All day long, flocks of turkey buzzards circle the new skyscraper that houses the federal courts in Tampa, Florida. When the building opened, authorities tried to drive the dark fowl away, to no avail. On January 22, the vultures swooped ominously past the big windows of Judge James Whittemore's 13th-floor courtroom. Inside, five men with Greater Ministries International Church went on trial, charged with picking clean the accounts of financially naïve Christians.

Participants in the Greater Ministries program were victims of a massive Ponzi scheme, a conspiracy based on "fraud, greed and misrepresentation," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Hoffer argued. A defense attorney contended, however, that they were simply "giving their money to God."

For more than five years, beginning in 1993, Greater Ministries operated what was variously called a "Double Your Money," "Double Your Blessing," or "Faith Promise" program, in which participants expected to double their money in less than 18 months.

This extraordinary rate of return was possible, staffers said, because of the ministry's involvement in highly lucrative overseas mining ventures for gold, silver, platinum, and diamonds. At one point, the ministry claimed to own an international bank and the largest hotel in South Africa.

Greater Ministries' "gifting program" was promoted across the country, in revival-style meetings large and small. Further, many early donors did get money back through "gifts" that usually came in cash through the mail. Their word-of-mouth enthusiasm helped spread the program into all 50 states, until it ultimately took in hundreds of millions of dollars. Then the program suddenly began to implode in the summer of 1998. Payments faltered, and by October they ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.