Barry Saunders

Saunders: Pray for those who prey on church members

A photograph introduced into evidence shows Ronald McCullough, left, and David Mayhew, second from right. The other two men are not identified.
A photograph introduced into evidence shows Ronald McCullough, left, and David Mayhew, second from right. The other two men are not identified. US District Court

Verily, I say unto y’all: Beware of wolves in sheep clothing.

You don’t have to be the biblical scholar that I am – one week at bible college in Atlanta before realizing the voice I heard calling unto me wasn’t from whom I thought it was – to know what that means.

It means that everybody who shouts “Halleluyer!” and “Praise the Lord” isn’t necessarily a heaven-sent holy man seeking to help ease your earthly burdens – unless it’s to ease the weight of your wallet by emptying its contents into their own checking accounts.

In that case, federal prosecutors contend a whole bunch of Triangle residents had their burdens lightened by a couple of predators dressed not in sheep’s clothing, but in Armani, Brioni and custom suits, and enough bling to make Mr. T go, “Say, fool. I like your style.”

David Mayhew, a wolf convicted of fleecing 11 residents of at least $2 million, is pulling a 26-year bid in federal prison in Beckley, W.Va.

His alleged partner in crime, Ronald McCullough, hasn’t been tried. He is on the lam, fleeing just ahead of the posse. Homeslice is probably on a beach in Tahiti sipping Mai Tais and nibbling conch off the taut, bronzed belly of native hoochie-coochie dancers.

OK, maybe that’s just where I’d be.

In an N&O story this week that was as enlightening as it was painful to read, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said McCullough’s last known address was an apartment in Atlanta in 2013.

Despite their outward signs of respectability and the ability to quote scripture – even I can do that – this unconsecrated couple of conspirators is accused of putting the “con” in confidence scams. They gained their victims’ confidence by the most lowdown, snake-in-the-grass means imaginable: by getting in good with church pastors who had legitimately earned the trust of their parishioners over years, even decades.

Not only did they prey on churchfolk by declaring that their only goal was to help other Christians build wealth, but the feds say they ripped off a pair of Puerto Rican ripoff suspects who were already under federal investigation.

Come on, now. You’ve got to begrudgingly say, “Well done, thy bad, unfaithful serpents” to scammers who can scam other scammers. Don’t you?

The charges leveled against this pair are enough to make one long for the unvarnished avarice of the Rev. Ike: at least with Ike, you knew upfront that he wanted your money, and for it, you might at least get a consecrated coin or prayer cloth.

From Mayhew and McCullough, it appears that all their victims got from God’s Business Empire – one of the names their illicit enterprise went by – was taken.

Oh, they’d receive a return on their investment initially, but the feds say Mayhew and McCullough would get theirs on the comeback: when their foils came back for an even bigger return.

Many of their victims were too embarrassed to talk to our reporter, but a federal search warrant filled in the blanks on their scheme. James Stewart Jr. of Raleigh testified that after talking one night with McCullough at Bible study, his partner and he invested $40,000 in hopes of helping to finance a planned townhome community they wanted to construct.

When they received $80,000 back in less than a month, Stewart’s partner and he then handed over $150,000 and sat back waiting for McCullough and Mayhew to do their magic again.

They did magic, all right: they disappeared.

The technical term for what McCullough and Mayhew are accused of doing is “the okey-doke”: give the mark just enough to whet his or her appetite, and then lower the boom when they seek the big payback.

You know how they have extra penalties for drug dealers who peddle narcotics in a school zone?

The government should likewise come down extra hard on flim-flammers who fleece followers in the name of the Lord. Sure, we can pray that they get their cosmic comeuppance once they shed their vile vestal vestments on earth, but if everything federal investigators and victims said of them is true, vengeance might be too good to leave to the afterlife.

A fitting punishment: put ’em in a church basement with some angry pastors whose flocks were fleeced and whose good names were sullied.