Ephren Taylor’s trail went so cold after he was accused of swindling churchgoers in Atlanta and beyond out of millions of dollars that attorneys still struggle to track him down. But if he’s hiding, it’s in plain sight at a busy corner in a Kansas City suburb.
Inside a darkened office that shares a building with a veterinary clinic, Taylor and his wife are questioning a middle-age woman seeking a job with their new massage business when the interview is interrupted.
Sporting close-cropped dreadlocks and a faded T-shirt, a slimmed-down Taylor hardly resembles the cherubic well-dressed go-getter of a few years past who used an Atlanta church pulpit to promise riches. People who gave him money — for some, their life savings — say he delivered only rhetoric, and they targeted him with complaints seeking their money returned.
Would he like to talk about those lawsuits? Taylor smirks. “No comment,” he says. “Not now. Not ever.”
That promise lasts for maybe 30 seconds. “I just know that I can’t say anything,” Taylor, 31, says as he paces a sidewalk. He sounds almost wistful, a guy who held churchgoers spellbound with talk of wealth now stammering. ”I just want to keep my life peaceful.”
As long as he is a free man, that may be impossible.
Taylor still has a business, still has his livelihood and, most irksome to his angry investors, still has his freedom. Prosecutors won’t say whether they are investigating, but U.S. Secret Service agents recently questioned employees at a spa where Taylor’s wife, Meshelle, worked.
Criminal charges can’t come soon enough for those who say Taylor bilked them of their life savings.
“Many of the victims have faced foreclosure and filed for bankruptcy as a result of all of this,” said Jason Doss, an Atlanta attorney representing more than a dozen of Taylor’s former investors. “Frankly, the fact that Mr. Taylor claims that he wants to live a peaceful life makes me sick. It is a little too late for that.”
Lawyers say Taylor operated a classic Ponzi scheme, paying investors healthy returns fueled by others’ investments. What made his case particularly heart-rending, they say, is how he sold his services — from church sanctuaries, not country club ballrooms.
Taylor, lawsuits allege, lured “socially conscious” parishioners with promises of can’t-miss real estate investments he said were safer than Wall Street stocks. Sometimes, according to the suits, he delivered those vows from the very pulpits from which churchgoers typically heard sermons.
He told parishioners that their money would support small businesses, such as gas stations and inner-city laundromats, with promises of returns as high as 20 percent. Others were urged to invest in so-called “sweepstakes” machines that promised high returns with little upfront costs.
He got a royal welcome at Lithonia’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, where Bishop Eddie Long said Taylor’s advice was based on “the word of God.” A minister’s son, Taylor boasted of his celebrity client list. He dazzled would-be investors with flashy videos.
“So many of us, with our wealth and with our knowledge, are just foolish,” he told the flock before launching into the details of his plan.
Parishioners at New Birth and elsewhere believed. A federal judge in Atlanta recently concluded that Taylor and his former company must repay his ex-investors more than $14.5 million, including interest. The money, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission complaint, funded Taylor’s high-flying lifestyle and his wife’s singing career.
What his investors got were broken dreams and looted life savings, attorneys say. Taylor, plaintiff’s attorney Cathy Lerman said, turned out to be nothing but a “coward.”
As the lawsuits accelerated, Taylor’s whereabouts were a mystery. Federal investigators didn’t have his address when they first tried to slap him with a lawsuit. Even now, plaintiff’s attorneys say they have trouble serving him with new lawsuits because they don’t know where he is.
It turned out he moved more than 800 miles from Atlanta, to the suburbs of Kansas City where he had grown up.
‘Things got strange’
What happened to the millions of dollars he’s accused of taking is unknown. Yet despite his wife’s glamorous new pseudonym — she calls herself Liz Taylor — they appear to be facing financial woes themselves.
They were forced to go on a payment plan earlier this year at a local spa where they had a massage business when they couldn’t meet their $550 monthly rent, the owner said. Local court records show their apartment complex, where they live in a portion of an aging brick townhouse, filed a complaint in February over a payment. (It was later dismissed).
And employees at the spa said they spotted Taylor’s wife, once bedazzling in jewelry, trying to salvage a chair destined for a trash bin.
“They seemed really nice and gung-ho and anxious to get started in October. But then things got strange,” said Erin Smith, a co-owner of the spa, Panacea Massage Services. “They kept saying they were used to being really wealthy and that money was tight.”
Pam Dinges, the other owner of the business, said she grew suspicious when Ephren Taylor started questioning the recent installation of security cameras at the spa’s entrance. She decided to Google his name and within minutes had uncovered their past.
“The good news is they weren’t like Charles Manson, and they weren’t ax murderers,” Dinges said. “But it was still freaky.”
Smith and Dinges called an attorney, then stayed quiet until an ABC News camera crew showed up days ago to catch the Taylors on camera. She said employees were later interviewed by Secret Service agents, and that Taylor asked them to share the agents’ contact information.
Now, the Taylors are renting a nearby office sandwiched between a gas station and a McDonald’s that houses Meshelle Taylor’s new venture, EmbodyMe Massage. And their former landlords are mum no more.
“I just want to ask her, ‘How can you live with yourself?’ ” Smith said. “How can you live day to day knowing that you’ve destroyed peoples’ lives?”
Plaintiff’s attorneys quietly hold little hope of reclaiming any of the money from Ephren Taylor, but they have broadened their lawsuits to include deeper pockets.
Lillian Wells, a metro Atlanta real estate agent who alleges that Taylor swindled her out of $122,000, also sued Long and New Birth in hopes of recouping her losses. She said she never would have invested without the church’s tacit endorsement of Taylor.
Long has since taken to YouTube to urge Taylor and his former company to “do what’s right,” and the church said in a statement it was cooperating with authorities.
Taylor had a statement for Long, too.
“I don’t talk to Eddie,” Taylor said. “I don’t have anything to do with him.”
He says he’s worried about talking more openly because reporters “wouldn’t report the story right.” The cases against him are “over,” but he professes confidence in his legal team, which has declined to comment, for the battles ahead. “I’m in good hands,” he said.
When he’s pressed on what he thinks about the allegations against him, he flashes a smile and points at the gaping hole in his jeans. When he’s questioned about what message he wants to send to his former investors, he points at the bustling McDonald’s filling up during lunch hour.
What’s in store next, now that he’s back home? He flashes the same grin that made believers open their wallets.
“Who says I’m home?” he answers. “This is still summer vacation.”
Before he disappears back into his storefront, he turns to give one final offering.
“I’m not anywhere.”