Before he was accused of investment fraud, before he disappeared and was declared ‘dead’, and before he was found and arrested a year later on an interstate in coastal Georgia, Aubrey Lee Price was a preacher.
The man everyone called “Lee” helped raise funds for a new church building, boosted membership, led overseas missions and won the confidence of those he served.
“I’ll be honest with you, I would’ve trusted him with my life,” said Paris Stone, a member of Clear Springs Baptist Church in Johns Creek where Price once was pastor.
But religion, a big part of Price’s adult life since he graduated with a Ministry degree from Brewton-Parker College in 1990, also appears to have played a role in the alleged fraud.
Some clients for Price’s investment business came to him through church or the recommendations of his flock. He prayed with them before meetings, posted Bible verses on his website and took some of them on mission trips.
Church members – even those who lost money with Price — say he did not hard-sell them. They knew he was in the investment game and they trusted and liked him, they said, so they turned to him for service.
Price started managing investments for fellow church members like Stone, as well as other clients, then lost it in investment schemes gone awry, authorities say. Losses for some ran into the millions.
Since his arrest in December, Price has pleaded not guilty to bank fraud. In a 2012 confession letter attributed to him, Price said he didn’t steal from his clients, but got in over his head after heavy losses and frantic attempts to earn their money back.
Experts say religion and commerce can make for an unholy alliance.
“If you’re in a church and you have a minister who is dabbling in some other business and trying to get you as a client, run in the opposite direction,” said David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, speaking generally.
When Price was arrested during a routine traffic stop in Brunswick on New Year’s Eve, he didn’t look the part of a pastor. Formerly clean-cut, fair-skinned and bright-eyed, his hair was long and disheveled, his face was bearded and noticeably darker. He drove a beat-up Dodge truck and had been spending time in a rural part of central Florida where he rented a patch of land and a single-wide trailer, neighbors and the landlord said. There, authorities found hundreds of marijuana plants.
Nearby, according to a local TV report in Florida: a pile of opened Bibles.
Price’s purported farewell letter, which he apparently intended to be found after his faked suicide, is filled with religious references. It says he had asked God for mercy, and that, “I have accepted the will of God and understand that God cannot bless a mess of disobedience like I have committed.” It said that he “embarrassed” and “shamed” his God, but that God had not forsaken him.
Those who knew Price before he vanished recall a very different man from the one arrested. That Price tirelessly led mission trips to help the poor in remote areas of Venezuela. He poured the concrete foundations of church buildings, taught young people the Bible and provided badly needed supplies.
“He was extremely hard working, motivational, dedicated,” said Judy Young, a longtime member at Clear Springs who said she knew Price since about 2000 and worked with him in Venezuela.
“I knew Lee as a good man, a mission leader, a friend,” she said. “Evidently, there is a different Lee Price today. If the accusations are true, there is a decided change in the person I knew five or 10 years ago.”
Price’s investment management career intersected with his religious work. Over the years, he made stops at top firms like Smith Barney and Banc of America Investment Services before starting his own firm in 2008, records show.
So-called bi-vocational ministries allow pastors to earn a living doing something else while leading their congregation. Price chose investment management. But, ethicists say, some jobs allow for the possibility of abuse.
“Certain positions bring with them the ability to have a stronger level of credibility, believability and access to individuals in a very intimate way, even when they are at their most vulnerable,” said Edward Queen, coordinator of undergraduate studies at Emory University’s Center for Ethics. “And where their suspicions are lowered, the ability for them to prey on them financially increases exponentially.”
Price was concerned about not only his parishioners’ spiritual well-being, but also their financial health, said Barry Cooper, a former member of Teamon Baptist Church in Griffin, where Price also served as pastor for several years.
For example, Price brought in training materials to help congregants get out of debt, he recalled.
Back then, Cooper said, Price was running a small investment fund with his father, Jim Price “as a hobby.”
Cooper said he moved his money with Price through various brokerages and eventually to Price’s firm, PFG. He declined to say how much money he and his ex-wife lost.
Price and his family also had started a nonprofit organization, Global Discipleship Ministries, to support two American missionaries there and to help build churches and an orphanage.
Cooper said he went to Venezuela five or six times with Price and other church members.
“We were active in building the church and building the kingdom (of God) down there,” Cooper said. Groups of Teamon members worked on about five or six churches in villages across the country over several years, Cooper said.
Church members would go to Venezuela for about two weeks at a time. They would take suitcases full of tools and clothes and then leave their belongings in the country as a love offering to the locals.
Meanwhile, Price appeared to be doing as well in his day job as an investor.
Paulding County resident Rick Smith said he met Price through some of his parishioners who said they’d invested with Price for years and that he had always done right by them. Smith also once went with Price on a mission trip to Venezuela.
Smith said he and Price would speak a few times a month. Every month, he’d get dividend checks along with financial statements that Smith said he now believes were faked.
“It was all a lie, evidently,” Smith said.
Smith said he and other clients didn’t simply trust the statements they were getting. Price would show them real estate he’d acquired, and Rick and his wife, Marvel, stayed in a condominium that Price acquired as an investment property near Bradenton, Fla.
“You could actually see what you got,” Smith said.
Stone, the Clear Springs member, didn’t suspect a problem, either.
Price “never promised you the moon,” as some brokers might, he noted. He was generous, giving what little he earned as pastor to mission work. And then there were the monthly financial statements that showed nothing wrong.
At some point, Stone said, Price’s job “got demanding,” and he had to leave the church.
“Everyone hated to see him go,” Stone said.
In December 2010, a few years after he’d started his own company, Price led an investor group that tried to save the troubled Montgomery Bank & Trust in the South Georgia town of Ailey.
Price got control of the bank’s accounts, federal authorities said, then sustained heavy losses on investments. He provided false financial statements to investors and to the bank. In June 2012, Price disappeared, and the bank failed about a month later.
Price was indicted in Savannah on a federal bank fraud charge in July 2012. Separately, he was indicted in New York on a securities and wire fraud charge. It charged that Price lost $40 million from 115 investors, and covered it up with false financial statements.
The Smiths did not invest in the bank at first, but did after Price convinced them that it was a can’t-miss deal.
“I remember him telling me, ‘We certainly won’t lose any money in it,’” Smith said.
When things went sour, he said, Price changed. He didn’t respond to questions about the bank and, Cooper said, his demeanor turned from “jovial” to “stressed.”
Cooper said he last saw Price in the spring of 2012, during the final annual meeting the investment adviser held for clients. It was at a hotel near Perimeter Mall. Price gave a presentation about the status of the PFG investments and the health of Montgomery Bank & Trust.
“He said the bank wasn’t doing very well, and that there were some investors from Tennessee who wanted to get in,” Cooper said of Price.
Price also told his clients that insiders at the bank didn’t tell him how troubled the bank really was when he decided to invest, Cooper said. (A lawsuit on behalf of Price’s jilted clients seeks money from three bank insiders claiming they hid the condition of the bank from Price and his clients before they invested.)
A few months later, Cooper learned from his wife that Price had disappeared, and that their money was gone.
“To me he’s a sheep that’s lost his way,” Cooper said. “I’d love the chance to talk to him and witness to him the way he used to witness to us through the church. He’s a lost soul who’s done some bad things.”