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Signing on faith
Ex-church members say pastor misused trust to conduct shady real estate deals
Steven R. Nickerson The Rocky

Sherri Wrightsil stands outside of her Aurora mobile home in March. Years ago, Wrightsil found solace in religion after a troubled past. She joined Mount Carmel Community Baptist Church and met the Rev. Harold Hicks. She says Hicks involved her in real estate scams and it's her duty as a Christian to reveal her part.
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Two former members of a well-known northeast Denver church say they unwittingly participated in real estate scams orchestrated by their spiritual leader.

They offered more than 10 pounds of documents as proof.

Sherri Wrightsil, 47, purchased seven rental properties for about $845,000, according to public records. She said she did so at the direction of the Rev. Harold Hicks, the popular and charismatic pastor of Mount Carmel Community Baptist Church.

The total monthly mortgage payments on the seven properties - all now in foreclosure - were about $6,000, Wrightsil said.

But, given her debt, expenses and $14-an-hour salary, a basic mortgage calculation reveals she did not qualify to buy a home at any price.

The state Division of Real Estate board entered the case last month, voting to yank the license of the appraiser who set the value of the properties purchased by Wrightsil. Although the board by rule cannot release the appraiser's name, it also fined him $22,500 in connection with those appraisals.

An investigation by the Rocky Mountain News into claims made by Wrightsil and Deborah Richardson, another former Mount Carmel member, shows that on several occasions in 2005 Hicks used his power of attorney to sign real estate documents that contained false information.

The two women maintain that Hicks provided the false information on the documents and that they signed them because they trusted him as their pastor. Doing so, they said, led to ruinous financial consequences.

Wrightsil, a former streetwalker who found solace in the church years ago, said her credit rating was destroyed, while Richardson was forced into bankruptcy.

Hicks declined to respond to phone calls, e-mail and personal visits to his church seeking to ask him about the transactions. No charges have been filed in any of the deals.

"I think (Hicks) should pay for what he has done," Richardson said. "He shouldn't stand there preaching to people and have people put their trust in him and do what he did."

Unclear where money went

About three years ago, Wrightsil said, Hicks asked her to use her then-good credit rating as a "surrogate buyer," which did not require her to put any money down when buying properties. Most of the purchases took place in 2005.

Real estate and mortgage experts describe Wrightsil and Richardson as "straw" buyers, meaning phony or unqualified buyers.

In one common scenario, according to federal law enforcement officials, straw buyers are used when a property is being "flipped." The "flipper" purchases the property - or has someone else purchase it - at market value, then sells it to the straw buyer at a price inflated by a generous appraisal. The profit is in the difference between the two purchase prices.

Ostensibly, the real estate will be rented and the rental payments will be used to pay the mortgage. Typically, however, no mortgage payments are made and the lender forecloses on the loan.

Documents bearing Hicks' signature on four of the properties purchased by Wrightsil indicate they generated about $90,000 in profits for the sellers.

It is unclear where the money went, but one seller said he did not receive his $29,000 in listed profits. Another - Richardson - said she did not receive one penny of the almost $16,000 she supposedly made.

In fact, she said, she did not even know she was a seller.

All of the small row homes that Wrightsil bought are within a five-minute drive of Hicks' church. The units - before they went to foreclosure - were rented out by Omega Development, a company owned by Hicks' wife, Marilyn, according to the Secretary of State's office. On some Omega documents, Hicks signed his name as vice president.

A tenant in one of the row homes that Wrightsil bought said his mother paid Hicks $550 a month in rent for his apartment. However, that was not enough to cover the mortgage on the property.

While Hicks declined to comment, it is unusual for a minister to participate in a for-profit business - especially involving congregants, said one scholar who studies the profession.

"I would say that 50 percent to 60 percent of black ministers hold other jobs, but they tend to be as chaplains or educators or counselors - not running a for-profit company," said Lawrence A. Mamiya, a professor in the religion department at Vassar College and co-author of The Black Church in the African American Experience.

"I think, generally, professional ethics require that a minister should not become personally involved with congregation members," Mamiya said, "either sexually or in terms of a business relationship."

'Now I'm almost cynical'

Most of the units purchased by Wrightsil now sit empty. Many have overgrown weeds and trash in the front yards. Xcel posted a note on one unit saying the utilities were being shut off.

Wrightsil said her tangled real estate relationship with Hicks has had a personal impact as well as a financial one.

"I haven't lost my faith in God, but in people," she said. "I've tried to visit a couple of churches, but now I'm almost cynical when I'm listening to ministers."

Real estate documents signed by Hicks show grossly exaggerated income for Wrightsil, as well as false information about her work history.

Wrightsil said she simply signed the papers Hicks told her to and only realized later they contained false information.

In one deal, for example, Wrightsil paid Lavern Clardy $110,044 for a unit at 1815 E. 37th Ave. That sale generated $29,408.41 in profits, according to records.

When reached by phone, Clardy said he purchased the home before selling it to Wrightsil because Hicks presented it as an opportunity.

At first, Clardy said he did not receive the $29,408 in profit, but when asked again, he said, "a little bit."

He declined to say how much of the profit he received.

When asked if Hicks received most of the money from the sale, he said, "I'd rather not say. It might be used against him or something."

When asked a second time, Clardy said, "Ask him."

$10,000 loan to Hicks

In another transaction, Richardson was listed as the seller of a property to Wrightsil.

However, Richardson didn't sign the sale documents.

Instead, Hicks used his power of attorney to sign the sales document as "attorney-in-fact," something he did on several deals, according to records.

Richardson, who filed for bankruptcy last year, said she didn't know her name was listed as a seller for the property at 3762 Gilpin St., and she didn't receive any of the nearly $16,000 in reported profit.

In addition to signing purchase documents for Hicks, Wrightsil said she lent him $10,000 - from $17,000 she netted from an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission settlement - for a down payment on land in southwest Denver.

She hoped eventually to move her trailer from Aurora to the new property. She said Hicks has not repaid the 2006 loan and told her in one confrontation at the church: "You act like you don't trust me."

Wrightsil said she responded: "No, the problem is that I trusted you too much."

Hicks sent Wrightsil an e-mail this spring in which he appeared to acknowledge some role in her real estate investments.

"We'll discuss the loses (sic) I/we incurred and the note due you," Hicks wrote to her, adding that he would like to meet with her.

She responded to Hicks' e-mail with one of her own, demanding her $10,000, plus interest.

The Rocky, as well as mortgage consultants Jim and Linda Spray, and real estate broker Carolyn Sandberg, who has sold a number of homes in some stage of foreclosure, reviewed the mound of records related to Wrightsil's purchases.

The records show numerous instances of false documentation.

One showed Wrightsil earning $7,275 a month, with $4,650 of that coming from what was described as her job as a project manager for Omega Development, the Hickses' firm.

Wrightsil said she informally drove around looking for potential real estate for Omega to buy when she was out of work, but she never found any homes and was never paid any money by Omega or Hicks for her efforts.

Another document claimed she was a registered nurse, which was not true. And her home phone number on one document is actually a number for the Douglas County School District.

Jim Spray normally charges $250 an hour for consulting on problematic mortgages, but he agreed to review Wrightsil's case pro bono.

"Yes, she did sign the documents with false information," Spray said, after interviewing Wrightsil and reviewing her documents. "But I believe her 100 percent that she did not know what she was signing."

Realtor Sandberg, who met with Wrightsil and Richardson, said Hicks "ruined their credit, he ruined their lives."

Good work in the community

Hicks recently lost 100 pounds through a diet program, according to his church Web site, which offers before and after photographs. He is still an imposing figure and a powerful and convincing speaker.

In one 51-minute sermon several weeks ago, Hicks covered a wide range of topics, ranging from why humans are on the Earth to Desperate Housewives on TV. He placed Lexmark and Hewlett-Packard printers near the altar, which he used as a metaphor. The new laser H-P wouldn't work, he noted, because he didn't install the software according to the instructions. In the same way, we must follow God's rules as spelled out in the Bible or we won't work properly, either, he said.

Hicks received glowing press about six years ago for forging relationships with the mostly white Christ Episcopal Church on University Boulevard in Denver. The congregation of the Christ Church raised $32,000 to help Mount Carmel make an interest payment on its church building.

Alexander "Sandy" Greene, who went to high school and college with President Bush, was then pastor of Christ Church.

"What I knew of (Hicks) was that he was a great guy and he was doing good work in the communities," said Greene, who now works for Anglican Mission in America.

Said Wrightsil: "He's an awesome preacher. But he doesn't practice what he preaches."

Once worked as prostitute

Wrightsil freely admits a stint some 25 years ago as an East Colfax Avenue prostitute and topless dancer. It was on the journey from that past that she embraced religion, she said, becoming heavily involved at Mount Carmel church.

She also left behind a physically abusive husband and another spouse who was addicted to crack. She talks matter-of-factly about her past as a prostitute because she considers it part of her testimony for Christ.

"I wasn't always a very good Christian," said Wrightsil, who gave birth to twins in Colorado Springs when she was 16.

Although she had lost her faith, she hated working as a prostitute. But with no skills and no job - she had yet to earn her GED - she saw no other way out.

"In five months, I was arrested two or three times," she said. "I wasn't very good at it."

Another girl told her about an easier, safer and more lucrative job.

So for the next five or six months she worked as a topless dancer, earning $200 to $500 per night, she said.

She quit after becoming deathly ill, once being placed on life support at Denver Health Medical Center.

Soon after, her grandfather, Ivory Hames, died at age 90.

"I thought I was going to lose my mind," Wrightsil said. "I was just floating, searching for something."

She thought she had landed in the right place at Mount Carmel, led by Hicks since 1989.

"I practically lived there," said Wrightsil, who now works for Kaiser- Permanente in Aurora.

She sang in the gospel-style choir and was for a time the volunteer youth director at the church.

Wrightsil said that exposing her part in these real estate deals is her duty as a Christian.

Experiences good and bad

Richardson, 52, said she had never publicly discussed her problems with Hicks until Wrightsil called her. Wrightsil had noticed that on one property where she was named as the buyer, Richardson was listed as the seller.

"I put my trust in (Hicks). Big mistake," Richardson said. "I lost my house, lost my car and everything."

But she said her relationship with Hicks started out well.

"He did do some things to help me," she said, including finding a house in Aurora for her to rent when she was out of work about 15 years ago.

In 1994, Richardson was back on her feet financially and qualified to buy a house.

At the time, Richardson was working at the Federal Center and couldn't take time off from work to fill out the paperwork to buy the home.

"I asked (Hicks) if he could do some of the things for me you need to do when you buy a house," she said. "That is how he got that letter of the power of attorney."

After the good experiences with him renting and buying a home, she didn't hesitate when Hicks suggested that she invest in some properties, she said.

"I'm not illiterate, but I didn't know what I was signing," Richardson said.

She said she's not sure how many homes she bought with Hicks' guidance, but she thinks it was about seven, starting in about 1997.

Several weeks ago, Richardson received an angry phone call from a neighbor of one of the properties in foreclosure.

"He said I'm listed as the owner, and it's being used as a crack house," Richardson said. "He said if I don't do something about it, he's going to report me to the police. I told him I don't know nothing about it, but he should do what he has to do."

On May 11, the day after the Rocky sent Hicks an e-mail asking about his dealings with Richardson and Wrightsil, Richardson said she received a call at work from Hicks.

She said Hicks was extremely agitated and told her he had all the paperwork to show she had signed the documents.

Hicks, she said, seemed to feel betrayed, wanting to know how she could make the allegations after all of the nice things he had done for her.

She said she responded this way: "I'm just telling the truth."

Denver properties purchased by Sherri Wrightsil

Wrightsil, 47, purchased seven rental properties for about $845,000, according to public records. She said she acted at the behest of the Rev. Harold Hicks, pastor of Mount Carmel Community Baptist Church. Total monthly mortgage payments on the seven properties - all in foreclosure - were about $6,000. Wrightsil was never qualified to buy a home - at any price.

Documentation

Former Mount Carmel members Wrightsil and Deborah Richardson offered more than 10 pounds of documents showing that Hicks used his power of attorney to sign real estate documents for them that contained false information.

Loan application states that Wrightsil earned $4,650 as a project manager for Omega Development, a company owned by Marilyn Hicks, the minister's wife. Wrightsil said that while out of work, she informally drove around looking for real estate Omega might be interested in buying but never found any homes and was never paid any money by Omega or Hicks.

This amount was closer to Wrightsil's actual monthly income. She worked for Denver Water at the time.

Wrightsil's total monthly salary, according to the documents: $7,275. Wrightsil said she simply signed the papers Hicks told her to because she trusted him, only to realize later they contained false information.

In the same transaction, Hicks signed these sales documents as attorney-in-fact for the seller, Kevin Price. The Rocky was unable to reach Price for comment.

or 303-954-5207

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