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VOL. 122 | NO. 86 | Thursday, May 10, 2007

Foreclosure Deepens Mysteries Surrounding Westwood Church

By Kate Simone

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SHROUDED IN MYSTERY: A small shack is all that remains at 357 W. Mitchell Road (top), currently in foreclosure proceedings. The church that owns the site also owns 1107 Pearce St. (bottom). -- Photo By Eric Smith

A small wooden shack stands alone at the corner of Mitchell and Rochester roads in Westwood. Padlocked and surrounded by foot-tall weeds and a crumbling parking lot, it's the last remnant of a church that once called 357 W. Mitchell home.

Now the church is gone - torn down one Saturday morning last summer, neighbors say - and the property is embroiled in foreclosure proceedings by Universal Life Insurance Co.

But who's supposed to be paying the bills?

Divine mystery

Built in 1985, the former 3,100-square-foot building was bought by Greater Rose of Sharon Apostolic Church in 1994, and the foreclosure notice lists Greater Rose trustees as the borrowers on the defaulted $85,344 loan.

But Greater Rose pastor Arizona Jenkins said that's a mistake because her church no longer owns the property.

A quitclaim deed filed with the Shelby County Register does, in fact, show the property was transferred to Deeper Life Christian Church of Tampa, Fla., in 2000.

"We're not over there now. We sold (the property) to them on a quick deed and they let it die. They tore it down," said Jenkins, whose church has moved about five miles away to 5185 Clement Road. "I didn't know nothing about it and I didn't really care. I got my little money for it and we went on. We signed clean off from that and we don't have anything to do with it."

A Deeper Life representative identified only as Sister Pamela said the Tampa church does own the Mitchell Road property, as well as a 1960s-era multifamily building at 1107 Pearce St. in North Memphis.

However, no Register's documents show Greater Rose transferring the Mitchell Road mortgage or Deeper Life taking out a new one.

Even information about the lender is up in the air: Greater Rose's mortgage lender, Universal Life Insurance Co., is listed on the foreclosure notice. But Universal Life was acquired in 2000 by Protective Industrial Insurance Co., which in turn was bought by Birmingham, Ala.-based Booker T. Washington Insurance Co. Inc.

Notice served

A.J. Reed and Stewart Austin of the Memphis law firm Glankler Brown PLLC are serving as the substitute trustees on the notice.

Reed said an out-of-town lender holds the debt and Glankler Brown has "not made an examination of the property of any kind."

Reed added that the firm sent out certified mail notices, as it always does, to the borrowers, and that there has been a response.

"We did get receipt back where they had received notice of the foreclosure," Reed said, "but there's been no other contact other than that."

He wouldn't comment further.

Deeper troubles

Deeper Life representatives directed all inquiries about the property to a pastor named Roger Green, but he did not respond to numerous messages left at the Tampa church, which has endured its share of controversy.

In 2003, the Tampa Tribune and WFLA News Channel 8 - also in Tampa - teamed up to investigate Deeper Life and its pastor, Bishop Melvin B. Jefferson.

The investigation uncovered practices by Jefferson and the church that pressured congregational members to "give heartily or risk eternal damnation," one Tribune article read.

Other articles looked at Deeper Life's fundraising techniques, which allegedly included church members traveling great distances, holding white donation buckets at busy intersections and having children sell candy bars for hours on end.

And the controversy didn't end there.

As the result of an undercover investigation, five church members were arrested in December 1997 for trafficking food stamps. Sheriff's investigators alleged the church laundered illegally obtained food stamps through church-owned delis and meat markets - to the tune of up to $20,000 a month.

1107 Pearce St. -- Photo By Eric Smith

Bishop Jefferson and his wife, Pastor Brenda Jefferson, were arrested the next month in connection with the case. More than two years later, in June 1999, Deeper Life was convicted of felony food-stamp fraud as part of a plea deal. The church was fined $28,000 and put on probation. Five men also were put on probation, and charges against Melvin and Brenda were dropped.

Deeper Life has seen its share of vehicular problems, too.

A 38-year-old woman was killed in 1998 when a van carrying 11 Deeper Life members blew a tire and flipped five times in Jacksonville, Fla. A 32-year-old man was killed in 1999 in a collision involving a van carrying four Deeper Life parishioners.

And a 14-year-old boy was killed in 2003 when a seven-passenger van carrying 15 church members flipped in St. Lucie County, Fla. The driver was unlicensed, according to highway patrol records.

A month after the Tribune/WFLA investigation went public, a follow-up article was published in which Deeper Life ministers vowed to change church policies.

Going, going, gone

Back in Memphis, mystery surrounds the Mitchell Road property.

Neighbors said that before the church was demolished, its roof was caving in. They said they never saw services held there and rarely saw parishioners on the premises.

And then, within a matter of hours one day last summer, the whole building was gone.

"We came out (one) Saturday morning and they were knocking it down," said Clayborn Robertson, an employee at Cleve's Auto at 337 W. Mitchell, across Rochester Road from the church. "By 1 or 2 (p.m.) it was a clean lot. We thought they were going to build another church."

Cleve's employees said they thought the city knocked down the dilapidated building, but City of Memphis code enforcement manager Johnie McKay said the city's demolition department did not raze the church.

The Memphis Fire Department began an anti-neglect investigation in September 2005 and closed it in July after the church was demolished.

As part of the original anti-neglect inspection report from September 2005, the fire department mandated the property owner - listed as Deeper Life Christian Church at 1107 Pearce St. - make structural repairs and keep the property clean.

Files related to the case show Deeper Life pastor Raymond Newton agreed in an April 2006 court case to secure demolition funding. He also agreed to keep the grass cut, the property clean and the building secured.

The demolition cost $4,500 and was approved by the fire department July 27, records show.

Now that the building is gone, Robertson said, four or five people stop by the property every few weeks to mow the lawn, finishing the job in about half an hour.

But nobody has been by to mow in several weeks, he added with a nod toward the overgrown grass.

'Making an impact'

In contrast, the Deeper Life-owned property in North Memphis is brimming with activity. Photos from 2005 show boarded-up windows and a flooded driveway at 1107 Pearce, but the eight-room building's windows and part of its roof are now replaced and the lawn has been mowed.

Cars with religious-themed license plates are parked outside.

Register's deeds show Deeper Life bought the North Memphis property in September 2002.

Newton runs a homeless shelter out of that building, which he said he's leased from Deeper Life for about two years.

The ministry, called New Life Church of Memphis, offers its residents "spiritual guidance" while addressing more earthly needs, such as food, clothing and hygiene products, Newton said. The church also helps residents receive needed dental work or eyeglasses, he added.

"We're making an impact on the city," Newton said during an interview in the church driveway. "I know I'm making a major impact on people whose lives would be a wreck."

Questions abound

Newton - the same pastor who represented Deeper Life in the fire department's anti-neglect case for the Mitchell Road property - claimed no affiliation to the Florida church or any other organization.

He did say his contact for the lease is Roger Green, the same man to whom Deeper Life representatives directed inquiries.

Newton also said he had no affiliation with or knowledge of the Mitchell Road property, other than it was owned by the Tampa church.

However, in addition to the anti-neglect case, a 2004 corporate filing with the Tennessee Secretary of State's office links Newton to the site. The filing lists New Life Church of Memphis Inc.'s registered office as 357 W. Mitchell Road and its registered agent as Pastor Raymond Newton. A charitable solicitor registration for solicitations in Roanoke, Va., also lists New Life Church of Memphis' address at 357 W. Mitchell.

"That's not true," Newton said when told of the listing. "That (Mitchell Road) building was being foreclosed on. The city, for some reason, thought it was my building. And I had to go to court behind that, and they come to find out it was never my building anyway."

When asked how his name could end up on official state records, Newton said, "I used to pastor over there. I preached in the church, like, twice. Some of the people in the neighborhood knew me over there and so when the city went over there and asked them questions, they just came up with my name."

So what's next for the Mitchell Road property, with its overgrown parking lot and padlocked shack? If the current borrowers - whoever they may be - don't work out a deal with the mortgage lenders, it will be sold at a May 17 foreclosure auction at the Shelby County Courthouse, and its mysterious past could be buried for good.

To read the 357 W. Mitchell foreclosure notice, see The Daily News' April 24 public notices at www.memphisdailynews.com.

PROPERTY SALES 51 328 20,960
MORTGAGES 58 387 24,132
BUILDING PERMITS 170 842 43,435
BANKRUPTCIES 50 288 13,468