In the wake of one of the largest financial frauds in American history, five former leaders of the Greater Ministries International Church (GMIC) have been sentenced to long prison terms.

The scheme took in at least $500 million from 18,000 Christian investors who believed God would double their money.

In a Tampa federal court in early August, Gerald Payne, the leader of the scam, was sentenced to 27 years for his conviction in March on 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy, money-laundering, and related charges. His wife, Betty Payne, received 12 years and 7 months.

Judge James Whittemore said he had planned to give Betty Payne only 11 years and three months. But then she read a defiant statement, denouncing the trial as a violation of the Paynes' constitutional rights and insisting that their actions were guided by the Holy Spirit and broke no laws. Gerald Payne had read the same statement a few moments before.

Whittemore responded that she had aborted his plan for leniency: "What you've just done is throw that right back in my face." Then he slapped the extra time onto her sentence.

Gerald Payne, who is 65, has suffered several strokes in recent years, the latest while he was in jail awaiting sentencing. Betty Payne is 61.

Three other Greater Ministries defendants also were sentenced. Patrick Henry Talbert, 53, who taught church-sponsored antigovernment legal seminars and claimed to be a "sovereign citizen" not subject to U.S. law, got nearly 20 years tacked onto the 10-year term he is serving on unrelated state charges. And Eudon "Don" Hall, 60, a flamboyant evangelist for GMIC's "Faith Promises" program, was ordered imprisoned for nearly 20 years.

David Whitfield, 48, who was the financial and computer manager for GMIC, was the youngest defendant. He blinked back tears as he proclaimed his innocence and asked for mercy, saying he did not know the plan was fraudulent. But then an IRS investigator testified that he had uncovered evidence suggesting Whitfield had knowledge of where more than $1 million of the stolen funds was hidden in Mexico.

Whittemore sentenced Whitfield to 19 years, warning him that if a Mexican cache is found and connected to him, he could face additional charges.

Two other GMIC defendants, Andrew Krishak and James Chambers, pleaded guilty and were sentenced in June. Krishak, who cooperated with authorities, received 30 months in prison and 2 years of probation; Chambers, who didn't cooperate, received 5 years in prison and 2 years of probation.

Related Elsewhere

The Tampa Tribune has an archive of past Greater Ministries news stories.

Coinciding with the sentencing of Gerald Payne, Deborah Bortner, president of the North American Securities Administrators Association (NASAA), warned investors of proliferating schemes that play on religious loyalties.

According to the NASAA, 90,000 Americans have lost roughly $1.8 billion to frauds that use God as a lure in the last three years.

Christianity Today warned readers of "Christian" scams in 1998 in the editorial, "If It's Too Good to Be True … "

Related Christianity Today articles include:

Jury Convicts Greater Ministries of Fraud | Five leaders face jail time for one of the largest Ponzi operations ever. (March 28, 2001)
Defrauding the Faithful | If convicted, Greater Ministries defendants face massive fines, prison terms. (Feb. 8, 2001)
$100 Million Missing in Greater Ministries Scandal (Oct. 4, 1999)
Federal Authorities Collar Greater Ministry Leaders | Accusations include fraud, money laundering. (Apr. 26, 1999)
Judge Orders Gift Refunds | Greater Ministries found in contempt of court. (March 1, 1999)
$12 Million Fraud Scheme Parallels Greater Ministries | "Ambassadors" told prospects that Sovereign specialized in "Bible economics" and was open only to believers
A Gospel Gold Mine or a Sinking Pyramid? | Greater Ministries International promises eye-popping returns, but investigators suspect a Ponzi. (Jan. 11, 1999)

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