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Faith Scams

— Pursuing the almighty dollar? Forget business school. Enroll in divinity school. San Diego criminal court records suggest that increasingly, some of the most successful -- er, uh -- entrepreneurs have the loquacity and stamina to pray and prey. To be sure, dishing up generous servings of God and Mammon is not a new marketing ploy. For centuries, con artists have known that many true believers have low sales resistance, especially when the pitch is wrapped in a cloak of piety.

If you go on various government anti-fraud websites, you will find warnings about religion-based affinity group scams (say, Dunkards duping Dunkards or Buddhists bilking Buddhists) as well as cautionary words about any investment program appealing to an investor's faith or altruistic compulsions.

San Diego has long been the preyer's heaven. It helps if your name is Divine. Last month, a federal grand jury returned criminal tax evasion and conspiracy charges against Lonnie R. Divine, his wife Yvonne R. Ruel, and Divine's daughter Deanna Devine. They ran Mission Valley's Divine Enterprise, which also had names such as Divine World-Wide Ministries.

Just recently, the three defendants pleaded not guilty, says Department of Justice tax prosecutor Lori Hendrickson. But this was not their first brush with the law. Ten years ago, they were in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission and several states.

As various states charged, they would go into a town and advertise that young people could get exciting sales jobs. The youth would be herded into a car and then dispersed to peddle magazines. Sometimes, up to six young people would sleep in the same hotel room. The crew would spend a few hours in a town, then beat it to another burg. The sales hook: part of the proceeds would go to eleemosynary institutions to fight AIDS and other diseases.

As the business grew, Divine Enterprise was purportedly operating the AIDS Prevention Institute, Babies Addicted to Drugs, Youth of America, Heart Line, and, of course, Divine World-Wide Ministries. The company had also diversified into telecommunications services, but the mission remained the same: door-to-door sales.

Maybe Lonnie Divine did missionary work with natives of remote islands. Perhaps that's how, according to the indictment, he got a bank account on the offshore tax haven of the Cayman Islands, although, as one of the world's major money centers, it's not so remote. But Divine did not tell the government about his stash, as required by law.

When they got cash from sales, the three defendants paid off the young hustlers and then, according to the indictment, transferred remaining loot to several different bank accounts so the Internal Revenue Service couldn't find it. Then they failed to pay federal income tax from 1993 through 1997.

Some money was routed to other activities, such as Deanna's wedding. Much was routed to support Lonnie Divine's gambling habit. For example, according to the indictment, $5000 he owed Caesars Palace was paid from the account of the so-called nonprofit Heart Line, while $10,000 owed the Mirage Casino was paid by Youth of America. Indeed, those two supposed charities paid off a number of Lonnie's gambling debts. It's doubtful magazine buyers had that in mind.

The U.S. Attorney's office here also charges another group of professedly pious individuals with wire fraud and money laundering, among other things. Over a long period of time, they took as much as $50 million from investors. Promising 100 percent and sometimes 200 percent annual returns, they told victims that they would, variously, use the proceeds to start an insurance company, build a religious theme park, or run a recording company.

They would also support AIDS research, the hawkers promised. According to the indictment, one salesman, trying to woo an informant posing as a potential investor, claimed that he was a cardiovascular surgeon who joined the group so that he could improve the world's medical care. Investigators can't determine that he has an undergraduate degree, much less a medical degree.

There are a number of defendants, including John Harrell (still in the pokey), lawyer Morris Sankary, Kenneth Hodgell, and Greg Fuentes. All have pleaded not guilty, according to Jason A. Forge of the U.S. Attorney's office.

The alleged conspirators did have one business -- sort of. They purchased a company called East Funeral Benefit Insurance Company and changed the name to Good Samaritan Life Insurance Company. But Good Samaritan had very little in the way of reserves.

This, however, did not inhibit the spielers from making some rather large claims. For example, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation report by Adam S. Lee, Harrell boasted on many occasions that he had access to a secret trillion -- repeat, trillion -- dollar trust. It came from foreign sources that had given it for safekeeping to Garland Fielding Smith, a direct descendant of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, Harrell claimed. When Garland Fielding Smith died, he entrusted the loot to Harrell. "The fund was formed to fund philanthropic endeavors through an insurance company that Harrell was supposed to create," says Lee's report. "To date, our investigation has not revealed a single piece of evidence to support the existence of such a trust."

The salespeople frequently referred to a $1.6 trillion stash that Harrell's people could tap. Golly. That's more than the entire annual economic output, or gross domestic product, of the United Kingdom.

Maybe it was because they were fiduciaries for such an awe-inspiring sum that the alleged conspirators turned to prayer, according to investigators, who secretly taped multiple conversations. At one of the prayer meetings, investors were appeased "about the failure of the business to materialize," according to Lee's report.

At another prayer meeting, the alleged conspirators seemed to be exorcising their pursuers. "Now, as we go forward, we ask Thy continued protection from those that are continuing to investigate and that their hearts may be softened, and may any negative influence be removed therefrom," intoned the preyer in his prayer, according to Lee's report.

Despite his professed purity, alleged ringleader Harrell did not always turn the other cheek, according to the U.S. Attorney's office. He and his wife bought a $839,000 home using false names and a shell corporation. According to the government, Harrell used several different names, including Elton Clements, John Johnson, and John Durante. One reason is that Harrell had been dodging Securities and Exchange Commission charges for 42 years.

Another reason was that investors were constantly trying to serve Harrell and his soulmates with civil lawsuits. Miraculously, he always evaded service. One time, an attorney's investigators found Harrell and his flock in a Rodeway Inn in San Ysidro. They tossed furniture at the investigator and jumped out the back window, escaping in a vehicle, says the U.S. Attorney's office.

Harrell's personality seems to have conflicting sides. One is charity: he shells out $40,000 per day to members of his flock and himself, according to Lee's report (of course, this is investors' money). But Harrell is far less charitable toward brethren whom he suspects of cooperating with the government. In one videotape, Harrell is recorded vowing he will "blow the head off" a congregation member who may be ratting on the enterprise.

All told, the organization is "cultlike," says Lee in his report.

The same could be said for a third group under indictment -- those who tried to peddle so-called high-tech inventions through La Jolla's Basic Research Corp. and an affiliated entity, Advanced Technologies International, based on the secrecy-shrouded offshore haven of the Bahamas.

The heads of this scheme started investor meetings by bowing their heads and thanking God for the great gift of the inventions of Stephen Smith, purportedly a descendant of Eli Whitney. "We can change the course of history of telecommunications and medicine. We can serve mankind," said one now-indicted financier, right after his prayer.

But the inventions didn't materialize and investors got skinned for $12 million, says the U.S. Attorney's office. The case goes to trial in May, says assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen P. Clark.

The various heads of the scheme are charged with mail and wire fraud, money laundering, conspiracy, and income-tax evasion. The ringleader, Nick Hronopolous, has died, as has an unindicted Chicago lawyer, Burton Kanter, one of the nation's most notorious offshore money movers. One Basic Research civil suit charges Kanter with being associated with organized crime. Civil suits also charge that one of the companies funneled money from the tax haven of the Isle of Jersey to the haven of the Caymans.

Or were they tax heavens, not havens?

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— Pursuing the almighty dollar? Forget business school. Enroll in divinity school. San Diego criminal court records suggest that increasingly, some of the most successful -- er, uh -- entrepreneurs have the loquacity and stamina to pray and prey. To be sure, dishing up generous servings of God and Mammon is not a new marketing ploy. For centuries, con artists have known that many true believers have low sales resistance, especially when the pitch is wrapped in a cloak of piety.

If you go on various government anti-fraud websites, you will find warnings about religion-based affinity group scams (say, Dunkards duping Dunkards or Buddhists bilking Buddhists) as well as cautionary words about any investment program appealing to an investor's faith or altruistic compulsions.

San Diego has long been the preyer's heaven. It helps if your name is Divine. Last month, a federal grand jury returned criminal tax evasion and conspiracy charges against Lonnie R. Divine, his wife Yvonne R. Ruel, and Divine's daughter Deanna Devine. They ran Mission Valley's Divine Enterprise, which also had names such as Divine World-Wide Ministries.

Just recently, the three defendants pleaded not guilty, says Department of Justice tax prosecutor Lori Hendrickson. But this was not their first brush with the law. Ten years ago, they were in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission and several states.

As various states charged, they would go into a town and advertise that young people could get exciting sales jobs. The youth would be herded into a car and then dispersed to peddle magazines. Sometimes, up to six young people would sleep in the same hotel room. The crew would spend a few hours in a town, then beat it to another burg. The sales hook: part of the proceeds would go to eleemosynary institutions to fight AIDS and other diseases.

As the business grew, Divine Enterprise was purportedly operating the AIDS Prevention Institute, Babies Addicted to Drugs, Youth of America, Heart Line, and, of course, Divine World-Wide Ministries. The company had also diversified into telecommunications services, but the mission remained the same: door-to-door sales.

Maybe Lonnie Divine did missionary work with natives of remote islands. Perhaps that's how, according to the indictment, he got a bank account on the offshore tax haven of the Cayman Islands, although, as one of the world's major money centers, it's not so remote. But Divine did not tell the government about his stash, as required by law.

When they got cash from sales, the three defendants paid off the young hustlers and then, according to the indictment, transferred remaining loot to several different bank accounts so the Internal Revenue Service couldn't find it. Then they failed to pay federal income tax from 1993 through 1997.

Some money was routed to other activities, such as Deanna's wedding. Much was routed to support Lonnie Divine's gambling habit. For example, according to the indictment, $5000 he owed Caesars Palace was paid from the account of the so-called nonprofit Heart Line, while $10,000 owed the Mirage Casino was paid by Youth of America. Indeed, those two supposed charities paid off a number of Lonnie's gambling debts. It's doubtful magazine buyers had that in mind.

The U.S. Attorney's office here also charges another group of professedly pious individuals with wire fraud and money laundering, among other things. Over a long period of time, they took as much as $50 million from investors. Promising 100 percent and sometimes 200 percent annual returns, they told victims that they would, variously, use the proceeds to start an insurance company, build a religious theme park, or run a recording company.

They would also support AIDS research, the hawkers promised. According to the indictment, one salesman, trying to woo an informant posing as a potential investor, claimed that he was a cardiovascular surgeon who joined the group so that he could improve the world's medical care. Investigators can't determine that he has an undergraduate degree, much less a medical degree.

There are a number of defendants, including John Harrell (still in the pokey), lawyer Morris Sankary, Kenneth Hodgell, and Greg Fuentes. All have pleaded not guilty, according to Jason A. Forge of the U.S. Attorney's office.

The alleged conspirators did have one business -- sort of. They purchased a company called East Funeral Benefit Insurance Company and changed the name to Good Samaritan Life Insurance Company. But Good Samaritan had very little in the way of reserves.

This, however, did not inhibit the spielers from making some rather large claims. For example, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation report by Adam S. Lee, Harrell boasted on many occasions that he had access to a secret trillion -- repeat, trillion -- dollar trust. It came from foreign sources that had given it for safekeeping to Garland Fielding Smith, a direct descendant of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, Harrell claimed. When Garland Fielding Smith died, he entrusted the loot to Harrell. "The fund was formed to fund philanthropic endeavors through an insurance company that Harrell was supposed to create," says Lee's report. "To date, our investigation has not revealed a single piece of evidence to support the existence of such a trust."

The salespeople frequently referred to a $1.6 trillion stash that Harrell's people could tap. Golly. That's more than the entire annual economic output, or gross domestic product, of the United Kingdom.

Maybe it was because they were fiduciaries for such an awe-inspiring sum that the alleged conspirators turned to prayer, according to investigators, who secretly taped multiple conversations. At one of the prayer meetings, investors were appeased "about the failure of the business to materialize," according to Lee's report.

At another prayer meeting, the alleged conspirators seemed to be exorcising their pursuers. "Now, as we go forward, we ask Thy continued protection from those that are continuing to investigate and that their hearts may be softened, and may any negative influence be removed therefrom," intoned the preyer in his prayer, according to Lee's report.

Despite his professed purity, alleged ringleader Harrell did not always turn the other cheek, according to the U.S. Attorney's office. He and his wife bought a $839,000 home using false names and a shell corporation. According to the government, Harrell used several different names, including Elton Clements, John Johnson, and John Durante. One reason is that Harrell had been dodging Securities and Exchange Commission charges for 42 years.

Another reason was that investors were constantly trying to serve Harrell and his soulmates with civil lawsuits. Miraculously, he always evaded service. One time, an attorney's investigators found Harrell and his flock in a Rodeway Inn in San Ysidro. They tossed furniture at the investigator and jumped out the back window, escaping in a vehicle, says the U.S. Attorney's office.

Harrell's personality seems to have conflicting sides. One is charity: he shells out $40,000 per day to members of his flock and himself, according to Lee's report (of course, this is investors' money). But Harrell is far less charitable toward brethren whom he suspects of cooperating with the government. In one videotape, Harrell is recorded vowing he will "blow the head off" a congregation member who may be ratting on the enterprise.

All told, the organization is "cultlike," says Lee in his report.

The same could be said for a third group under indictment -- those who tried to peddle so-called high-tech inventions through La Jolla's Basic Research Corp. and an affiliated entity, Advanced Technologies International, based on the secrecy-shrouded offshore haven of the Bahamas.

The heads of this scheme started investor meetings by bowing their heads and thanking God for the great gift of the inventions of Stephen Smith, purportedly a descendant of Eli Whitney. "We can change the course of history of telecommunications and medicine. We can serve mankind," said one now-indicted financier, right after his prayer.

But the inventions didn't materialize and investors got skinned for $12 million, says the U.S. Attorney's office. The case goes to trial in May, says assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen P. Clark.

The various heads of the scheme are charged with mail and wire fraud, money laundering, conspiracy, and income-tax evasion. The ringleader, Nick Hronopolous, has died, as has an unindicted Chicago lawyer, Burton Kanter, one of the nation's most notorious offshore money movers. One Basic Research civil suit charges Kanter with being associated with organized crime. Civil suits also charge that one of the companies funneled money from the tax haven of the Isle of Jersey to the haven of the Caymans.

Or were they tax heavens, not havens?

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