Reverend and congregation scammed out of their church

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- Some people will stop at nothing to grab the "almighty" dollar -- but would a con artist really go after a church?

"It was the end of the world. It was unbelievable. I had been violated. Not just violated financially, I was violated emotionally," fraud victim Royce Cornelius said.

Cornelius is understandably angry. He and his congregation were scammed out of their church -- literally.

The story starts when they decided to buy a new building to accommodate their expanding numbers.

"We were trying to borrow that money and we couldn`t find it," Cornelius said.

"The housing market collapsed, is another way to put it. It became almost impossible for churches to get loans," U.S. Postal Inspector Samuel Abraham Freedman said.

Then, Reverend Cornelius met Jamal Lawson.

"I think of Jamal Lawson as a charming devil, with a silver tongue and a golden keyboard because the craft he had in creating these lies, in creating these scams, sending solicitations, full color that looked very professional through the mail, promising these churches all of this money," Freedman said.

Lawson told Cornelius he needed money up front, and the church complied.

"There were some things he wanted us to pay for that he had to do in preparation. He had his staff working on our behalf," Cornelius said.

"The $4,000 that he paid - well that came from congregation contributions. The Sunday morning passing the hat, these blue collar workers," Freedman said.

The process seemed to be going very well -- prompting Reverend Cornelius to sell his church building.

"We were supposed to be going to the closing table and he kept extending the date," Cornelius said.

Reverend Cornelius realized he had been duped and his congregation was not alone. Lawson scammed 25 churches out of more than $100,000 -- but the money wasn't the biggest loss.

"What we lost was our dignity. In the church world, we were made to look foolish. We were boasting. We were celebrating the new building we were getting. We were emailing, we were posting pictures and tentative dates of moving and all of a sudden they sold our building. The deal was closed. We were homeless. We had nowhere to go. We had 1,500 people who had nowhere to go," Cornelius said.

Postal inspectors say it is so important to do extensive research and contact references before entering financial transactions.

"He was aiming for churches and he had no shame in that whatsoever," Freedman said.

"Forgiving is easy. Forgetting isn`t," Cornelius said.

Lawson is charged with three counts of wire fraud and is awaiting sentencing.