It may have been the last place you’d think to find a flashy money man accused of swindling members of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and other congregations out of millions of dollars. Ephren Taylor was discovered by a camera crew this week in a suburban Kansas town where his wife worked as a masseuse under a glamorous pseudonym.
The couple’s whereabouts had been a mystery to all but a few for months after the Securities and Exchange Commission took him to court in a civil suit seeking to stop what it claimed was a Ponzi scheme targeting black church members nationwide. But tracking down the 31-year-old may have been the easy part.
“We are so happy that he’s been located,” said Lillian Wells, a 62-year-old Covington Realtor who claims that Taylor duped her out of $122,000. “But locating him is one thing. Now we’re just hoping the feds can do something about it.”
Taylor, who declined to comment through an attorney, stands accused in several lawsuits of duping worshippers in Georgia and at least four other states of millions of dollars with promises of eye-popping rewards. The suits allege that Taylor’s former company, City Capital Corp., used incoming funds from new investors to repay existing ones.
And in March, a federal judge in Georgia issued a default judgment ordering Taylor and City Capital to repay more than $11.7 million.
Federal prosecutors and state authorities declined to comment on whether Taylor could face criminal charges. But plaintiff’s attorney Cathy Lerman, who filed a lawsuit against Taylor in North Carolina, said she hopes authorities take “real action against him before he tries to disappear again.”
To build a criminal case, federal prosecutors may have to develop evidence beyond what investigators gathered in pursuing the civil case.
With tales of success dating to his pre-teen years and a healthy sense of self-confidence, Taylor built a mystique through appearances on national news networks and by penning financial books with lofty titles such as “The Elite Entrepreneur” and “Creating Success From the Inside Out.”
After he was named in 2006 as the chief executive of a publicly traded company called City Capital, he’d ask ministers to let him deliver a Sunday sermon and urge worshippers to invest in businesses tied to the firm, the lawsuits said. The presentations often featured flashy videos and client lists packed with celebrities, they said.
One of his stops was a 2009 visit to New Birth, Bishop Eddie Long's Lithonia megachurch, where he told the congregation that his real estate investments were a surer bet than risking money on Wall Street stocks. Long has urged Taylor to "do what's right" in a February 2011 YouTube video and said in a statement Friday that he and his church are cooperating with authorities.
Taylor’s whereabouts were long unknown to plaintiff’s attorneys and federal authorities, who initially filed an SEC complaint against him without knowing his location. In the complaint, attorneys claim that money that investors thought would fund real estate and other ventures instead supplemented Taylor’s ritzy lifestyle and his wife’s singing career.
In a 2011 email to The Associated Press, Taylor didn’t disclose his location but vowed to use his own money to help those who feel “negatively impacted” by their losses. “Sometimes,” Taylor said, “people will participate in a game they don’t have a stomach for, and when it goes south, they put the blame on those that led that game.”
SEC spokesman Kevin Callahan said the agency has recently been able to communicate with Taylor through his attorney, Christopher Bruno, who declined to comment. But Taylor's location was largely unknown until ABC News tracked Taylor and his wife to the tiny Kansan town of Lenexa, a Kansas City suburb.
Tipsters called the network after they overheard the Taylors bemoaning their lost fortune, the report said, and the crew found Taylor's wife, Meshelle, working at a salon called Panacea Massage under the name Liz Taylor. When confronted by reporters, Ephren Taylor responded to questions with a curt "I don't know."
Plaintiffs' attorneys who fear they won't be able to recover client investments from Taylor have expanded their lawsuits to try to recoup losses. Wells' complaint targets Long, his church and a company called Equity Trust that it accuses of endorsing Taylor. Her attorney, Jason Doss, says church members would not have given their money to Taylor "without the support of Bishop Long, New Birth and Equity Trust."
Equity Trust, based in Ohio, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment. Long said through a statement that he’s cooperating with investigators and hopes “the responsible parties will restore the funds they took from congregants at New Birth and churches around the country.”
Wells, for her part, said she turned to Taylor after tiring of losing money in the stock market during the late 2000s. She hopes prosecutors hear her story and file charges against him. And she still holds out hope she can recoup her losses.
“When retirement comes,” she said, “I hope I have that money back so I can enjoy my life.”
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