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."
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.