Several high-profile evangelists entangled in an alleged investment scam targeting born-again Christians are helping authorities unravel the operation.
One prominent pastor, however, has declined to assist: the Rev. Ralph A. Wilkerson, founder of Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim, according to the court-appointed receiver whose job it is to salvage the remains of what federal prosecutors allege was a Ponzi scheme.
Wilkerson’s failure to cooperate is hampering the effort to recover the millions of dollars some investors lost with Ontario-based IPIC International Inc., receiver Dennis L. Roossien Jr. said last week.
“He could help a lot if he wanted to,” Roossien said.
IPIC was headed by Gregory Earl Setser, with whom Wilkerson last year wrote an unpublished book titled “Making Million$ for Ministry: The Biblical Philosophy of Prosperity of Greg Setser.”
According to court records, Setser promised people that they would make money on import-export deals for goods such as bottled water, scooters and condoms. But prosecutors said he did little actual business and instead used millions of dollars from investors to buy his family homes, a yacht and a helicopter.
In a June 4 report, Roossien categorized IPIC as “unquestionably a fraud” in which at least $35 million was owed to people whose deposits were used to pay earlier investors.
Setser was arrested in November on fraud and money-laundering charges. He and four other defendants in the IPIC case have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Several well-known evangelists netted profits with IPIC, including three who have shows on the Trinity Broadcasting Network: faith healer Benny Hinn; Reinhard Bonnke, whose Orlando, Fla.-based Christ for All Nations evangelizes in Africa; and Marilyn Hickey, who heads a Colorado-based national ministry.
Since Setser’s arrest, several IPIC investors have returned their profits and put them in a relief fund set up by evangelists to benefit people hit hardest by losses, Roossien said. The fund contains about $1.9 million.
Hinn returned his profit, saying he was “outraged that Gregory Setser would use the church for his own benefit.”
Another investor, Hickey’s son-in-law, Reece Bowling, helped to uncover IPIC’s irregular activities and has worked with authorities to help identify additional investors.
Bonnke and his organization also have returned some of their gains and have pledged to return more, Roossien said.
The receiver said that he had asked Wilkerson to help him track down any individuals who might have pooled their funds to invest in IPIC through Wilkerson’s nonprofit organization, Millennium Missions, and that Wilkerson hadn’t responded.
Wilkerson could help persuade people to give back their gains to help compensate those who lost money, Roossien said, and could use his influence with other Christian leaders to help uncover profits federal investigators might not know about.
Wilkerson could not be reached for comment. A woman who answered the telephone at his home in a gated Dana Point neighborhood said he wouldn’t talk to a reporter.
The government hasn’t accused Wilkerson of wrongdoing.
Both Millennium Missions and Wilkerson appear to have lost money with IPIC.
The nonprofit invested at least $400,000 in about 20 of the joint-venture deals that Setser promoted, Roossien said, and received about $125,000. He said records showed that Wilkerson deposited $680,000 and was paid slightly less than $240,000.
But the IPIC records are so slapdash, Roossien said, that he can’t determine the names of the individual Millennium Missions investors. “Many Christians have another Christian’s money. We are still in the early stages of helping people understand that, and I am excited to see what will happen” as additional investors come forward, the receiver said.
In the unpublished book, Setser said Wilkerson was an inspiration. As a teenager in the 1970s, Setser said, he traveled from his home in Montclair to join thousands of young Christians drawn to the six services held each Sunday at Melodyland’s huge facilities across from Disneyland.
The manuscript is written in question-and-answer form, with Wilkerson asking the questions.
“When I heard you speak, and watched your actions, I knew that you were a man who desperately loved the souls of men,” Setser says at the start of “Making Million$ for Ministry.”
“God gave me a passion in my heart for souls,” Wilkerson replies.
“Mine too,” Setser says. “Even at a young age I was leading 20 to 30 people to the Lord a day. I was a soul winner. It was the only thing that mattered to me. Then Jesus said to me, ‘I will make you a fisher of men, but I am going to make you a wealthy man.’ “
The manuscript, obtained by The Times last week, was assembled by Michael Wourms, president of CSN Books in El Cajon. Wourms said Setser hoped to sell the book at religious conferences but never had it published.
Unlike Hinn, Hickey and Bonnke, Wilkerson has been largely out of the spotlight in recent years.
The Oklahoma native, a former traveling Bible Belt preacher, became well-known in California after his Christian Center Church bought the struggling Melodyland Theater for $1.125 million in 1969.
Offering lively music, healing sessions and fiery preaching, Wilkerson founded a seminary, battled Motown Records for rights to the Melodyland name and was roundly attacked for extolling the positive points of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, who presided over a murderous regime and whom Wilkerson visited in May 1978.
By that year, Melodyland’s finances had fallen into disarray and Wilkerson was forced to bring in outside managers. Two years later, outsiders bought the 12.5-acre complex, which included a 3,770-seat auditorium, a theater-in-the-round, a high school and the theology school.
In 1983, Anaheim police and federal tax agents investigated allegations that Wilkerson had mishandled millions of dollars in church funds, including using them for personal travel, clothing and furniture purchases. No criminal charges were filed. Later that year, Wilkerson repurchased Melodyland.
Amid continuing money troubles, the debate over Melodyland in the 1990s focused mainly on whether the city, Walt Disney Co. or private developers would buy and redevelop the complex. The last piece of Melodyland was sold to a mall developer two years ago.
In his introduction to the Setser book, Wilkerson decries how major evangelical denominations have been forced to call missionaries home because of financial cutbacks and says that church offerings are dwindling and that Christians must “beg and claw for every ministry dollar.”
Wilkerson adds that he is “certain and confident that there are countless more Greg Setsers out there who can help finance the end time harvest. I pray ‘Making Million$ for Ministry’ helps discover and train them … for His Kingdom.”
June 21, 2004
E. Scott Reckard, Times Staff Writer