He was a pillar in the church and the community," says Joy Getty. "He was a success." Getty and her husband lost $133,000.

"I knew him through church," says Tex Kazda, who lost his $119,000 retirement account. "He seemed honest and smart, and had lots of assets and a happy family."

Two years ago, such plaudits were common for Philip Harmon, a Christian businessman with a seemingly thriving investment and insurance business empire based in Camano, Washington.

This month, Harmon, 61, entered a federal prison to begin serving an eight-year sentence for conspiracy and tax fraud. His businesses have crumbled, and in their place Harmon faces, besides a penitentiary, a court order to repay $16 million dollars to his investors, a debt he is unlikely to repay.

Behind the turnaround of events lies what Seattle federal prosecutor Steve Schroeder calls one of the biggest pyramid schemes he has seen in two decades of fighting white-collar crime. It comes on the heels of a $4.4 million fraud case involving Priscilla Deters, convicted of taking funds from mainly evangelical Nazarenes and Friends in 21 states (CT, April 27, 1998, p. 19).

"They did not ask to see prospectuses for the investments," Schroeder says. "It was simply a matter of good people placing their trust in someone whom they thought shared their values for honesty and integrity. They were wrong."

ELDERLY VICTIMS: Although final figures are not yet available, investigators told the court the total in the Harmon case could reach $40 million. The number of victims is also large: 230 mostly elderly investors, many of them widows, lost their retirement nest eggs. And more than 300 people were abruptly left without health insurance and stuck with hundreds of thousands of dollars in ...

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