Robert J. Freeman, a charismatic Southern Maryland pastor and longtime televangelist, drove fancy cars and lived in a $1.75 million home on the Potomac River that has five fireplaces, a jet-ski lift and two four-car garages.
To finance that lifestyle, federal prosecutors said, Freeman turned to his followers to purchase the vehicles and waterfront property. Many, it turned out, could not afford it.
On Monday, Freeman, 56, who headed Save the Seed ministry in Waldorf, was sentenced to more than two years in prison in a related bankruptcy case. Prosecutors said he hid church assets to avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts.
“Freeman lived a life of fraud and deception, using millions of dollars from church members, and fraudulently obtained credit to pay for luxury cars and a mansion while falsely representing in court that he was indigent,” Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement.
Freeman, who was known as “Dr. Shine,” said in court that he takes responsibility for lying during bankruptcy proceedings. But he said his congregation willingly funded purchases on behalf of the church.
“I did all this publicly,” Freeman told the judge in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. “There wasn’t nothing shady about it.”
A self-described former drug addict, Freeman, who lives in Indian Head in Charles County, built his brand and ministry over the past two decades through TV broadcasts and an unorthodox approach to drug treatment that began in Prince George’s County.
Freeman directed church members to take out loans to purchase the cars, including a Bentley and a Maybach, and the mansion. When the church could not cover the bills, church members were on the hook for the debt and in some cases lost their homes and jobs.
Even after Freeman and his former wife, Claudette “Dee Dee” Freeman, filed for bankruptcy, federal prosecutors say he convinced a church member to lease or buy three more Mercedes Benzes and a Lincoln Navigator.
“The essence of this crime was taking advantage of unwitting people,” District Judge Roger W. Titus said before sentencing Freeman to 27 months in prison — six months more than prosecutors sought. Titus also ordered Freeman to pay more than $630,000 to four church members who took out loans to purchase the cars and mansion.
About half of that money will go to former church members Brenton and Wendy Cloud of Edgewater. “When you’re in it, you think you’re doing the will of God, but it’s deceptive,” Brenton Cloud said. “I’m glad it’s over and he can’t dupe anyone else for at least another two years.”
In court papers, Freeman blamed predatory lending practices, the economic downturn and his sixth-grade education for his financial undoing. The mansion, he said, was the pastor’s residence but also was a retreat and conference center. The cars, he said, were used by church leaders.
In testimony infused with biblical passages, Freeman and his attorney sought to turn the courtroom into something of a church sanctuary. More than a dozen church members and supporters were in attendance.
Roland Patterson, Freeman’s former attorney, testified for the defense that the pastor encouraged church members to sacrifice and make gifts to the church so that they would benefit economically through what he called the “Prosperity Doctrine.”
“He was not out to benefit himself; he was out to benefit his congregation,” defense attorney Guana E. Williams said.
In response, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mara Zusman Greenberg asked, “Does the Prosperity Doctrine direct people to lie to the bankruptcy court?”
In 2005, the Freemans filed for bankruptcy, stating that they had no assets. Freeman said then that the couple “lost our ministry.” He also presented fake pay stubs from a maintenance company.
Twenty years ago, Freeman was forced to move his ministry from Prince George’s County because of concerns about overcrowding. A 1991 story in The Washington Post described how Freeman used 10- to 12-hour Bible study sessions to “detox” drug addicts and occasionally turned to exorcisms. Freeman acknowledged that he sometimes struck participants to maintain order.
At the time, judges were referring drug offenders to the program.
By 2000, Freeman had transformed himself into what he called the “Top Gun of Deliverance.” By Freeman’s count, the program helped about 4,000 people struggling with drug addiction between 1991 and 2001. His sermons were picked up by the Word Network, a Christian television station.
Freeman’s ex-wife has started her own ministry and continues to hold services, teach classes and lead broadcasts from Waldorf.
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.