Prosecutors launch criminal investigation into suspected church swindler

Federal prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into a former executive accused in civil complaints of bilking churchgoers in Atlanta and beyond out of millions of dollars.

John Horn of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that prosecutors are “actively pursuing” an investigation of Ephren Taylor. He would not comment further on the case.

It was an unusual admission for the office, which typically declines to confirm or deny whether it is investigating a suspect. But Taylor’s story is nothing if not unusual.

Plaintiff’s lawyers and a Securities and Exchange Commission complaint accuse Taylor of operating a classic Ponzi scheme by paying investors healthy returns fueled by others’ investments.

They say he lured “socially conscious” parishioners with promises of can’t-miss investments from the pulpit of Lithonia’s New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and other congregations across the East Coast.

His alleged victims claim in civil lawsuits he told congregants their investments would support gas stations and other small businesses. Some were urged to invest in “sweepstakes” machines that promised high returns.

A federal judge in Atlanta recently concluded that Taylor and his former company must repay ex-investors more than $14.5 million, including interest. The money, SEC investigators say, paid for Taylor’s high-flying lifestyle and his wife’s singing career.

U.S. Secret Service officers recently questioned Taylor’s associates. But the Atlanta office’s statement is the first confirmation that a criminal inquest is pending.

Taylor could not be reached for comment, but the AJC tracked him down in August at a spa he and his wife Meshelle planned to open in suburban Kansas City. Inside the darkened office, Taylor said he was reluctant to talk because journalists “wouldn’t report the story right.”

“I just know that I can’t say anything,” he said, adding: “I just want to keep my life peaceful.”

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