Payne and five others on charges of money laundering and mail fraud.
According to the 20-count indictment, the group's "Double Your Blessing" and "Faith Promises" programs were elaborate frauds, criminal conspiracies that bilked thousands of people for an amount that likely reaches the tens of millions of dollars.
Prosecutors say that beginning around March 1993, Greater's leaders promised their victims that they would double their money in 17 months or less. The Greater leaders claimed that they were investing the "gifts" that victims from around the country sent them in African gold mines and a myriad of other enterprises. God, they promised, would make them all rich.
In fact, prosecutors say, it was the classic Ponzi scheme: Money from later investors was used to pay the earlier ones, guaranteeing ultimate collapse. Along the way, Greater's elders allegedly got "gas money" — 5 percent of all donations they brought in.
If it was a scam, Tampa-based Greater Ministries was a ripoff with a twist, what investigators call an "affinity scam" that plays on deep-seated interests that potential victims already have.
It appealed to those in the so-called "Patriot" movement, to men and women already familiar with the talk of "sovereignty," of massive banking conspiracies and the New World Order, the Federal Reserve Board and the gold-fringed flag.
The 'Patriot' Connections
And it was very much a part of that movement.
· Payne, Greater's founder and director, and eight other Greater officials were named as unindicted co-conspirators in the federal trial of Emilio Ippolito in Tampa. Ippolito was sentenced to 11 years in connection with threats to hang federal judges and other activities of his "Constitutional Common-Law Court of We the People."
· Greater's one-time general counsel is Charles Eidson, former leader of the neo-Nazi Church of the Avenger and founder of the antigovernment Tampa Freedom Center (TFC). The TFC is based in Greater's headquarters building and is listed as a division of Greater Ministries.
Advertising in a 1997 Patriot publication, Payne and Eidson urged their readers to take a stand against the government and "against Zionism itself." Last September, in a letter to The Tampa Tribune, the two partners wrote: "We do not believe in what the Jew has done and is doing to our country."
The same month, Eidson wrote in a Patriot publication advertisement that the "enemy" was "clearly the damnable eternal Jews!"
· When Payne dissolved Greater Ministries as a corporation last September — in a bid to make it "exempt" from state and federal laws —he submitted a "common law notice" to the Florida comptroller's office. The notice declared that Greater would henceforth answer only to Ippolito's common-law court and "the constitutional common law militias."
Consider Patrick Henry Talbert, the Greater elder who was videotaped making his pitch, and his friends. Talbert was introduced by his host, Indianapolis Baptist Temple pastor Greg Dixon, a man who has been a linchpin of the Patriot movement throughout the 1990s.
After describing being jailed with several blacks — "I was so sick. My head was just pounding. I can't tell you how sick I was" — Dixon warmed up listeners by telling them that Greater has "a double common law trust ... and it works."
'They're Taking Over America'
"Thank you brother Dixon," Talbert replied. And within minutes, he was talking about the Patriot take on the gold-fringed U.S. flag that flies in federal courtrooms.
"Two hundred-forty countries right now have the gold-fringed flag in their courtrooms around the world," Talbert said, and the audience murmured its assent. "It's a one-world government being formed, and they've come into America... . While you was asleep at night they went into all your libraries and took the lawful flag out... .
"This is how they're trying to take over America."
How should a good Patriot fight back? Invest in Greater Ministries. Greater is battling government's repression of Christian churches, a repression that's already landed "500 preachers" in jail. It's filing liens against its enemies right and left.
Already, it has given a fortune to missionaries and other Christians worldwide, and its goal, Talbert says, is to "free up every Christian" financially.
With mines including a Liberian mother lode of gold and platinum that soon will produce $1 billion a year, with banks and hotels and a headquarters building and more, Greater is "truly blessed."
It worked like this.
For five years, Greater Ministries leaders traveled to churches and homes across the country encouraging people to invest thousands of dollars in their "Faith Promises" or similar double-your-money "ministries." They preached that investing was a form of "religious expression," a statement of faith in the power of God.
Beyond that, and a handful of commonplace pious platitudes, there was little to Greater's theology.
"Be humble," since-indicted Greater pastor Haywood Eudon "Don" Hall said. "But you don't have to be poor."
The Trouble Begins
For many, it seemed too good to be true. After contributing to Greater Ministries' "gifting" program, investors received wads of $50 bills in monthly payments sent via Priority Mail.
People stood in line to give their money away, and the leaders of the group supplied them with stories of debt-free living, African gold mines, humanitarian efforts and an herbal research center with a possible cure for cancer.
But last year, it began to fall apart. Cease-and-desist orders were filed against Greater in California, Ohio and Pennsylvania by regulators who characterized its double-your-money programs as "unregistered securities." In July, after officials shut down Best Bank of Boulder, Colo., Greater's main bank, Greater said it had lost more than $20 million and suspended monthly payments to "gift"-givers.
In November, a Pennsylvania judge ordered Greater to halt all transactions with state residents. After Greater officials defied that ban and Payne destroyed financial records, the judge fined Greater $6.4 million.
Then, in March, the federal indictments were handed down. Talbert, Hall, Payne, Payne's wife Betty, John Krishak, David Whitfield and James Chambers were charged. The indictment said that despite promises to invest the money in offshore metal and currency trading, very little money was ever invested in anything.
The defendants face possible prison terms of up to 20 years on each money laundering count alone. Six of the seven accused made bail immediately, and Payne did so later.
A history of fraud
This was not the first trouble to involve Greater principals.
· In 1979, Payne was convicted on 12 counts of lying to a grand jury investigating an unrelated fraud involving a Payne employer in New York City. He was sentenced to four months in jail. Payne has sued the government for seizing a trove of up to $26,000 in gold and silver coins when he entered the country in 1997 without declaring it.
In a recent court hearing, officials said they also seized 26 bestiality videotapes from Payne.
· Talbert has been charged with 42 counts of racketeering, fraud and grand theft for allegedly cheating 11 elderly south Florida investors out of $280,000 in an investment scheme called "Down Town Auto." His trial in that case was to begin this spring.
According to The Tampa Tribune, Talbert also has been sued twice since 1994 by people who accused him of bilking them out of their investments — a couple who said he stole a $100,000 investment of theirs and a widow who says she lost $25,000.
· Eidson, who then had an oil recycling business, was convicted in 1993 of illegally dumping motor oil into storm sewers that empty into Tampa Bay. In 1995, Eidson, who would become Payne's legal adviser in 1996, was convicted of practicing law without a license.
· James Maher, who incorporated an earlier version of Greater Ministries with Payne, was sentenced in 1985 to five years' probation after being found guilty of running a fraudulent Ponzi scheme. Ten years later, Maher was forced to refund $1.2 million paid by 40 Floridians to an "investment club."
· Jonathan Strawder, a 25-year-old who once worked for Greater and whose uncle helped to incorporate it, created a similar program in 1997 called Sovereign Ministries International. After collecting $13 million from some 2,100 investors — and spending some of it on a yacht, two Porsches and a Land Rover — Strawder quit making payments to his donors.
· In December, he signed a plea agreement admitting Sovereign Ministries was a Ponzi scam and agreeing to provide key testimony against Greater Ministries.
· Niko Shefer, who is Greater's main overseas operative in its alleged Liberian mining interests, is a South African who once served six years for bank fraud. According to a dissident Liberian group, Greater obtained tax exemptions in the West African country that are reserved for humanitarian organizations.
The group claims that promised relief supplies and other services for the financially strapped country never materialized.
· The owner of the bank Greater chose to do business with — the bank that issued its credit cards — was Edward Mattar III, a man with "a long history of financial recklessness," according to the Rocky Mountain News. Mattar has been sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars in various financial undertakings. He owned several schools that wound up owing money to debtors and students.
Shortly before his Colorado bank was seized, Mattar paid himself and his bank president a $9 million bonus. "It's odd that Greater Ministries would put assets in an illiquid bank if God is advising them," a ranking Pennsylvania regulator told the News. "How did they end up with such a schlocko banker?"
· A couple in California, Don and Jeana Muir, are facing felony charges for promoting Greater Ministries' "Faith Promises" program, which is banned in the state.
Tall buildings and tales
Payne and Hall claimed to have received more than $500 million from 100,000 people, although prosecutors say that is exaggerated. The real amount is not known.
It's also unclear where the money raised by Greater Ministries went. Its leaders have claimed to own about 100 gold mines around the world, including a gold and platinum concession in Liberia that they assert has a "$40 billion" reserve just 15 feet under the ground.
They say they have bought "the tallest building in Africa" for $15 million. Greater allegedly put up the money for a $7 million purchase of Kentucky's second-largest hotel and has spent upward of $1.5 million in improving its Tampa headquarters.
Last year, after the collapse of Best Bank in Colorado, two Greater members, Charles Tomlinson and Carl Thomas, tried to buy a South Florida bank. Regulators rejected their application.
Shortly before the Kentucky hotel purchase, Greater officials reported a robbery at their Tampa headquarters. Payne's wife allegedly first told police that nothing had been stolen. Later, corrected by her husband, she said $500,000 was missing. Payne would later claim the haul was actually $3 million, a figure that eventually grew to $3.5 million.
Police, who say that a guard told them that the Paynes had taken all the money in Greater's vault home before the 1996 robbery, have closed the investigation. "We have our suspicions as to what really happened," Sgt. Bob Wright told The Tampa Tribune.
The Kentucky hotel purchase caused a local stir when Eidson, apparently acting on behalf of Greater Ministries, issued a "common-law lien" to prevent other investors from buying the hotel. Headlines also spotlighted Eidson's anti-Semitic past. But in the end, the purchase went through, with Eidson associate Jim Biggerstaff taking over.
"I run the hotel," Biggerstaff told the Owensboro (Ky.) Messenger-Inquirer. "If it makes any money, some of that will be returned to Greater Ministries."
A 'Sovereign' Nation
Before the March indictments, Greater's plans were ambitious indeed. In addition to the gold mines and other enterprises, Payne had announced a forthcoming new debit card for members, creation of Greater's own newspaper, establishment of a "Greater Bible College" in Tampa, a new line of "Greater Live" herbal remedies, cancer treatments ("We actually pull the cancer right out of your stomach," Payne claims), even a supplement called "Beta 1, 3rd Glucan" that will help donors survive "end-times plagues."
And then there was "Greater Lands" — a country, "sovereign unto itself," an "Ecclesiastical Domain ... similar to the Vatican," where other governments will have no jurisdiction. For a mere $10,000, donors were promised a Greater Lands passport, driver's license and one square foot of land.
But now, there seems little prospect of any of this.
Instead, a trickle of people who gave money to Payne's outfit — and who have not gotten the return they were told to expect — are beginning to complain. Payne "assured us that if we ever wanted our money back he'd give it to us," recalls William Smith, who invested $170,000 with a friend.
The Tampa Tribune that he expected to lose his home as a result.
'It Was Built on Sand'
Other alleged victims faced different kinds of threats.
Pennsylvania resident Michael Miller says a Greater board member came to his house and told him "the curse of God is upon you" after Miller complained of losing at least $10,000 in the program. June Smith, a retired businesswoman who says she invested nearly $300,000 alleged in an affidavit that when she asked for her money back, she was told she'd been "prayed out" of the program and "cursed" by Greater.
Through it all, Greater has maintained that the enemies of God are seeking to bring down a ministry devoted to faith. Abiding by the Pennsylvania judge's injunction, for instance, "would recognize a sovereign greater than Jesus Christ with authority over the church and its ministries," Payne said at one point.
Elsewhere, he declared that he cannot "submit the ministries of the church to governmental authorities." The real problem, Talbert said in Indianapolis, is the government's desire to tax Greater's "blessings."
"We're tired," he said, "of Christians being pushed around."
William Smith, who has sued Greater for $170,000, says he's the one being pushed. "You see, Mr. Payne, all along you knew the truth," Smith wrote Payne. "You knew that no matter how great and glorious the Greater Ministries program seemed to be, it was all a sham. It was built on sand. One day you knew that it would have to fall."