KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- People around the country paid more than $19.4 million for vehicles that didn't exist after hearing that a rich man wanted to reward others who believed in God, the government alleges.
"I feel stupid for having been duped," said Mark Grissom of Atlanta. Grissom said he is out $10,500 and that he innocently recruited several family members and friends.
A federal grand jury in Kansas City has indicted four people in the scheme. The investigation is continuing, with the possibility of more indictments here or elsewhere.
"It was a pretty crafty way to take people's money," Todd P. Graves, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri, told The Kansas City Star. "It truly is nationwide. We are trying to untie the knot. It's going to be a slow process."
Accused in the scheme are Corinne Conway, 62, of Higginsville, Mo.; James R. Nichols, 26, of Carson, Calif.; Robert Gomez, 27, of Long Beach, Calif.; and Gwendolyn Baker, 51, of Bartlett, Tenn.
All four defendants are waiting to appear before a federal judge to plea to the charges in a 23-count indictment that alleges conspiracy and fraud involving interstate commerce and money laundering.
No such millionaire
The government alleges the scam started in October 1998, collected more than $19.4 million and netted nearly $12.4 million. Authorities think John Bowers -- the purported dead millionaire said to have wanted to help others with religious beliefs buy discount vehicles -- never existed.
According to authorities and the indictment the conspirators began circulating the story about the discount cars through grass-roots Christian networks. Eventually, word seeped into the secular world.
Conway was known as a "finder" because she spread the word within her religious circles. Her church in Higginsville also houses Virtuous Women International Ministries. Prospects were told that Bowers died in 1995, leaving an estate worth several hundred million dollars, and that much of his wealth was tied up in lease companies with a combined inventory of 7,000 vehicles. For tax purposes, the estate wished to sell the cars at rock-bottom prices and use the tax write-offs against the rest of the estate taxes.
Potential customers received lists of vehicles and their prices. Buyers were given a "contract," but not the vehicle identification numbers of their purchases.
Buyers were told they would have to wait for vehicles until the probate case was settled. Until then, the buyers' money would be held in escrow. Repeated postponements of vehicle deliveries were attributed to court delays.