Chicago Tribune

A pastor accused of using his minister’s garb as a thief dons a mask was sentenced today to 12 years in prison for stealing more than $1.6 million in loans and donations.

“Evidence shows the defendant put on the title and vestments of a pastor and went out into the community in the same way a robber puts on a ski mask and heads out into the night,” said Assistant State’s Attorney Shanti Kulkarni.

Howard Richmond, 53, of Naperville, told friends and followers they would be helping him build a mega church on Chicago’s west side.  But he created fake financial documents to give his investors the impression that his church had millions of dollars in assets, authorities said.

Richmond, who ran a non-denominational Aurora storefront church called Life Reach Ministries, pleaded guilty in August to forgery and operating a continuing financial crime enterprise. He was also ordered to make $1.6 million in restitution, though authorities concede that his victims probably will not get their money back.

About two dozen people gave money to Richmond – one victim contributed $1 million – after hearing his church expansion plan. Many were promised huge returns on their money, which Richmond said would secure a multi-million dollar commitment from an Atlanta televangelist, Kulkarni said.

Richmond maintained that version when given the chance address the court with many of his victims watching.  The Atlanta televangelist, he said,  “snatched the carpet from underneath me” by withdrawing from the church expansion plan.

Judge Blanche Hill Fawell asked Richmond to explain examples of extravagances authorities detailed, such as a BMW car, a trip to Hawaii and thousands spent on clothes, jewelry and nights in a luxury hotel. Richmond offered vague explanations which prompted the judge to accuse him of talking in circles.

“You really haven’t answered my questions,” Fawell said.

“Can you ask me the questions again?” Richmond replied.

Among the witnesses was Rev. Neal Green, who ministers to a small west side Chicago congregation that meets in the basement of his house.  Green said Richmond convinced him to sell real estate Green owned and then loan the proceeds to Richmond.

Green, 78, said he lost $1 million.

“I don’t see how a human being could do that to another human being,” Green said. “I’m living on welfare.”