Six sentenced in Daystar fraud case
PRATTVILLE -- Thursday was judgment day in Autauga County for six defendants in the Daystar Assembly of God church fraud case.
The sentences handed down ranged from two years' probation on a misdemeanor theft plea for William Paul Till to four years in prison for Elaine Turner on two felony theft of property pleas. Those who were given jail time were placed in the jury box and handcuffed before all were led away to the county jail after sentencing was completed.
Autauga County Circuit Judge Ben Fuller had strong words for the defendants after the lengthy sentencing session.
"The defendants in this case are greedy and stupid," Fuller said. "Did anyone think to check Mr. Cooper out before giving him money? Did anyone know how many prior felonies he had?"
Mark Steve Cooper has been dubbed the ringleader in the scam. He was sentenced earlier this year to 35 years in prison and ordered to pay restitution of more than $2 million. Cooper had 14 felony convictions on his record before being indicted on a laundry list of theft and fraud charges in the scam cases. Daystar has become the most famous of the victims in a series of sales of fraudulent bonds and bogus land deals.
The church and members of the church were defrauded out of approximately $1.2 million. The entire scam netted about $4 million, authorities say.
The defendants were ordered to pay restitution of more than $500,000, court records show.
Four of the five defendants sentenced had entered plea agreements. David Wayne Gordon was the only defendant to go to trial. He was found guilty of 15 theft and fraud-related charges last month. Most of those who pleaded asked for probation, but Fuller was in the mood to put people in jail.
Nancilu Carpenter appeared stunned when Fuller shunned probation for her, and sentenced her to five years in prison with one year to be served in the Autauga County Jail. Carpenter, who pleaded guilty to one count of theft of property, cried several minutes after being led to the jury box. Till, Steve Cooper's brother-in-law, received a suspended one-year sentence in the county jail and was placed on probation. Till's cooperation with prosecutors and the fact that he was one of the "least culpable" defendants laid the groundwork for probation, Fuller said.
The Daystar case shows the seriousness of white-collar crime, said Joe Borg, chairman of the Alabama Securities Commission. The Daystar case was investigated by the Prattville Police Department and Securities Commission. It was prosecuted by the District Attorney's Office and Securities Commission.
"White-collar crime is no different than street crime," he said. "It destroys lives, hopes and dreams. We've all seen the Enron and WorldCom cases. Believe me, to a lesser degree the same thing goes on at the local level every day."
Dozens of former Daystar members packed the courtroom Thursday. Several declined to comment after court was over. The mortgage on the church building has been foreclosed and the congregation dissolved. Several members have formed a new church in Prattville, New Horizons Assembly of God.
"This brings an end to a sad episode. Hopefully, everyone can move forward from here and put this behind us," said Connie Davis of Prattville.
Davis had worked in the past with Turner, a well-known real estate agent in town. Davis was in court Thursday to see for herself the outcome of more than two years of criminal investigation.
"I guess if there's a lesson in this its be careful with who you give your money too," she said.
Borg agrees. He called this type of con a "church affinity scam."
"Don't confuse your belief in God with the belief in an investment," he said. "Con artists often equate questioning their motives with you questioning your faith in God. They want you to believe this investment is ordained by God. If you have any questions, call us. We will check things out for you."
People selling legal securities in Alabama must be registered with the commission. The Securities Commission also keeps records on all agents when any complaints or charges have been filed against them.
District Attorney Randall Houston was pleased with the sentences.
"We feel justice has been served," Houston said. "This was a very lengthy, very complicated investigation. There had to be jail time in this case. The community demands that. We feel Judge Fuller handed down fair and prudent sentences."