‘Faith scam’ pair face trial in the US

A couple accused of running a ?15 million religious charity fraud face extradition to the United States.

Howard Walsh and Lee Hope Thrasher face 45 charges each in an American court over an investment plan run by the couple that attracted a thousand investors.

Christopher Pratt, a district judge, ruled yesterday at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court in London that there was a case for extradition and sent the papers to the Home Secretary for a decision. The couple are likely to take their case to appeal.

They were arrested last year in Whitchurch, Shropshire, by Scotland Yard’s extradition squad after a worldwide hunt by the American FBI, which had placed them on its most-wanted list.

The grey-haired Mr Welsh, 61, and the bespectacled Miss Thrasher, 50, sat side by side as they were remanded in custody. The main charge that they face is conspiracy; other charges involve the transfer of funds.

Mr Welsh, a native of Liverpool, and Miss Thrasher, who comes from a wealthy family in the US state of Virginia, are alleged to have created a fictitious religious body and a non-existent bank.

They were arrested while getting off a train after American investigations into a scam, known as a Ponzi scheme, which takes its name from a notorious 1920s American fraudster Carlo Ponzi.

It involved the creation of fraudulent, non-profit-making, tax-exempt religious bodies and a non-existent bank.

Court records in the United States say that in October 1999 the couple opened bank accounts in the name of Dominion of Heaven on Planet Earth doing business as Living Your Sole Purpose.

Mr Welsh allegedly targeted fervent people, many of them groups of families, and tried to appeal to their faith, telling them that they should not fear that he would run off with their money. If they had faith, their deposits would triple, it was said.

The tax-free endowment was to act like a pension. One promotional flyer promised a 12 per cent return each month on a minimum investment of $50,000 (?26,000).

Another said that a $2,000 investment would be worth $6,260 after a year, $19,580 after two years and $1.8 million after six years.

The two are alleged to have first offered their investment plan to their friends and family members. It spread through e-mails and word of mouth until more than a thousand investors had signed up.

One unidentified investor lost $8 million. Others who are said to have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars continued to support the pair even as they travelled the world. Money paid into the trust is believed to have totalled $29 million, and the money was wired to an account run by the pair, the court was told at an earlier hearing.

American authorities said that $20 million were unaccounted for and that there had been hundreds of victims across the United States.

The couple are alleged to have committed the fraud between 1999 and 2004 and were based in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Times, UK
Apr. 20, 2005
Stewart Tendler, Crime Correspondent

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday April 21, 2005.
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