New York Man Accused of Fleecing Fellow Churchgoers

December 26, 2008

bryant-rodriguez.jpgWhat the authorities say happened to members of El Camino Church, a gray brick building wedged into a corner of Washington Heights, will not make financial history. No charities will have to close, no endowments will be eviscerated. Millions were not lost, let alone billions.

But when the cost is totaled, court papers and interviews suggest, many of the worshipers at the tiny Christian Evangelical church will have lost all or part of their savings in a Ponzi scheme that operated far beneath the orbit of the wealthy or well-connected.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have charged that Bryant Rodriguez, 44, insinuated himself into the congregation last year — he showed up first for baptism classes — and enticed fellow churchgoers to trust their money with him. Now, about $600,000 is gone in a scheme prosecutors call a classic mold of financial grifting — neither sophisticated nor, in hindsight, difficult to see through.
“Obviously these weren’t billionaires,” Allan Weissmann, a postal inspector and spokesman for the United States Postal Inspection Service, said of the parishioners. But he added: “It’s all relative. It means a lot to them. It’s their life savings in many cases, and they, too, are devastated.”
The authorities said that Mr. Rodriguez asked parishioners to invest in an electronics firm he represented, which he said wanted “a blessing for a blessing” by providing Jews and Christians with the opportunity to invest in his company, a criminal complaint charges.
A lawyer for Mr. Rodriguez, who is in jail pending a bail hearing, said he did nothing wrong. “There’s no question that he’ll plead not guilty,” the lawyer, Paul J. McAllister, said.
The church, at Audubon Avenue and 172nd Street, occupies a century-old building. It is just a few blocks from Yeshiva University, which says it lost $110 million by investing with Bernard L. Madoff, who stands accused of one of the largest financial frauds in history, a Ponzi scheme involving up to $50 billion.
One night this week a few dozen worshipers gathered for a regular service in the basement of El Camino. As a conga player, a keyboard player and a guitarist played in the background, the group sang a Spanish version of “Silent Night,” their hands outstretched, their palms up.
At the end of the service, the pastor, the Rev. Miguel Amadis, addressed the congregation.
“We’re going through a very hard time,” he said. “We have to stay united.”
At least three dozen people invested with Mr. Rodriguez, according to the complaint; the pastor said he and his family alone lost $300,000. All told, according to the complaint, members of the church gave Mr. Rodriguez about $1.1 million, but received back only about $450,000.
Mr. Rodriguez has been charged with one count of mail fraud. “Each of these investors has lost all or part of their investment,” Postal Inspector Eleanor Berry wrote in the complaint, referring to a group of 30 parishioners and their friends.
The complaint said Mr. Rodriguez began taking baptismal classes at the church in 2007, and was later baptized there. He told people that he worked with a company called C & E, and sold electronics to the church and some of its members.
According to the complaint, he said his business sold wholesale electronics to large retailers like Best Buy and P. C. Richard & Son. He promised returns of 30 percent every two weeks, and kept his promise to initial investors, at least for a while. Those investors then brought in other family members until a number of them were hooked.
In one case described in the complaint, a church member gave Mr. Rodriguez about $3,000 in cash in June 2007. Two weeks later, Mr. Rodriguez paid the man about $900, followed by another $900 payment soon thereafter.
The victim told relatives and friends about the opportunity, the complaint says, and they gave Mr. Rodriguez a total of about $57,000. After the investor pressed Mr. Rodriguez last August about his investment, he was given “a loan” of $5,000.
Neither the investor nor his family and friends received any more money from Mr. Rodriguez, the complaint said.
One church member, Alexander Perez, said his family and friends had lost about $80,000.
“He came here telling us he did business with all these big electronics stores,” said Mr. Perez, 30, a construction worker from Washington Heights who has been a member of El Camino for seven years. “We didn’t think there was anything wrong, so we invested with him.”
“It hurts, trust me, it hurts,” Mr. Perez said.
Ana Vasquez, 44, an interior decorator, said she and a friend invested $10,000.
“He paid us at first to get more people interested,” she said. “He told us to find family and friends to invest. He told us that everyone who invested $5,000 would get a bonus of $10,000. To get enough money, a lot of us looked for more people to chip in.”
According to the complaint, retailers have told the authorities that they had no contract with Mr. Rodriguez or any firm he ran.
Mr. Rodriguez has a previous felony conviction for impersonating a United States immigration officer, the complaint says.
In court on Tuesday, Mr. Rodriguez’s lawyer, Mr. McAllister, blamed the church’s pastor, Mr. Amadis, for any money that was lost. Mr. Amadis, referring to Mr. Rodriguez, said, “He’s trying to say that I had something to do with it, but that’s just not true.” No charges have been filed against the pastor.
“He came to us like anyone else comes to the church,” Mr. Amadis said. “When I met this guy, he convinced me he was a true original Christian. Man, this guy could talk. He could convince anybody.”
Source: NYTimes

One comment

  1. Honestly I know all of those people involved personally and they were all just stupid people. They did not listen to reason or others who were trying to tell them this man was a scam artist. They had it coming to them for being stupid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: