Authorities said a fire at a waterfront Charles County mansion — once home to a charismatic Southern Maryland pastor and evangelist who got in trouble for financing his lavish lifestyle from parishioners — seems to be the work of an arsonist.
Robert J. Freeman, who headed Save the Seed ministry in Waldorf and built up a reputation and ministry over 20 years through TV broadcasts, resided in the mansion overlooking the Potomac River.
An initial investigation found the cause of the fire at the 15,500-square-foot home in the 5200 block of Rivers Edge Place was incendiary, according to the Maryland State Fire Marshal. The fire appears to have started inside a three-car garage. Officials were at the scene Monday as they continued their investigation.
Evidence was found at the scene that lead investigators to believe the fire was arson-related, according to Oliver J. Alkire, a senior deputy fire marshal in Maryland.
On Sunday, a boater reported the fire around 2 p.m. after seeing smoke from the vacant home. Roughly 75 firefighters from departments in Charles, Prince Georges and Fairfax counties responded. One firefighter was transported to an area hospital for heat-related illness. His condition was not known Monday.
Freeman had quite a reputation: He drove fancy cars and lived in the $1.75 million Indian Head home, which was financed through loans that Freeman directed church members to take out. He said his residence was also a retreat and conference center.
When the church couldn’t cover the bills, members were left responsible for the debt and in some cases lost their homes and jobs. Freeman and his wife filed for bankruptcy in 2005, saying they had no assets.
In 2012, Freeman was sentenced to more than two years in prison in a bankruptcy case. Prosecutors said Freeman hid church assets to avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts.
Freeman, who was known as Dr. Shine, was also ordered to pay more than $630,000 to four church members who took out loans to help furnish his elaborate lifestyle.
In his defense, Freeman’s lawyer said he encouraged church members to sacrifice and make gifts to the church so they would receive economic benefits through what he called the “Prosperity Doctrine.”
In his ministry, Freeman used 10-to-12-hour Bible study sessions to “detox” drug addicts and occasionally turned to exorcisms, according to a 1991 story in The Washington Post. Freeman acknowledged that he sometimes struck participants to maintain order.
At the time, judges were referring drug offenders to the program.
By 2000, Freeman who was a self-described former drug addict called himself the “Top Gun of Deliverance.” He claimed his 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.
Ann Marimow contributed to this report.