10 Curious Cases Of Criminal Clergymen
After years of harrowing headlines about Islamic terror plots and Catholic sex scandals, it’s no longer anathema to suspect religious figures of secretly being fallen angels. But we don’t have to focus on just those two types of spiritual sinfulness. In reality, there’s a rich buffet of misdeeds to choose from. So if you’re a sin glutton with a hankering for religious corruption, get ready to fill your metaphorical plate with peccadillos ranging from the absurdly dishonest to the fiendishly criminal.
10The Priest Who Helped A Hit Man Steal A Strad
Everybody knows that gangsters and violins go together like pinstripes and tommy guns, but surely adding a priest to the mix would be a cliche too far? Well that’s precisely what happened in the curious case of the chaplain, the hit man, and the priceless Stradivarius. The whole thing started when mafia goon Frank Calabrese Sr. decided there was no way he was letting the government confiscate a 250-year-old violin that apparently once belonged to Liberace.
In 2011, prison chaplain Eugene Klein was ministering to Calabrese, who was serving a life sentence for 13 murders. In addition to losing his freedom, the mafia mercenary was also required to compensate the families of his victims to the tune of $4.4 million. To get the money, the federal government had been confiscating his ill-gotten gains, but they couldn’t find a Stradivarius violin which was allegedly hidden in his summer home. Determined to prevent the authorities from acquiring the instrument, Calabrese urged Klein to relocate it on his behalf.
Father Klein agreed and began exchanging messages with the convicted murderer wrapped in religious materials. After confirming the violin’s location, Klein posed as a potential buyer to gain entry to the mobster’s home. He also helped devise a plan to distract federal agents who were scouring the house at the time, allowing Calabrese’s associates to abscond with the Stradivarius. Unfortunately for him, the authorities soon uncovered Klein’s subterfuge. He then spent four years denying the charges, before finally assuming the role of a repentant Catholic and confessing in court. Whether he succeeded in his mission is unclear, as the violin, tentatively valued at $26 million, has never been found.
9The Pastor Who Fraudulently Sold His Own Church
In St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians he likened the church to a bride and Christ to its bridegroom. But the congregants of California’s First Congregational Church were unceremoniously thrust into divorce proceedings when their pastor illegally sold their house of worship.
For nearly 10 years, Randall Radic was the trusted pastor of First Congregational. But his treacherous streak manifested itself when he fabricated paperwork that cast him as the owner of the church and used the property as collateral for $200,000 in personal loans. From there, Radic ginned up bogus corporate documents claiming that he had the right to sell the church, which he promptly flipped for $525,000.
Radic’s lucrative con allowed him to go on a spending spree, which soon piqued the interest of local law enforcement. When the authorities began poking around, the pilfering pastor scurried off to Colorado. Forced to return and face the music, he spent six months in jail awaiting trial. But then the situation took a bizarre turn.
While incarcerated, Radic allegedly earned the trust of sex offender Roy Gerald Smith, who was a suspect in an unsolved 2005 murder case. According to Radic, Smith secretly confessed his guilt in the killing. Because Radic wasn’t Smith’s pastor, he wasn’t under any religious obligation to keep quiet. Instead, he used the information to bargain for his freedom. In exchange for testifying against Smith, Radic pled guilty to embezzlement and had nine other criminal charges against him dropped.
The pastor’s testimony also allowed him to dodge a 16-month prison sentence, much to his former flock’s fury. Allowed to return home, the remorseless Radic began bragging about his dishonest ways on a blog and even managed to get a book deal. But he wasn’t entirely in the clear. Although Radic was spared a hellish prison stay, he still found himself facing a number of lawsuits for his financial frauds.
8The Imam’s Enormous College Con
Imam Shamsud-din Ali was once a well-respected member of Philadelphia’s Muslim community, despite having spent six years in prison during the 1970s for a murder conviction that was eventually overturned. But the imam’s fairytale story of redemption came to a disenchanting end when he was incarcerated for a series of corrupt financial dealings.
Ali had long been on law enforcement’s radar. According to police and at least one drug dealer, the cleric’s mosque received substantial financial support from Philadelphia’s narcotics underworld. He was also implicated in extortion schemes. The cops were never able to collect enough evidence to prove those allegations, but their extensive investigation revealed Ali was a sophisticated fraudster who had used his mosque and a school owned by his wife to swindle multiple businesses and even the city airport. One of his more noteworthy “money-for-nothing” ruses targeted the Community College of Philadelphia.
In 1999, Ali and his wife arranged for the college to pay them $100,000 to hold classes at their family-run Sister Clara Muhammad School. In addition, the credulous college shelled out at least $225,000 to cover staffing costs, including the wages of Ali’s son and daughter, who were on board as instructors. But most of the funds disbursed for building and labor fees went straight to the family’s luxurious living expenses. Few—if any—legitimate classes were ever held.
This wasn’t just a simple case of bad budgeting. FBI wiretaps captured 27 different incriminating exchanges between Ali and his accomplices. Caught, the crooked cleric was condemned to seven years in the clink, which he unsuccessfully contested. His wife was initially let off with a light sentence but was later given up to a year in prison. The couple’s son and daughter received probation and a six-month sentence respectively.
7The Priest Who Manned A Meth Operation
Monsignor Kevin Wallin’s affair with the priesthood began when he joined a seminary in 1981. From that point, his path seemed divinely inspired. Proving a powerhouse at the pulpit, Wallin became a stalwart of Connecticut’s Catholic community and seemed bound to be promoted to bishop before long. But he impeded his own progress when he was suspended for cross-dressing and getting raunchy with men in his church rectory. Yet it would soon be revealed that Wallin had committed far graver offenses than the occasional rectory romp—he had also been selling meth and laundering the profits through a discretely acquired sex toy shop.
Alliteratively nicknamed “Monsignor Meth” by the media, Wallin had rented two apartments across from each other in a Bridgeport, Connecticut, complex. One of them served as his own personal meth dispensary, allowing him to fuel his own addiction while making more than $300,000 in drug sales. After noticing the bizarre goings-on, local authorities bugged the priest’s phone. Wallin later dug his own legal grave by making six drug deals with an undercover officer.
Wallin initially contested the charges, and members of his community rallied behind him. But Monsignor Meth was clearly guilty, and he eventually came clean, agreeing to a possible prison sentence of 11 years but requesting a maximum of four. Luckily for him, the judge had mercy and imposed a relatively restrained sentence of five years in prison followed by five years of supervised release.
6The Hasidic Jews Who Smuggled Ecstasy
They thought they were smuggling diamonds. They were wrong. A group of roughly a dozen Hasidic Jews from New York, who all prayed thrice daily and observed the Sabbath, were paid anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000 per person to ferry suitcases from Amsterdam to the United States. In the process, this industrious clan of Hasidim became unknowing foot soldiers for one of the largest Ecstasy-trafficking operations in the United States.
The epicenter of this crime-quake was Israeli-Canadian ex-con Sean Erez, who established an Ecstasy empire in Amsterdam. In order to expand his reach to the United States, Erez exploited his ties with a Hasidic Jewish teenager named Shimon Levita, who managed to persuade other Hasidim to join in a smuggling scheme. Transporting drugs might have seemed too undignified an undertaking for the group, but precious stones were considered a more respectable cargo due to their cultural connotations—diamonds were among the valuables Jews brought with them when anti-Semitism drove them from Europe. So Erez hatched a plan to convince the couriers they were carrying minerals instead of MDMA.
For Erez, the operation was a huge success. Chemists in Amsterdam were able to produce the pills at $2 apiece. A single trip by one of the Talmud-toting traffickers could bring up to 45,000 pills into the US, where they sold for as much as $25 a pop. For nearly six months, business boomed, but drug enforcement officials soon threw a wrench into the works thanks to surveillance by Dutch authorities.
Before long, Erez and Levita’s pawns started getting apprehended in transit, quickly buckling after realizing the actual contents of their suitcases. The smugglers received a variety of punishments, with some simply placed on probation and others jailed for up to 70 months. As for Erez, he pled guilty in 2001 and received 15 years in prison, only to be released on parole in 2005.
5The Bank-Robbing British Reverend
In the summer of 1975, a curiously mustachioed man waltzed into a bank in Plymouth, England, accompanied by an elderly, hearing-impaired woman. When he approached the teller, the man opened a suitcase, revealing an unsettling assortment of tubes, wires, and batteries. The whole contraption sported an ominous red light and was ticking. After slamming the bank as a den of “wicked money lenders” and threatening to blow it “sky high,” the man and his aged accomplice made off with almost £2,000.
The identities of the culprits would have made angels weep. The man with the ticking suitcase was none other than Reverend Stephen Care, the well-liked vicar of St. Andrew’s Church, wearing a fake mustache and carrying a fake explosive. Care’s partner in crime? His frail old housekeeper. Surprisingly, Reverend Care’s crime spree had apparently been going on for around two years. Among other things, he had pilfered antiques from a school and swiped £12,000 worth of jewel-encrusted robes from an abbey.
The rapacious reverend, who was beloved by his constituents as a model of patience and kindness, was actually a seasoned wrongdoer. He had grown up poor and coped through criminal behavior, which eventually followed him into adulthood. Over the course of his two-year stealing spree, the kleptomaniac clergyman indulged in a life of fine dining and expensive clothes, earning him the nickname of “the Penguin.” For his crimes, Care was defrocked and required to serve five years in the slammer.
4Pat Robertson’s Disreputable Diamond Mine
Many people know Pat Robertson from the Christian Broadcasting Network’s The 700 Club. But he’s also the founder of a humanitarian organization called Operation Blessing. Established in 1978, the foundation provides aid to the poor and disaster relief around the world. However, Operation Blessing’s reputation was tarnished in the 1990s, when it was alleged that planes chartered by the charity were largely co-opted for use in Robertson’s African diamond mine.
In 1994, Operation Blessing had set its sights on Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), which was struggling with a massive influx of Rwandan refugees. The group employed three airplanes to deliver medical supplies to the Rwandan transplants. However, according to two of the pilots involved, including chief pilot Robert Hinkle, almost all of the trips were for work on a diamond mine Pat Robertson owned in the country.
After initially contesting the pilots’ accusations, an Operation Blessing spokesperson later rescinded the denial and instead claimed the planes were ill-suited to carry medical supplies. But according to chief pilot Hinkle, the planes had the capacity to carry up to 3,000 kilograms (7,000 lbs) of medical supplies, yet were only stocked with a fraction of that during the few flights devoted to humanitarian work. This didn’t stop Robertson from vaunting his organization’s mission in Zaire during episodes of The 700 Club. The televangelist even displayed a picture of an airstrip that had been constructed in the country, while failing to mention that it was part of his diamond mine, not Operation Blessing’s efforts.
But far more distressing than Robertson’s misleading boasts is the fact that in order to get his mining operation in Zaire approved, the Christian guru needed the blessing of the country’s dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko. In that sense, Robertson’s humanitarian work in the country provided a convenient opportunity to talk diamonds with a dictator. Despite Mobutu’s reputation for horrific human rights abuses, he and Robertson became quite chummy, which allowed the televangelist to gain entry into Zaire’s mining industry. We wish we could call it a one-off lapse in judgment on Robertson’s part, but in 1999 he also struck a mining deal with Liberian dictator and war criminal Charles Taylor.
3The Charitable Check-Forging Rabbi
To some, Joseph Prushinowski was the “robbing rabbi.” To others, he was the “Hasidic Robin Hood.” Regardless of his moniker, Prushinowski was the bane of the financial world for over 20 years.
Earning both the respect and ire of bankers throughout the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, Holland, Japan, and Singapore, Prushinowski duped major financial institutions out of millions of dollars, often sprinkling portions of his illegal gains throughout ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities to assist with education, housing, and charities. The rabbi’s rapport with the ultra-Orthodox probably provided him a source of refuge when law enforcement was hot on his trail and he needed to lay low.
One of Prushinowski’s favorite deceptions was simple but devastatingly effective. The rabbi would cash offshore checks for massive sums and disappear before the bank had time to realize the checks were worthless. In 1981, he pled guilty to using that exact tactic to bilk companies out of more than $4 million, ultimately spending three years in prison. Undeterred by his incarceration, Prushinowski returned to the criminal fold and stole another $1 million from the Bank of New York in 1988. In other schemes, he established bogus companies for the purpose of obtaining loans or worked alongside a partner who helped deceive financial institutions. In 1987, he was also apparently involved in a $250 million property ruse in London.
With the exception of his 1981 conviction, the authorities never succeeded in punishing Prushinowski. Although the robbing rabbi was retired following a 1998 arrest in Israel, he was never extradited to stand trial for his crimes.
2The Rabbis Who Ran A Kidnapping Service
All marriages require a little give-and-take. For example, when a husband or wife can’t take married life anymore, they can usually give their spouse divorce papers. But that’s not so easy in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, where a wife seeking a divorce needs to obtain an agreement, known as a “get,” from her husband first. When a husband refuses to permit divorce, a rabbi may intervene to apply pressure. While this generally means something along the lines of banning the husband from synagogue, a group of darkly creative New York rabbis resorted to kidnapping and torture.
Respected Brooklyn rabbis Mendel Epstein and Martin Wolmark saw divorce-resistant husbands as unwilling gold mines. Deciding that terrifying force was a valid approach to solving tricky breakups, Epstein charged desperate wives $10,000 in exchange for issuing rabbinical pronouncements okaying violence against their husbands. He would then charge a further $50,000 to deploy a kidnapping crew which forced the men to give a get while the getting was good. Methods of persuasion included tying the husbands up, beating them, and attacking them with Tasers.
Despite such barbarism, husbands were generally abused in ways which left few visible injuries, giving Epstein and Wolmark the confidence to run their enterprise for years. Despite being sued by a member of the community for alleged kidnappings in the late ’90s, the ruthless rabbis managed to go unscathed until 2013, when they were finally brought down by an FBI sting operation.
Members of the ultra-Orthodox community eyed the charges skeptically. But that no doubt changed once Wolmark and six other suspects pled guilty. Meanwhile, Epstein and two other conspirators were found guilty of charges ranging from conspiracy to kidnap to actual kidnapping.
1The Murderous Pastor Who Preyed On The Disabled
A priest’s foremost concern should be providing care and counsel to their congregation. That typically doesn’t entail committing murder. One priest who didn’t get that memo is Baltimore pastor Kevin Pushia.
By outward appearances, Pastor Pushia was an upstanding man of God and a champion of the disabled. In addition to spreading the gospel, he was operations manager of Arc of Baltimore, an organization which provides help to the developmentally disabled. There, Pushia encountered 37-year-old Lemuel Wallace, a well-liked blind man who lived in a group home affiliated with the Arc. Despite his disability, Wallace managed to land work as a janitor and always took care to keep in contact with his family.
Unconcerned with everything Wallace had to live for, Pushia saw his death as a guaranteed jackpot. He quickly applied for multiple insurance policies, which would compensate him to the tune of $1.4 million in the event of Wallace’s demise. To ensure that happened, Pushia siphoned $50,000 from the coffers of his East Baltimore church and paid to have Wallace baptized with bullets. In 2009, the beloved janitor was fatally shot in the head.
Investigators were briefly baffled, but the case became crystal clear once they uncovered the insurance policies Pushia had purchased. Caught red-handed, Pushia confessed to ordering Wallace’s death and even admitted to taking out insurance policies on other disabled people at Arc of Baltimore. In fact, the perfidious pastor had even planned on killing his same-sex partner, along with the man’s mother and daughter, to profit from insurance policies he had taken out on all three. Unsurprisingly, Pushia was sentenced to life in prison plus 45 years.