The Rev. Howard Richmond, a televangelist, presented himself as a man on a mission from God. His vision was to build a mega-church on Chicago's West Side to minister to those needing to hear the Lord's word the most.
At least that was the sales pitch the 53-year-old Naperville man offered when soliciting millions in cash from the faithful, the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting.
On Wednesday, Richmond was sentenced to 12 years in prison by DuPage County Judge Blanche Hill Fawell. The judge also ordered him to pay $1.6 million in restitution, but Assistant State's Attorney Shanti Kulkarni said Richmond was unlikely ever to pay the money back. Richmond had previously pleaded guilty to felony financial crimes and bribery of a financial institution.
As it turns out, the former West Side minister — who relocated his Life Reach Ministries church to Aurora before DuPage County authorities caught up with him — was nothing more than a conman, prosecutors and his victims said in court.
Using forged statements showing he had millions in the bank and promising large returns in the future, Richmond had an uncanny knack for enticing dozens of his flock to invest in him, prosecutors said. They said he bilked as much as $2 million from people he knew through his ministries, though victims say that number could be higher.
He "used the vestments of a pastor as a robber might pull a ski mask over his face," Kulkarni said. "He came to people in the guise of a man of God."
Aurora Police arrested Richmond in May 2010 after he conned members of his Aurora storefront church. But he had been scamming people on the West Side for years, according to court testimony.
Before handing down the sentence, Fawell noted that many of Richmond's lenders have since lost houses and cars and haven't been able to afford college or medical care.
One family attributed their daughter's suicide to the financial stress caused by their unreturned investment, Fawell said.
Some of the items he spent the money on included snakeskin shoes, suits, jewelry, vacations, stays at the Chicago Ritz-Carlton and a $40,000 BMW, according bank records and court testimony.
Some who lent money to Richmond testified that he rode around the West Side in a rented limo.
When it was his turn to speak, Richmond faced the packed court gallery and offered a tearful mea culpa to dozens of victims he has admitted to swindling. He blamed his actions on an Atlanta, Ga. televangelist, who he claimed had pulled out of a deal to open a church that would be run by Richmond.
"It wasn't my intention to hurt nobody here. I have been deceived myself," Richmond said, promising to give "every penny back that I have taken."
One person who lost everything to Richmond is the Rev. Neal Green.
Green, 87, was a pastor of a small congregation that met in his Garfield Park basement when he first saw Richmond preach on TV, Green testified. Later, he attended Richmond's former church at Roosevelt and Homan.
But it was only after Green went to study under him and become an ordained minister that Richmond started asking him for money to build a new church.
By 2007, Green had loaned Richmond hundreds of thousands of dollars and allowed Richmond to sell his handful of rental properties. Now Green says he lives on welfare.
Even though he hasn't seen a penny of his money back, Green said he forgives Richmond.
"I ain't got no hard feelings toward him," Green said. "I know there's a devil and I know there's a God. And God will always have the last say."
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