Gucci-Loving Pastor Arrested on Charges of Extortion and Defrauding a Member of His Flock
Last summer, gunmen interrupted his Sunday sermon and made off with more than $1 million of jewelry.
The Brooklyn pastor called "the bling bishop" because of his affinity for designer fashion has been hit with federal fraud charges: Prosecutors say he spent a parishioner's life savings on more luxury goods. Lamor Whitehead, bishop of the Leaders of Tomorrow International Ministries, was in the headlines last summer when gunmen interrupted his Sunday sermon and made off with more than $1 million of jewelry.
At that point, federal agents were already investigating Whitehead for swindling a parishioner out of $90,000, among other instances of fraud. Read on to find out what happened, and how much jail time Whitehead could be facing if found guilty.
Federal prosecutors have charged Whitehead with fraud, extortion, and making false statements to the FBI. "Lamor Whitehead abused the trust placed in him by a parishioner, bullied a businessman for $5,000, then tried to defraud him of far more than that, and lied to federal agents," said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams. "His campaign of fraud and deceit stops now."
In one case, Whitehead allegedly persuaded a parishioner to invest $90,000 of her life savings in one of his businesses. He promised he could help her buy a home despite her bad credit history. The home was not forthcoming; instead, Whitehead spent the money on luxury goods and personal items, prosecutors say.
Officials also say Whitehead extorted a businessman for $5,000, then tried to convince him to lend him $500,000 and give him a stake in a real estate transaction. He promised favorable treatment from the New York City government in return. "Whitehead carried out several duplicitous schemes in order to receive funds from his victims," said FBI Assistant Director Michael Driscoll. "When speaking with authorities, Whitehead consciously chose to mislead and lie to them."
Authorities also say Whitehead lied to the FBI. At one point, Whitehead told agents he had no cell phones other than the one he was carrying, officials said. Whitehead actually had a second phone that he used regularly, officials said. He used the second phone to send a text message describing it as "my other phone" soon after telling the agents he didn't own any other phones, officials said.
According to the New York Times, Whitehead was ordered to pay a former client $306,000 in 2008 after he did not repay an initial investment of $200,000, and he owed more than $400,000 to a construction company that had worked on his house and the credit union that financed his Mercedes-Benz and his Range Rover.
Also, in 2008, Whitehead was convicted of several charges, including identity theft. Prosecutors alleged he took out loans in other people's names and used the money to buy big-ticket items such as cars and motorcycles. Whitehead spent five years in state prison.
On Monday, Whitehead appeared in Manhattan Federal Court, where he was charged with two counts of wire fraud, each of which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, one count of extortion, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, and one count of making false statements, which carries a maximum sentence of five years. He pleaded not guilty to all charges and was released on a $500,000 bond.
Although the vast majority of pastors are honest and upright individuals who serve their communities with integrity, however, like any profession, some individuals engage in unethical and criminal behavior. Last week a Florida pastor and his son were arrested and charged with fraudulently obtaining more than $8 million in federal COVID relief payments, which were partly used to buy a luxury home near Disney World.
Evan Edwards, 64, and his 30-year-old son Josh were taken into custody on Wednesday, several months after NBC News published a story asking why the duo hadn't been charged with the scam, which federal prosecutors had been aware of since December 2020.