TAMPA – LaShonda Dupree heard the drum roll, saw the gleaming lights and the television cameras as she stood on stage at Without Walls International Church.
She was a 20-year-old single mother of three with bad credit and an apartment she could afford only with government assistance.
As the music crescendoed, she realized she’d won the top prize in an essay contest: a brand new, $100,000 house in Temple Terrace.
“Congratulations on your new home!” Pastor Paula White told Dupree.
“I don’t know if you know this or not, but it’s not just a house,” Pastor Randy White informed the roaring crowd. “It comes with all the furniture inside, too.”
Dupree was jubilant, nearly in tears, as her children joined her onstage.
“I was like, this is not real,” Dupree recalled of the giveaway Nov. 17, 2002, at Without Walls’ Lakeland campus.
As it turns out, it wasn’t.
Today Dupree, 25, lives with her children in a house she rents in Riverview for $673 a month. She is no closer to homeownership than she was during the church’s Home For The Holidays presentation. The event and the family’s subsequent tour of the house – “Whose room is this?” “Who’s going to get the bunk bed?” Paula White asks Dupree’s daughters – aired repeatedly on the Christian Television Network.
Dupree has said little about her experience until a story Sunday in The Tampa Tribune detailed problems at Without Walls. It is one of the largest independent nondenominational churches, collecting $40 million a year in revenue. Detractors say its pastors borrowed $170,000 from an elderly widow and never kept promises to care for her or pay it back. Since 2000, five businesspeople have sued or filed liens against the church or the pastors, accusing them of not paying bills or reneging on deals.
This week, Dupree said she is another victim.
“It was like, ‘Hey, everybody, look at all the good we’re doing here!’ But they didn’t tell the rest of the story, which is the recipient never got the house,” she said.
Robert Fruster was the man on stage announcing the winners. He felt terrible about what happened, he said.
“We needed to live up to what we said we were going to do,” said Fruster, a former Without Walls pastor.
It Began With A Class
Through a public relations company, Randy White issued a statement that said the giveaway did not turn out the way he had hoped.
“We tried to do a good thing, and it backfired,” the statement said. However, White said the contest clearly stated that the winner got a down payment, not the house.
Dupree’s experience was the heartbreaking end to a church-sponsored economic empowerment class she took to learn to be responsible with money.
She had just started a low-paying customer service job at Chase Treasury and had poor credit. A college dropout, she wanted to give her children a “real home, to call their own,” and go back to school. She attended every financial counseling class sponsored by Fruster’s Road to Recovery ministry. It pledged to help manage “90 percent of your money after giving your 10 percent tithe.”
Without Walls announced an essay contest. The 200 or so students were to write about what they learned in the class and how they would apply it to their lives.
The prizes – particularly the chance to own a home – offered Dupree a new sense of hope. Other prizes included what was billed as a new car – actually a four-year-old Saturn sedan, Fruster said – a year’s worth of paid utilities, $5,000 in new furniture, and a $500 gift certificate for groceries.
Dupree was thrilled to emerge as one of five finalists. But she was concerned by the notice on the contest entry that said the church would provide the down payment on the house – not the house. When church staff asked the finalists to apply for a mortgage, she called Fruster.
She would never qualify, she told him, and she didn’t make enough money to afford payments. She had secured housing assistance and planned to move into an apartment.
She applied as they asked, and the mortgage company rejected her, she said.
She prayed anyway.
“I was always taught that God works in impossible situations,” she wrote in a letter to White on March 18, 2003, after it became clear she would never live in the house.
White had wanted Dupree to win, Fruster said this week.
“I was his [White’s] poster child for single mothers,” Dupree said.
A Miracle – And Some Problems
Early on the day the prizes were to be announced, Fruster notified White that a contest panel had selected the winner of the top prize. It was someone who would qualify for the mortgage.
White said he wanted Dupree to get the house, Fruster recalled, and asked him to talk with the mortgage company.
That afternoon, Fruster said, he told White that Dupree would not qualify for a mortgage. Again, he said, White insisted they make it work.
Church leaders moved forward with the presentation, figuring they would resolve the money issue before move-in day, Fruster said.
On stage, Dupree said she thought she was experiencing a real-life miracle when Fruster deemed her a “brand-new homeowner.” The church leaders knew she couldn’t qualify for a mortgage, she thought. They must have rewarded her hardship and all her hard work to overcome it, and given her the house.
The church filmed a ribbon-cutting at the three-bedroom, two-bath home five days later. Paula White led Dupree and her children, then ages 6, 5 and 3, from room to room.
“What do you guys think? Do you see your new kitchen?” White asked. “It’s beautiful!”
She told Dupree’s children to pick out their bedrooms.
Behind the scenes, church leaders told Dupree that several details had to be resolved before she could move in.
The home in the new River Manor development would not be available until January or February, they told her. Dupree canceled the lease on the apartment, sacrificing her $500 security deposit, and moved in with her parents, Larry and Marilyn Dupree, also members of Without Walls.
About that time, she was stunned when she got calls from mortgage brokers, asking her to apply for a loan.
“Are you serious?” she remembers thinking. “I figured I would be taking care of the upkeep, the taxes and the insurance, but nobody said anything about a mortgage. This was supposed to be a free house.”
The house would not be free to Dupree, but Fruster was trying to help her buy it.
Billed as a $100,000 property, it would cost the winner only $65,000, Fruster said. A mortgage company and builder had worked before the contest to lower the price so the church would not have to provide a down payment, he said.
Dupree didn’t qualify for $65,000, but if the church paid about $10,000, she would be in the home today, Fruster said.
“From my perspective, it was a drop in the bucket, a very small amount, considering how big the church is and how much it takes in,” Fruster said.
Without Walls has said it was collecting about $10 million a year in revenue then.
“I wanted to close this out and do the right thing for LaShonda,” Fruster said.
He and his wife, Brenda, were among several staff members “released” from their jobs last year. The couple now lead Kingdom Worship Center.
She Got The Furniture
As the deal unraveled, Dupree repeatedly contacted Randy White.
“At first he said he’d go to his grave to fix this and make it right for me,” she said. “Then it turned into finding me a rental home in Ybor City that one of the other pastors owned. I kept telling him, ‘No, that wasn’t the deal. I want my house.'”
By March 2003, Dupree gave up and moved to the apartment in Riverview.
“I finally accepted it was nothing but a publicity stunt,” she said.
She said she spoke with an attorney, but he told her she had no case without a written agreement.
In his statement, White likened the situation to people who win prizes on television shows, only to learn the winnings are heavily taxed.
“We videotaped the winner walking through the house, but unfortunately the winner was unable to use the down payment because she failed to qualify for the rest of the mortgage on the home,” the statement said. “In hindsight, our essay contestants should have been prequalified for mortgage loans before judged.”
White said Dupree received two months’ rent for her apartment and all the furniture in the Temple Terrace home. Dupree said she got the furniture, donated by a local store, but no money for rent.
She no longer attends Without Walls or any other church.
Things are looking up for Dupree, who now has four children ages 10, 9, 7 and 3. She’s a senior credit analyst for Coca-Cola Enterprises in Brandon and is taking online classes toward a degree in accounting.
She still dreams of owning her own home.
Rebecca Boyd lives at the home Dupree toured with Pastor Paula. Boyd bought it in 2003 with no idea it was at the center of a church drama.
“It’s not a great house, but it’s OK for a family,” she said. “The whole situation sounds too bad.”