KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — In houses of worship across Kansas City, a group of ministers asked their congregations four years ago to put their faith in a company that would make them wealthy beyond their dreams.
But instead of being a "blessing from God," federal prosecutors say Petro America Corp. bilked thousands of people, including poor and elderly church members, out of more than $7 million so the company's leaders could live like kings.
In June, Petro America, its founder Isreal Owen Hawkins and nine other defendants are scheduled to go to trial on conspiracy and an assortment of fraud charges related to their participation in a company whose leaders claimed it had $284 billion in assets — more than Wal-Mart, Microsoft and Apple — even though it had existed only since 2007.
Prosecutors said Petro's stake in gold mines and oil operations around the world were worthless. Five people already have pleaded guilty, and attorneys on both sides of the case expect more guilty pleas before June.
"This is the case that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is," said Chris Angles, a federal defense attorney whose client, Teresa Hill, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to conspiracy and wire fraud.
A week earlier Allen Collins, a former leader of the so-called Minister's Alliance, pleaded guilty to conspiracy for soliciting buyers and selling shares of company stock, even though the company wasn't registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission and he wasn't licensed to sell securities.
Plea agreements of Hill and Collins, both 56, along with those of Edward D. Halliburton, 57, Joseph Harrell, 50, and Russell Hopkins, 48, describe a scheme in which Hawkins and top agents literally printed money by "gifting" shares, sometimes 100 million at a time, to participants who sold them to others and gave Hawkins a cut.
In one case, prosecutors said Hawkins took investors to a printing company where certificates for millions of shares were printed up, signed by Hawkins and sold on the spot.
Hawkins, who called Petro America "The People's Company," told investors his goal was to win a Nobel Prize for creating such massive wealth. Though Petro stock was sold at the rate of 100,000 shares per $100 invested, or one-tenth of a cent each, Hawkins told them it would open at $24 per share, once it went public.
That day never came, despite promises every week — for more than two years — that a public offering was imminent.
In Hill's plea agreement, she said she eventually became disillusioned by Hawkins' unfulfilled vows.
"Hawkins was buying cars, splurging, and going to fancy restaurants," the document reads. "Hill eventually quit going to the shareholder meetings because she was tired of hearing the same story from Hawkins every week — that Petro was close to going public."
Even after Missouri issued a cease and desist order in 2008 against Hawkins, plaintiff Martin Roper and Petro America, other defendants continued to hold meetings and sell unregistered stock, prosecutors said.
More than 9,000 people were duped by the scheme, prosecutors said.
Wiley Scruggs, who said he was skeptical about the company but eventually invested $300, said he confronted Hawkins after sending his stock certificates to an online trading company and being told that Petro America didn't exist.
"I went to him and said 'Owen, you're lying. These certificates are worthless.' He tried to tell me the SEC was just messing with him, and the U.S. attorney's office was just messing with him because he's black. He wanted to use the black thing. But they don't care if you're black, white, purple or green."
Scruggs described shareholder meetings in which Hawkins would make a grand entrance with members of the Minister's Alliance, all of them wearing white Fedoras he had purchased for them.
Prosecutors said Hawkins and the "White Hat Guys," as they called themselves, went to an upscale restaurant at Country Club Plaza at least 25 times after weekly conference calls, then many of them went to an area night club "for music and cocktails, where Hawkins would frequently play chess."
Prosecutors said any minister involved with Petro America was automatically a member of the Minister's Alliance, which had about 15 core members. Scruggs said the alliance provided security for Hawkins after investors became increasingly upset by the lack of progress in taking the company public.
"When you put hope out there, and then you take away that hope ... a lot of folks were getting angry," Scruggs said. "A little old lady told me this has got to work because her daughter was sick, she got her grandbaby, and she gave her gas money to Owen.
"After a while listening to these poor people, and seeing them take all they have and give it to this dude, and he's standing in front of them lying, at some point you've got to say enough is enough."
Scruggs, who runs a mechanic shop in Kansas City, Mo., said a minister told him last week he was still receiving emails saying Petro America plans to go public after all of the legal cases are settled.
The trial for Petro, Hawkins and the remaining defendants is set for June 4. Roper, 46, filed a motion earlier this month to continue his trial, but prosecutors on Friday filed an objection to that.
Attempts to reach Hawkins at a phone number listed for him were unsuccessful. A woman who answered the phone told an AP reporter he no longer lived there.