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South Neighborhoods
Ex- pastor pleads no contest to more than 100 fraud charges

Wednesday, April 10, 2002

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

W. Michael Altman, the pastor who promised his congregants at Grace Christian Ministries a new beginning but who instead brought about the church's demise, pleaded no contest yesterday to more than 100 charges that he defrauded church members, stole church property and violated numerous state securities laws.

Altman waits for an elevator at court yesterday. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

By pleading no contest, Altman did notadmit any wrongdoing. He accepted the prosecution's recommended state prison sentence of four to eight years, rather than face the possibility of 554 years if convicted by a jury of all counts.

Some former church members and jilted investors in the courtroom yesterday were not satisfied.

"It's nowhere near enough time," said Audrey McKinney, former treasurer of the West Mifflin church and one of the first to alert investigators about Altman's misuse of church funds.

"At least 30 to 35 years would be a minimum sentence for all the damage that he's done," she said. "I don't want blood, just justice."

Sentencing was set for June 5 by Common Pleas Court Judge Raymond A. Novak. Altman could be assessed fines by Novak for the securities violations.

The Allegheny County district attorney's office also is seeking a 40-year-long probation for Altman with conditions preventing him from serving as a pastor or holding a fiduciary capacity with any organization again.

The plea agreement came after hours of negotiations yesterday between prosecutors and defense attorneys, who were scheduled to begin their opening statements.

A spokesman for District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. said the plea agreement was in keeping with the prosecutor's priorities since the investigation of the case began nearly two years ago.

"Those [prioritites] were that the victims be made financially whole and that the defendant be held responsible in a significant fashion for his crimes," said spokesman Mike Manko. "That has not changed."

Altman, 48, wearing a dark suit and white shirt, stood with his hands clasped behind his back as Novak went through the 108 counts against him. When asked by the judge after the explanation of each count if he understood the charges against him, Altman answered simply, "Yes, sir."

The 43 investors in Altman's investment plan lost about $355,500 but likely will receive their money back -- possibly with interest -- once the sale of the 11,000-square-foot Grace Christian Ministries church building and property at 612 Coal Road is finalized. It's expected to be sold within weeks to the Second Baptist Church of Homestead for $950,000.

"I don't know that it's possible to keep [Altman] out of jail," said his attorney, Sumner Parker. "I'm just looking to put my client in a position to take care of his family."

Altman remains free on $75,000 bond.

Yesterday's plea was the penultimate step in a case that prosecutors said began in March 1996 with the pastor's investment program that asked congregants and others to give him lump sums of money in exchange for certificates prosecutors said promised interest rates of up to 24 percent.

Assistant District Attorney Russ Broman said, however, that Altman deposited the investment money in other church accounts he controlled and used them to pay church bills and the personal credit card bills of himself and his wife, Jacalyn.

Broman believes as much as $2 million, including the investors' money, may have been channeled through church accounts controlled by Altman.

Yesterday's plea may have marked the end of a 26-year-long pastoring career that has been dogged by turmoil virtually from the start.

From his first posting in Armstrong County in 1976 through stops in Wainfleet, Ontario, and Dothan, Ala., Altman built dormant churches into vibrant congregations. But questionable financial dealings followed him each step of the way.

In 1986, Altman was convicted of submitting a false statement on a loan application with a Birmingham, Ala., bank. He was sentenced to two years in prison: six months at Allenwood Federal Penitentiary in Lycoming County, and the other 18 months as a suspended sentence. Altman was ordered to repay the $50,000 loan and was placed on probation for four years.

A few months after his release from prison in October 1989, he was hired as pastor at First Christian Church of Homestead, the congregation now known as Grace Christian Ministries.

"I really want to see justice done for the church," said Judy McFarland, the first of Altman's three wives. The couple divorced in 1983.

"I don't want to see him loose to do another scam on another church."

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