“It was the end of the world, it was unbelievable. I had been violated. Not just violated financially, I was violated emotionally,” says Royce Cornelius, a fraud victim.
Reverend Cornelius is understandably angry. He and his congregation were scammed out of their church, literally.
The story starts when they decided to buy a new building to accommodate their expanding numbers.
“We were trying to borrow that money and we couldn`t find it,” says Cornelius.
“The housing market collapsed, is another way to put it. It became almost impossible for churches to get loans. One broker that we interviewed actually said no one was giving churches the money because no one wants to foreclose on God,” says Samuel Abraham Freedman, US Postal Inspector.
Then Reverend Cornelius met Jamal Lawson.
“I think of Jamal Lawson as a charming devil, with a silver tongue and a golden keyboard because the craft he had in creating these lies, in creating these scams, sending solicitations, full color that looked very professional through the mail, promising these churches all of this money...,” says Freedman.
Lawson told Cornelius he needed money up front. The church complied.
“There were some things he wanted us to pay for that he had to do in preparation. He had his staff working on our behalf,” says Cornelius.
“The $4,000 that he paid, well that came from congregation contributions. The Sunday morning passing the hat, these blue collar workers," says Freedman.
The process seemed to be going very well, prompting reverend Cornelius to sell his church building.
“We were supposed to be going to the closing table and he kept extending the date,” says Cornelius.
Reverend Cornelius realized he had been duped and his congregation was not alone.
Lawson scammed 25 churches out of more than $100,000. But the money wasn`t the biggest loss.
“What we lost was our dignity. In the church world we were made to look foolish. We were boasting. We were celebrating the new building we were getting, we were emailing, we were posting pictures and tentative dates of moving and all of a sudden they sold our building, the deal was closed. We were homeless. We had nowhere to go. We had 1,500 people who had nowhere to go. How do I describe how that feels?” says Cornelius.
Postal inspectors say it is so important to do extensive research and contact references before entering financial transactions.
“He was aiming for churches and he had no shame in that whatsoever,” says Freedman.
“Forgiving is easy. Forgetting isn`t... so I have to work hard to keep forgiving,” says Cornelius.
Lawson is charged with three counts of wire fraud and is still awaiting sentencing.