Gary Dopson once had a dream: to grow his congregation and become a mega-church, as big as those headed by popular televangelists like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer.
But when a surprise benefactor promised Dopson he would make that dream come true, and Dopson threw his support behind him, the Alabama preacher wound up further from his goal than he ever expected.
Before Dopson met Mark Steven Cooper, his Daystar Church had grown from a small rented room to a large facility with more than 600 faithful attending every Sunday.
Today, fewer than a hundred congregants have followed him to his new church, New Horizons, located in a mall. And Dopson has been left with serious doubts about his own integrity.
At his Daystar Church, Dopson had preached the gospel of prosperity. In one of his sermons, he said, "God wants to bless us and bring us into abundance. Now the word 'prosperity' is not a dirty word."
In or around 1998, Dopson said his cousin introduced him to Cooper, who was decribed as a savvy real estate businessman with access to money. Cooper said he had a plan that would pay for a huge new building and make money for the parishoners, if they would just invest.
The congregants thought Cooper's arrival was auspicious – they had wanted the church to grow, and Cooper arrived. They interpreted it as divine intervention.
"We felt like that he was absolutely a tool to fulfill what we felt was taking place in our church," Dopson said.
The plan called for Daystar's congregants to invest about $500,000 in bonds issued by Cooper's organization; they would also put up their church as collateral for a $2.5 million bank loan.
The plan was a complicated, high risk, venture capital deal, and the preacher and his congregation could hardly understand it.
But there was one thing about the deal that hit home for the faithful: Cooper told them the plan was backed by "a conglomerate of very successful businessmen and women that look for business to be able to contribute to the glory of God."
Dopson said he was told they were planning to build a mega-church with seats for 15,000, as well as a swimming pool and three restaurants. He recalls thinking at the time, "Oh, it was the dream coming true." He exhorted his flock to invest.
In one videotape of the time, he is seen telling his congregation, "These people that we are working with have 100 percent track record. They never lost any project, they never lost any money."
A church board member said, "If we don't do this, we might as well close those doors. Because God will leave us."
Don and Rebecca Whittington had always put their savings in CDs and bank accounts, but they say they invested $50,000 because of Dopson's advice.
"It was money that we were going to use for retirement," Don Whittington said.
"This was only because our pastor asked us," he said. "If Steve Cooper had of asked us, we would have never even considered it."
Corvettes, Booze and Strippers
Dozens of parishioners bought bonds ranging from $200 to $75,000. In return, they got certificates entitled "Favor of God." They looked official – but they were never registered. They were bogus, and Cooper was running a scam. They were made on a home computer.
Cooper was soon caught. Randy McNeill of the Alabama Securities Commission was involved in his prosecution. He says faith-based scams are on the rise. Alleged faith-based investment scams have already cost believers over $1.8 billion dollars.
McNeil says the millions of dollars Daystar parishioners turned over to Cooper was "frittered away" – spent on other scams and a lavish lifestyle. "It was over in a flash," Dopson said. The banks repossessed his church and the land underneath.
It was a major scandal. In the Bible Belt, McNeill said, "you cannot take the Lord's name in vain more than what he did." Cooper was sentenced to 31 years – the longest sentence ever for fraud in the state of Alabama.
In an interview with "Primetime" co-anchor Chris Cuomo at the Alabama State Penitentiary, Cooper said, "It didn't begin as an intention to defraud or scam anyone." But he also concedes that he never gave any of the money back. When pressed, he also says the project fell through because he spent all the money.
Cooper told "Primetime" he wanted to apologize to the congregation.
But McNeill said if Cooper's intentions were honest, he wouldn't have bought "a fleet of Corvettes with the money. If that was true, you don't buy a $2,000 bottle of wine with church money. If that was true, you don't go and, you know, get your ... stripper girlfriend and go all over the country with it."
Who Knew What?
When authorities ran a background check on Cooper, they found 14 prior felony convictions. Cooper turned out to have done time in two different states – once for defrauding a church.
Dopson said he had no reason to have suspicions. But Cooper, in his interview with Cuomo, let something slip: He said Dopson once told him, "'I want the people not to think about your past, but to think about what you've done, the good that you've done for the community here.'"
McNeill said he's convinced Cooper knew something. "I've got every indication Dopson knew some of Cooper's background, but looked the other way," he said.
Dopson said he knew Cooper had been in prison before, but never bothered to check out why.
The Whittingtons are currently suing Dopson, saying the pastor didn't just present Cooper's plan to the congregation – he sold it to them.
Dopson said, "I promoted it because I believed in it. The Board promoted it because they believed in it. But, yes, I take responsibility." He added, "I've wept many, many hours in the night."
But he did not lose a dime. It turns out the man who convinced his congregation to invest their savings – including his parents who lost their home – didn't practice what he preached.
Dopson said, "I didn't invest because the earlier part of the year I had already committed to world missions and to other projects. One of my children [was] going to college. The expenses there. Another one was going off into a summer program in ministry."
McNeill is doubtful. He said he thought about going after Dopson. "But the problem was ... with Dopson ... we couldn't show he was getting any of the money."
But his agency did prove that Cooper gave Dopson $5,000. Dopson acknowledges it and says it was what Christians call a "pastor appreciation" gift.
McNeill said the money came out of the loan proceeds, and even after he told the pastor, Dopson did not give it back.
Dopson was never accused of any crime, but the Whittingtons say he is guilty of committing one of the seven deadly sins:
"Not so much greed for money, but greed for power and prestige," Don Whittington said.