Terry Millender was more than a pastor to Howard Payton. He was a mentor from the time Payton was a teenager, a surrogate father who inducted the younger man into the ministry. He counseled and married Payton and his wife, Regina. He said blessings over their son, Cameron. He promised to help them build a college fund for Cameron — something their parents could not do for them.
“The way my son would look at him with such trusting, loving eyes makes me cringe now,” Regina Payton said in court Tuesday as Millender, 54, was sentenced to eight years in prison for financial crimes.
While he was pastor at Victorious Life Church in Alexandria, Va., Millender took the $15,000 the couple inherited from her mother and lost it in the foreign currency market. It was part of a $1.7 million fraud, carried out between 2008 and 2013, that victimized his friends, relatives and fellow pastors.
“He turned out to be a very bad pastor, but he’s a very good con man,” Regina Payton told a judge in Alexandria federal court.
Millender still insists that he did not intend to scam any of the people he persuaded to invest in what he billed as a microlending project for small businesses in Africa.
“No one wanted this to succeed more than me,” Millender told Judge Anthony J. Trenga in a rambling statement that veered between sobs of remorse and shouts of denial. “I am not 100 percent innocent; I’m just innocent of what the government charged me with.”
Millender spent $800,000 from the supposed investment projects on himself, renting a 6,000-square-foot home for $10,000 a month and buying expensive furniture and rounds of golf. Most of the rest was lost. What he didn’t spend on himself he lost on the risky foreign currency market. He then promised to pay back the money through Nigerian oil trading, another hopeless scheme that enriched no one but himself.
He did not pay taxes on the funds, either, and owes $270,000 to the IRS.
Meanwhile, victims who were told that their initial investments were secure lost their retirement savings and pensions; one could no longer afford blood pressure medication.
Still, the pastor insisted that his goal was always to help others by first helping himself.
I’m “one of the last good guys,” Millender told the court. “I’m the last person who would defraud anybody.”
It’s an argument that failed to convince a jury in 2017, when he and his wife were found guilty of wire fraud, money laundering, false-tax-return filing and obstruction, although Trenga later decided that Millender’s wife was not involved enough to be criminally liable. Millender took the stand and argued, “You can’t help the poor and be poor.”
Prosecutor Jamar Walker called that statement an “absurdity.” Trenga agreed that while Millender may have gone into the scheme “thinking he could succeed,” his “blind recklessness” stemmed not from altruism but “his own greed and his own sense of entitlement.”
Millender is a lifelong churchman; he studied at a Bible college in Florida and churches in Annandale and Vienna before starting Victorious Life Church 16 years ago.
“Faith is a powerful weapon, and when it’s entrusted in the wrong hands, it can be a dangerous weapon,” Walker said in court.
When others began to question him, Millender would react angrily, saying he would never have involved friends and family in anything criminal.
“As a young man growing up, I learned a lot from Mr. Millender,” Howard Payton told the court. “There was no reason why I thought I couldn’t trust him. . . . I was deceived, repeatedly.”
Other victims — including two who testified at trial — told the court they still believed that if Millender was freed he could pay back what he owed them with a new business venture. One who lost nearly $100,000 wrote that despite a court order, they were indirectly in touch and that in 45 to 60 days, thanks to a new Chinese oil project, “lenders who have been waiting for six years can be made WHOLE.”