It's not every day that you see a minister in an expensive green suit, Bible in hand, running across the sanctuary of his church, spreading his arms like a bird, then turning into an F-14 Tomcat and screaming as he takes off for heaven.
But that's Dr. Shine, the Rev. Robert J. Freeman, "God's Top Gun of Deliverance." And that's what happens in the fantastical — some might say stark, raving hilarious — rock-video montage that opened Dr. Shine's once-upon-a-time TV show on The Word Network. He turns into a fighter jet.
Dr. Shine, the star of a Maryland-based ministry called Save The Seed, isn't exactly soaring these days. He's had what you might call a problem with the federal government that could result in a serious prison sentence.
The facts, filed in the U.S. District Court at Greenbelt earlier this month, expose both flagrant abuse of the ministerial trust and a brazen (and for a time successful) attempt to defraud a bankruptcy judge.
It's the former that I always find remarkable — that so many people can get suckered into giving so much of their money to flim-flam thumpers, and for luxury items at that. (Was this something they picked up from the Sermon on the Mount? "Blessed are they that drive a Mercedes, for they shall know excellent resale value.")
Brought down to Earth, Dr. Shine pleaded guilty to obstructing bankruptcy court proceedings. He had claimed to be broke while living in a gated, $1.75 million mansion on the banks of the Potomac River in Indian Head and while having all kinds of luxury assets, most of them four-wheel vehicles.
"The evidence shows that Robert J. Freeman lived a life of fraud and deception, using millions of dollars from church members and fraudulently obtained credit to pay for luxury homes, cars, boats and even a jet airplane while falsely representing in court that he was indigent," the U.S. Attorney in Maryland, Rod J. Rosenstein, said in a release on Monday.
Starting in 2001, after incorporating his Save the Seed Ministry, Dr. Shine lived the life of conspicuous consumer, mainly with other people's money.
"Freeman caused two Lincoln Town cars to be purchased in the names of two church members for more than $55,000," the U.S. Attorney's office reports. "In 2003, [he] caused a Mercedes Benz car to be purchased in the name of a third church member for $40,000."
In 2004, Dr. Shine almost talked another church member into buying him the mansion in Indian Head, on the banks of the Potomac. That church member backed out. But it wasn't long before Dr. Shine found another sucker in his flock, and that one accommodated his wishes. According to the prosecutor's office, the 9,000-square foot estate came with two four-car garages, five fireplaces and a gym with steam room, plus a deep water pier, a 20,000-pound covered boat lift, a jet ski lift.
Dr. Shine got church members to buy him two Volkswagen Phaetons ($140,000), a Bentley Arnage and Maybach ($340,000 combined), and a Mercedes Benz CLS500 ($68,000).
"Blessed are the car hoarders!"
Despite the outpouring of generosity by his followers, Dr. Shine accumulated more than $1.3 million in debts, including $87,000 in lease payments on a jet airplane, more than $160,000 for musical instruments, and $220,000 in loan payments on a bus.
So, in October 2005 he filed a bankruptcy petition, one of 1.7 million across the country that year. Dr. Shine claimed to have lost his ministry and the income from it, and he told the court that he was renting a place from friends in Waldorf. Six months later, the court did as Dr. Shine had asked and discharged hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts.
How did Dr. Shine celebrate this fresh start?
"In the weeks following the discharge of his debts," the U.S. Attorney said, "Freeman caused three Mercedes Benz vehicles and a Lincoln Navigator to be purchased or leased for more than $430,000 in the name of a church member."
But the feds eventually caught up to him and charged him with not disclosing all this property; that's obstruction under federal law.
So Dr. Shine faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. God's Top Gun is three down and locked, as the pilots say, and grounded — until the next sucker comes along.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR-FM.