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

Victims lost life savings in megachurch ponzi scheme, SEC says

August 21, 2013, 8:37 PM

Aug. 21, 2013 — -- Ephren Taylor stepped up to 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 in his 20s. 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 self-improvement, followed-up with private meetings with interested investors.

Some congregants from some of the most prominent mega-churches in the country, including New Birth Baptist Church and Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Texas, turned over their life savings to Taylor hoping to do good while doing well.

But the Securities and Exchange Commission said Taylor was actually peddling a Ponzi scheme that "swindled over $11 million, primarily from African-American churchgoers." Earlier this year, the agency entered a judgment against Taylor, ordering him to pay more than $14 million, which included money owed to investors and interest and fees.

Taylor, 31, first gained national attention with a rags-to-riches story of growing up dirt poor in Blackwater, Miss., before developing a video game that he said 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, 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."

Wells said she was forced to file for bankruptcy last September. 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 claimed 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 pay for studio time for the musical career of his wife, Meshelle, with the money that came pouring in. The couple even made a splashy music video starring Meshelle Taylor draped in white fur and diamonds. The name of the song? "Billionaire."

Conway said investors soon started suspecting trouble as well, and panicked families began banging down the doors of the North Carolina office where she and Taylor worked.

"They put locks on the doors," after one particularly angry client stormed in.

Taylor started to panic, Conway said, sensing that his house of cards was beginning to tumble.

"You could see him sweating," she said. "You could see him coming in and trying to save the day or the moment that we're in it, but it just looked shady."

As the SEC complaint alleges, "simply, City Capital could not pay its bills."

"Any investor who resisted was subjected to an endless cycle of unreturned phone calls and emails [and] empty promises of imminent action," reads the complaint. "To the extent investors survived this gauntlet to still insist on repayment, any funds they received invariably came from new investor money."

In April 2012, ABC News heard from an attorney representing Taylor, who said that Taylor is not in hiding, but has stayed out of the spotlight because of concerns for his safety. He continued that Taylor also unequivocally denies that he looted investor proceeds to fund an extravagant lifestyle.

In Texas, Gary and Anita Dorio first met Taylor in Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church, and gave Taylor $1.3 million, their life savings and her mother's retirement. And for about a year, they say it seemed like a good deal. At the beginning, Taylor was sending them monthly checks for $11,000.

"He asked us, you know, 'What do you need? Give me a figure,' and he made it happen," said Gary Dorio.

The Dorios said the paperwork Taylor provided was very convincing. They thought they were investing in an inner city laundromat, a juice bar and a gas station.

"We actually got pictures of the businesses that they were operating," said Gary Dorio. "We called, and they answered the phone and they said who they were."

But ultimately, they discovered that many of the businesses they thought they were investing in never even existed. Lawyer Cathy Lerman said hundreds of investors have told her the same story.

"I cannot tell you how many people have said to me, I thought I was the only one. And my family was so angry with me. I took our life savings and ruined it," she said.

In the end, the Dorios did walk away with a rental property in Cleveland, but it came with a catch: A $67,000 bill for back taxes on the property. The head office of the businesses Taylor listed in their documents was nothing more than a post office box inside a UPS store in Tennessee.

"Don't be overcome by evil -- by evil. But overcome evil with good," said Anita Dorio, quoting a Biblical passage.

While the Dorios said they are still devout Christians, they have left Lakewood Church, the house of famous televangelist Joel Osteen, who, like many other pastors who let Taylor speak at their churches, preaches what's known as the "prosperity" gospel.

Anita Dorio acknowledged that the church was careful not to explicitly endorse Taylor.

"Before the seminar began, a staff member did make the announcement, 'We're not endorsing this person. We're not telling you to invest with him. We're just here to listen to what he has to say.'"

Lakewood Church told ABC News they opened their doors to Taylor to speak on the subject of "Biblical financial principals," but "when he began to promote his services as a financial advisor," he "was stopped from doing so."

The Dorios said while they don't really want to blame church leadership and said they did warn them about Taylor after the alleged fraud was discovered. Anita Dorio said the response she received from the church was, "'Oh Anita, how could you?' Like I should have known better."

At New Birth Baptist Church in Atlanta, Lillian Wells said she didn't get much further when she spoke to her pastor, Bishop Eddie Long. He came in and said, 'The church ain't got no money," she said.

In 2011, Long released a video pleading with Taylor to return the money.

The church told ABC News, "They do continue to hope the responsible parties will restore the funds they took from congregants at New Birth and churches around the country."

Gary and Anita Dorio say they have forgiven Taylor and place their hopes for justice in God's hands.

"It's not the easiest thing to do, but we live by what the word of god says," said Gary Dorio. "And we have to forgive Ephren. We have come to a place where we've forgiven him. We pray for him, his family."

So where is Ephren Taylor exactly? ABC's "The Lookout" received a tip to head over to Lenexa, Kan., specifically a shop called, Panacea Massage, to talk with Ephren Taylor and his wife.

After what they say were a string of bizarre incidents, workers at Panacea Massage became suspicious of one of their workers, a woman who called herself "Liz Taylor." Salon workers said they noticed her husband would arrive with her at work almost daily. And they said the couple would talk about their lost fortune.

Once the salon installed security cameras for added protection, they said the husband became suspicious. Workers said he said, "Be careful what you say, 'cause there's audio and there's night vision."

After this incident, workers looked at "Liz" Taylor's license and noticed the name on her identification was Meshelle Taylor.

After about 30 minutes of Googling her name, salon owner Pam Dinges said, "a whole can of worms opened up," and "the whole multi-million dollar scam thing all surfaced on the Internet. That's how it all came together. ... It was like, 'Oh my God.'"

When the salon workers made the connection that Meshelle was Ephren Taylor's wife, they emailed one ABC's sources, who called "The Lookout."

"The Lookout" team traveled to Kansas and found Ephren and Meshelle Taylor at an apartment complex, but they would not answer the team's questions. Ephren Taylor told "The Lookout," at one point, on camera, "I have no idea."

When "The Lookout" requested a formal interview with Ephren Taylor, his attorney told the team, "I have no comment on the SEC charges pending against Mr. Taylor. In addition, neither Mr. Taylor nor any members of his family, including his wife, wish to comment on this matter at this juncture."