Ephren Taylor Accused of $11 Million Christian Ponzi Scheme by SEC

Victims lost life savings in megachurch scams, SEC says

ByABC News
May 8, 2012, 11:53 AM

May 8, 2012— -- Ephren Taylor stepped into the pulpit with the ease of preacher's son, taking the microphone at the New Birth Baptist Church in Atlanta, where the powerful pastor Eddie Long was introducing him to the Sunday morning crowd.

"Everything he says is based on the word of God," Long pledged to the members of his megachurch. But Taylor wasn't a visiting minister. He was a financial adviser, one who claimed to have made his first million before he turned 18. And he promised he could do the same for his fellow Christians.

"We're going to show you how to get wealth and use it for the building of his kingdom," Taylor shouted to the congregation one morning in 2009. It was all part of what he called his "Building Wealth Tour," which crisscrossed the country touting his investments and financial advice.

But according to the Securities and Exchange Commission, what Taylor was actually peddling was a giant Ponzi scheme, one aimed to "swindle over $11 million, primarily from African-American churchgoers," that reached into churches nationwide, from Long's megachurch in Atlanta to Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church congregation in Houston.

But Taylor has disappeared, hiding out from lawsuits, federal charges and angry, mostly African-American, investors in at least 40 states.

Taylor, now 29, first gained national attention with a rags to riches story of growing up dirt poor in Blackwater, Miss., before developing a video game that turned him into a teenage millionaire.

In a 2007 interview with ABC News, when asked how much he was worth, Taylor ventured what he said was a guess. "Ballpark? Maybe $20 million on a bad day," he said.

His personal history, coupled with what he claimed was a philosophy of "socially conscious investing," made him popular with church congregations.

"He quoted scriptures," said Lillian Wells, who met privately with Taylor in 2009 after hearing him speak at New Birth.

Wells said Taylor convinced her to invest her entire life savings in a North Carolina-based real estate venture called City Capital Corporation, which he claimed was turning around homes in inner cities. In exchange, she was promised a 20 percent return on her money.

But, Wells said, when she wanted to recoup her initial investment, Taylor disappeared. "I couldn't get a hold of anybody," Wells said. "You just can't get them. That's it. You just couldn't get anybody."

With her retirement savings gone, Wells is now trying to save her home from foreclosure. She said she's not sure if she will ever get her money back, but she wants to see Taylor held accountable.

"We're suffering because of what he did. It needs to be stopped," she said.

Lisa Conway became suspicious of Taylor after she went to work for him in 2010. At first she was excited to sell another type of investment City Capital was pitching, but soon she said she began to suspect the business was not on the up and up.

"I wanted to believe the answers were legit when we had the meetings," she said. But "I would see things that weren't appropriate."

Conway said she started to think that the money coming in was lining Taylor's pockets, and according to government officials, she was right. The SEC claims Taylor spent his investors' money on his car payments, credit card bills and rent on a New York City apartment. The SEC also alleged that he doled out cash to make a splashy music video starring his wife, Meshelle, draped in white fur and diamonds. The name of the song? "Billionaire."