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Crazy returns

Charity | Alleged fraud brings down one church and may spread to others

David Talbot seemed like a trustworthy Christian businessman to the members of New Horizon Fellowship, a new church starting up in Wyckoff, N.J. He "talked the talk" of an evangelical Christian, according to Bill Werner, one of the elders at New Horizon.

But according to Werner, and now according to the attorney general of the state of New Jersey, he didn't "walk the walk." That is, if you don't count a "perp walk": New Jersey has sued Talbot because he "operated a fraud" by selling over $500,000 in unregistered securities "which promised high yield returns."

The complaint, filed in the Superior Court of Bergen County on Aug. 8, further alleges that Talbot and two co-defendants "appealed to investors' religious beliefs because some investors were told a percentage of the profits were going to charitable purposes, including to purchase a church."

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That church? The very same New Horizon Fellowship, which is now defunct. Most of the people who lost money in the scheme were members of the church who, according to Werner, Talbot offered "crazy returns of 30 percent a month." Werner said he considered the offer in 2007, but he became suspicious when Talbot couldn't explain where the money would be invested, or how the returns could be so great. "Talbot said it was a secret, and that if the word got out, it would kill the deal."

Talbot, however, is apparently a winsome guy who has a way with words. He had recently persuaded legally and financially troubled NFL quarterback Michael Vick to turn over his financial affairs to him. Talbot claimed he was offering "spiritual guidance" to the disgraced Vick. It was a story that added to Talbot's evangelical credentials, and it was part of the picture of himself that Talbot painted for New Horizon members. Only later did a Virginia bankruptcy court remove Talbot as Vick's advisor. Allegations have since emerged that Talbot took $50,000 of Vick's money.

The civil complaint against Talbot and associates Robert Schroy and Kenneth Simmons alleges that Talbot defrauded "at least 10 investors." Werner believes, though, that there could be many more, and that the total amount of money could be much more than the $500,000 in the Aug. 8 complaint-possibly in the millions.

"At our church alone, I know it is above $1 million," Werner said. "I know one woman who invested $300,000. She told her mother in Alabama, who invested and got her friends to invest. The amount from Alabama is greater than the amount from New Jersey."

And there could be more. Schroy and Simmons have been associated with an organization called "Jesus Rallies in Chicagoland, Inc.," and sources have told WORLD that authorities are investigating complaints that similar investment schemes have been discussed with Christian investors in Chicago and other parts of the Midwest.

So what's next? Jeff Lamm, a spokesman for the New Jersey Attorney General's office, said, "We don't comment on active matters. The civil complaint we've filed pretty much says all we need to say." Talbot's lawyer is a high-profile celebrity defense attorney, Jeffrey Lichtman. Lichtman managed to win a dismissal of murder conspiracy charges against John Gotti Jr., a case that elevated him to national stature. Lichtman, though, is media-shy on this case. He failed to respond to repeated requests from WORLD for an interview. Lichtman did respond to the Bergen Record shortly after the original complaint was filed: "If this was a fraud, why is it that the great majority of the investors . . . don't believe they've been defrauded?"

Bill Werner, the church elder who refused to invest with Talbot, has an answer to that question: "At first, people were afraid to come forward. After all, first you lose your money and then, if you come forward, you hold yourself up to ridicule for being so gullible," he said. "Who wants to open themselves up to that insult after you've had a pretty big financial injury? But that was months ago. Now, people are beginning to talk. What happened here was a big piece of bringing the church down. But I'm afraid that this could be just the tip of the iceberg."

Warren Cole Smith and Rusty Leonard
Warren Cole Smith and Rusty Leonard


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