Will the real owner of the historic Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church please stand up?

Two groups of current and former parishioners say they own it. The minister who used to preach there controlled it -- at least until he and other church leaders sold it for $450,000. The inner-city real estate speculator who bought it now wants to sell it. And two religious organizations -- a Jewish temple and an excommunicated African American Catholic splinter group -- have considered purchasing it.

A contentious legal dispute that reaches back more than two decades is coming to a head this fall before the D.C. Court of Appeals, when the question may finally be answered: Who really owns the 107-year-old church at Fifth and E streets SE?

It is a dispute that has pitted a prominent local minister against long-term members of his congregation, at least one of whom is a great-granddaughter of one of the church's founders. And it has paired some unlikely partners: The two religious groups who hope to buy it, Temple Micah and St. Martin de Porres, are both negotiating over a possible purchase with real estate speculator George Basiliko, who recently pleaded guilty to foreclosure auction fraud and faces up to three years in jail.

"The whole thing is very, very strange," said attorney Judith Walter, who is representing one of the two groups suing the minister and other church leaders to get the church.

Many people, it seems, are interested in the dilapidated and abandoned building that was built by hand more than 100 years ago by the freed slaves who formed its founding congregation. Designed by Calvin T.S. Brent, a black Reconstruction-era architect and brick mason, the church has since housed generations of black Baptist congregations.

But the harmony of the past has been disrupted by a 24-year legal dispute over control of the church. The trouble began soon after the arrival of a new minister, the Rev. Harold Trammell, in 1965, according to court documents.

The first lawsuits were filed by church members Charles Williams, an attorney with the Internal Revenue Service, and his wife, Lorraine, a great-granddaughter of a church founder. They protested the manner in which business meetings were being conducted after Trammell's arrival.

The court helped the parties reach an agreement. Two weeks later, however, Trammell officiated at a ceremony that caught parishioners by surprise. He recommended, and the congregation agreed by a voice vote, that "the right hand of fellowship" should be withdrawn from Charles Williams. The charges against Williams included allegations of "disregarding authority" and "causing contention and strife."

"We put him out because he interfered with the rule of the church," said Trammell.

The right hand of fellowship was subsequently withdrawn from other dissident members of Trammell's congregation as well, including Lorraine Williams.

The minister's action shocked and intimidated church members, some said, who added that they still are uncertain what it means. According to Baptist authorities, "withdrawing the hand of fellowship" is equivalent to excommunication in a Roman Catholic church.

"That had never happened before in the history of Mt. Jezreel," said Pattie Anderson, 66, who joined the church when she was 7 years old. "Never. Our {former} minister would never put anybody out of the church, even a drunk."

Several Baptist authorities said it is an unusual procedure when the people involved are active members in good standing of the church.

"It is highly unusual -- it is not common," said the Rev. Carey E. Pointer Sr., president of the Baptist Convention of Washington D.C. and Vicinity.

For a long time, despite the withdrawal procedure, Charles Williams continued attending services at the church, as did his wife. And he continued to file lawsuits, raising questions about church finances and Trammell's power over decision making.

"If you want to stand up for your principles, you're going to stand alone," Williams said.

Trammell and church officers countersued, at one point seeking $1 million in damages from the Williamses. They argued that he was slandering them, hounding them legally and abusing his power as an IRS employee to intimidate them.

Williams "has vendetta style filed and refiled suits and countless pleadings against the Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church," Trammell's current lawyer, Dovey Roundtree, said in one court pleading in 1989. She added that the actions had "long since reached the point of pure harassment."

Meanwhile, about two dozen other members of the congregation, including many who had attended Mt. Jezreel since their childhoods, filed their own lawsuit against Trammell. Calling themselves Mt. Jezreel Christians Without a Home, they too raised questions about the church's finances and the way the church was being governed.

The event that proved the catalyst for the second lawsuit occurred on a hot August day in 1982. On that day, Trammell announced from the pulpit that the congregation would never again meet in the church because termite infestation and water damage had rendered it structurally unsound. He moved his congregation to another church and began holding services there.

"Although it had not been condemned, it was in wretched condition; it was dangerous," Roundtree said. "It was deplorable. It was just the kindness of the {city} government that kept it from being condemned."

Trammell hoped to demolish the building and replace it with a new, larger facility, but his plan was blocked by what was then called the city's Joint Commission on Landmarks, which said the building had historic significance.

So Trammell began making plans to move. In July 1983, according to court documents, Mt. Jezreel Church bought a new building at 405 Riggs Rd. NE for $700,000, using as the down payment a $300,000 loan from the ill-fated Baltimore thrift, Old Court Savings & Loan Association, which collapsed in May 1985.

Some members of the congregation opposed the move, saying it had not been approved by the full congregation, and that the move was a violation of the church's charter.

"It is as if the plaintiffs were life-long owners of a house handed down through the generations who invited their cousins to move in, then one day found that the cousins were evicting them," attorney Walter, who represents Mt. Jezreel Christians Without A Home, argued in one legal brief. "While they were busy fighting the eviction, the cousins sold the house out from under them and used the money to buy another house from which the plaintiffs were excluded."

Roundtree, however, said the move was approved by a majority of the congregation and that the church had no choice but to relocate, given the excessive cost of remodeling and refurbishing the historic Capitol Hill structure.

In 1986, D.C. Superior Court Judge William S. Thompson ruled in favor of the church members suing the Mt. Jezreel church leaders. He placed the church in receivership, noting that its financial reputation had become "unreliable," and that the church's financial books were missing or in disarray, with no balance sheets available for the years between 1980 and 1985.

"The plaintiffs have established sufficient facts to warrant the inference of insolvency and fraud," Thompson said in his ruling.

Trammell subsequently sued Thompson in 1987 in U.S. District Court, saying that Thompson, who is black, had delayed the case while pressuring Trammel to fire the white lawyer who was representing the church, Blaine Friedlander, and replace him in 1988 with a black lawyer.

In 1988, the church leaders fired Friedlander and hired attorney Roundtree, who is black.

Later in 1988, Thompson changed his mind on the Mt. Jezreel situation. In December, he dismissed both lawsuits brought by the dissident church members, failing to address any of the questions he had raised in the earlier inquiry or commenting on the question of the receivership. Thompson said simply that the plaintiffs had no legal standing because they were no longer members of the church since the withdrawal of fellowship procedures.

Friedlander declined to comment on why he was removed as the church leaders' lawyer, citing client confidentiality, but Trammell said the record itself "is very clear" as to what happened. "It sort of speaks for itself," he said.

Both dissident groups subsequently appealed their cases to the D.C. Court of Appeals. Mt. Jezreel Christians Without a Home noted that some people suing the minister are indeed still church members. They also questioned whether Thompson had intended to dismiss both cases, stating that after issuing the dismissal order, Thompson sent out a letter scheduling yet another status conference on the case.

Mt. Jezreel Christians and Friedlander also filed complaints against Thompson, who is retired but continues to serve on the bench, with the D.C. Judicial Disability and Tenure Commission, which has the power to discipline or remove judges. Thompson and commission spokesmen declined to comment on the situation.

As the legal dispute continued along its tangled course, the church has remained unoccupied. In September 1989, Roundtree, Trammell's new lawyer, wrote to Thompson asking him to review and approve a sales agreement between Mt. Jezreel church officials and Basiliko, who had offered to buy the property for $450,000. In the letter, which became part of the court file, Roundtree told Thompson that church officials were being compelled to pay for casualty insurance on a property it no longer occupied.

Thompson responded by scrawling a handwritten notation across the bottom of the letter saying that Williams's lawsuit had been dismissed. It did not mention the second lawsuit.

On that basis, Basiliko last November bought the church for $450,000 from the church elders.

Consequently, for the Mt. Jezreel church leaders, the Capitol Hill building is now nothing but a memory. They long ago moved to Riggs Road, where the congregation has grown to more than 1,000 members, they said.

"We're no longer involved with it and haven't been for a year," Trammell said.

In an interview this week, Basiliko said he had intended to turn the building into condominiums, but changed his mind because of the slowdown in the Washington area housing market. Instead, he said, he has put it up for sale.

The situation apparently offers little risk and much potential reward for Basiliko, who recently pleaded guilty in an unrelated case to foreclosure auction bid-rigging. He admitted involvement in mail fraud and conspiracy to rig bids, and faces a large fine and a jail term of up to three years. Basiliko declined to discuss his plea in that case.

Basiliko said he wins no matter how the D.C. Appeals Court rules on the dispute over the ownership of the building. If the court rules in favor of church leaders, Basiliko hopes to turn a nice profit: He bought the church for $450,000 and now has it on the market for $625,000.

But if the court rules in favor of the dissident members of the congregation, Ticor Title Insurance will reimburse Basiliko the purchase price, he said.

"If {the purchase} is set back, the title company will pay me back what I paid," Basiliko said. "In any case, I'm protected."

At least two religious groups are considering buying it. Temple Micah, in particular, is negotiating to buy it, although the purchase depends on whether the buildings can be remodeled to accommodate the congregation, and whether clear title can be obtained.

Given its years of vacancy and long-standing problems, the main structure has deteriorated so badly it would cost about $1 million to rehabilitate it, according to architect Robert Weinstein, who belongs to the temple.

Another potential purchaser, Basiliko and others said, is St. Martin de Porres, an African American Catholic Rite church that was recently ex-communicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

The new church, which is a splinter faction that broke away from the congregation of Bishop George Stallings of the Imani Temple, has been holding its services at McKinley High School in Northeast Washington.

But for the dissident members of the Mt. Jezreel church, their continued ownership of the old church is still a matter of faith. They say that when the court finally awards it to them, as they believe it will, they will call back many current and former members of the old congregation, restore the building and begin holding services there again.

"Our day is coming," Anderson said. "In God's own time He'll fix it. And when He fixes it, it's going to stay fixed. He's given us the strength to do it."