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Article updated: 8/1/2013 1:42 PM

Aurora minister guilty in $1.6 million church expansion scheme

Howard Richmond

Howard Richmond

 
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On paper, Howard Richmond was a successful pastor, flush with millions of dollars to grow his Aurora church.

In reality, he was behind $130,000 in rent.

On Thursday, the Naperville man pleaded guilty to a bribery and forgery scheme that bilked supporters out of more than $1.6 million.

"He is deeply remorseful and hopes to somehow repay the victims in this case as soon as possible," defense attorney Mike McMahon said.

Richmond, 53, faces up to 14 years in prison when he's sentenced in December by DuPage County Judge Blanche Hill Fawell. He already has agreed to pay full restitution.

Prosecutors said the deception began in October 2006 when Richmond persuaded a Naperville bank worker to accept $200 bribes in exchange for falsified documents indicating he and his church, Life Reach Ministries, had as much as $56 million in reserve.

The bank employee produced as many as seven letters, which Richmond then used to solicit sizable loans for a church expansion from unsuspecting churchgoers and other supporters, Assistant State's Attorney Shanti Kulkarni said.

In a related scheme, Richmond went to a second bank and deposited checks made out for millions of dollars, Kulkarni said. The bank quickly canceled the checks for insufficient funds -- but not before Richmond obtained paperwork indicating he had deposited the money.

Kulkarni said Richmond told victims he needed loans because his own millions were "temporarily unavailable" for "a variety of reasons."

The victims believed the funds would help expand the church, which was then based at the Fox Valley Center strip mall, prosecutors said.

"They all knew the defendant in his capacity as a pastor," Kulkarni said. "Some of them were actually members of his church."

Kulkarni said investigators seized the false documents in May 2010 while executing a search warrant at Richmond's home on the 2900 block of Brossman Street. They also found evidence he had falsely claimed to be aligned with prominent televangelist Creflo Dollar.

Authorities said Richmond, who at one point owed more than $130,000 for unpaid church rent, has since closed the facility and may now be running a small congregation out of a hotel.

Richmond's attorney said he wasn't sure about the status of the church, which incorporated in the late 1990s, according to prosecutors.

In 2011, Naperville resident Sallie Berry was sentenced to jail and probation for accepting bribes from Richmond while working at a local Chase Bank. Berry, who no longer works there, had agreed to testify against Richmond, who was previously scheduled to stand trial next month.

Richmond declined to comment as he left court.

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