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Fraud scheme brings jail term for ex-minister

Thursday, June 06, 2002

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

W. Michael Altman, the former pastor of Grace Christian Ministries whose promises and charisma helped build the church but whose schemes and greed ultimately destroyed it, was sentenced to four to eight years in state prison yesterday.

Saying Altman "should be ashamed" for the way he treated church members and preyed on their trust, Common Pleas Court Judge Raymond A. Novak vowed that the 48-year-old onetime church leader would "never victimize another parish again."

As part of the sentence, Altman was given 20 years' probation and enjoined from ever holding a fiduciary position with any organization, even, Novak said, "of the men's bowling league."

"I believe in order to protect others from your weakness and proclivities that supervision is going to be necessary for as long as you live."

Altman was led from the court in handcuffs by sheriff's deputies after the sentencing. He must serve at least four years in prison before becoming eligible for parole.

Sumner L. Parker, Altman's attorney, said he doubted there would be an appeal.

The sentence was part of a plea bargain agreement reached in April by the Allegheny County district attorney's office with Altman's attorneys. Altman pleaded no contest to more than 100 charges that he defrauded members of the West Mifflin church, stole church property and violated numerous state securities laws.

Nearly three dozen investors lost about $470,000 through an investment scheme Altman promoted.

Preceding yesterday's sentencing, more than a dozen former congregation members of Altman's at Grace Christian Ministries addressed Novak to explain the impact of the preacher's actions.

Margaret Rybar, who was part of the church board that originally hired Altman at the church, said she invested $1,500 -- two months' wages -- in his plan that promised as much as 16 percent interest. When she asked for the money back to help pay for her brother's medical care, she said, Altman never responded.

Ron Bezak, a former church member, called Altman an "evil human being" who was responsible for the suicide of Bezak's former wife, Marcia. A one-time secretary at Grace Christian Ministries, she committed suicide in April 2001, about 13 months after filing a sexual harassment and discrimination suit against Altman.

Altman declined to speak in his behalf at the sentencing. But his daughter-in-law and younger sister did.

"I am proud of my brother for being the person he is," said Jill L. Free, Altman's sister. "He built that church. He lived for that church."

But for Novak, Altman's past history of fraud and deception, spanning two countries, five churches and three marriages, could not be ignored. He pointed out Altman's 1986 conviction for submitting a false statement on a loan application in Alabama and his tenures at churches in Wainfleet, Ontario, and Dothan, Ala., that ended abruptly with questions about his financial dealings.

At Grace Christian Ministries, Novak said, Altman "duped" his victims because he "knew the limits of these parishioners [and] their frailty.

"I don't know whether you are capable of shame," Novak said, "but you should be ashamed."

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