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Praying for Keeps
Darryl Heitner and his wife, Jenifer, first happened upon First Baptist Church in Cold Spring, Kentucky, in December 1992. Newly married, the Neltners had been searching for a permanent place to worship for six months and had visited several different churches around the region. At First Baptist, the selling points were clear: For one, they liked the people they met, a mix of new and longtime members who cared deeply about their church and where it was headed. Then there was the pastor, Reverend Larry Davis, a charismatic preacher whose energy and future plans for the church knew no bounds. In just seven years, Davis had helped the congregation double its size to about 600 members, and when the Neltners arrived, First Baptist was just weeks away from moving to a 650-seat sanctuary the church had built a mile south on U.S. Route 27. After attending services for four months, the couple decided to become members. “It just seemed like a good place,” recalls Neltner.
Over the next several years, the Neltners, who eventually bought a house in Alexandria and had two boys, had no regrets about their decision to join First Baptist or follow its pastor. Like many, they marveled at how the church flourished. Sunday School, youth programs, and morning services were all expanded, and the growth in membership that had preceded the church’s move accelerated following its relocation and subsequent addition two years later of a fellowship hall and educational building. By 2001, plans were made to expand again, this time to create a sparkling new multimillion-dollar 1,500-seat sanctuary, complete with brass chandeliers and two large flat-screen TVs to display hymn lyrics and show programs.
“It was an exciting time to be there,” says Neltner. “We were doing a lot of expansion, there was money to do the expansion, and the church numbers were growing. It was fun because there was always something going on.”
After First Baptist’s treasurer died unexpectedly in 1998, Davis had turned to Neltner, a trained accountant, and asked if he could step in. The job was fairly straightforward: Neltner would keep the books on the church’s general operating fund, which consisted mainly of its tithes and offerings, while Davis would handle the rest, including loans, gifts, and the money that came in from events like the weekly Wednesday night dinners.
The 42-year-old Neltner, who’s tall, partially bald, and has a deep voice, speaks with a direct, matter-of-fact tone, giving the impression that he’s much more comfortable talking about matters other than himself. He is a very different person than Larry Davis, who is short and stocky, with a full head of gray hair and a mustache, and who has a penchant, say those who know him, for maintaining control of whatever conversation he’s involved in. (“If you were in a meeting with him,” jokes one former First Baptist deacon, “there was no pressure on you, because he did all the talking.”)
Neltner says his working relationship with Davis was always friendly. And he had no reason to think that would change until he took a phone call from a loan officer at Fifth Third Bank on the afternoon of January 5, 2004, at his office in Norwood, where he works as a controller for a convenience store company. The bank had noticed some “questionable” transactions relating to a 19-month-old construction account that had been established following the approval of a $3.5 million loan for the new sanctuary. Several checks, the loan officer said, had been made out in even amounts of $10,000 and $8,000 (contractor payments are rarely made in such round figures); but the real alarms went off when Fifth Third pulled the checks and discovered they had been made out to “cash.” Only one person had control of this account: Davis.
“I was obviously concerned,” says Neltner. He didn’t know what the transactions meant and had even less of a clue as to where they would lead. Over the next 21 months, a bitter, contentious investigation ensued, one that would rope in both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service, rock one of Northern Kentucky’s largest, most visible Baptist congregations, and send its leader to prison on charges of bank fraud, federal tax evasion, and stealing up to $730,000 from his congregation. Along the way, family loyalties were tested, the congregation split, and a rival church was founded. And yet, after all that, the man who engendered such loyalty and did so much for the local Baptist community has still not explained what compelled him to wreak so much havoc.
“I can say,” says one former Davis supporter and current First Baptist member, “we’ve been humbled.”
It’s a steamy Sunday morning in late July and the sanctuary at First Baptist is far from full. A group of about 150 members are sprinkled around the church for this 11 a.m. service, all of them white and most in their 50s or older, dressed in a wide range of attire, from casual to coat-and-tie.
The sanctuary, which opened in 2003 on Easter weekend, is an enormous space, the largest structure of a sprawling three building complex on Route 27, a busy four lane road that slices through Cold Spring. Inside it’s got a wrap-around balcony, four sections of cushioned pews, floral patterned carpeting, and four banners draped on the back wall, declaring “Joy,” “Hope,” “Faith,” and “Peace.” Outside, the brick edifice is fronted by six white Corinthian columns with a single spire rising from the peak of the roof. The old sanctuary looks the same, only smaller, and the two buildings are connected by a smaller, Cape Cod–style structure that houses the bookstore, administrative offices, and kitchen. One of Davis’s missions was to drive up church membership by 10 percent each year and establish the kind of clout and cachet that would make First Baptist, whose history goes back to 1794, a star among Midwest Baptist churches. The sheer size of the church is proof that, for a while at least, his plan worked.
At 11 a.m. sharp, Davis, dressed in a beige suit that does its best to trim his roly-poly girth, steps to the pulpit and gets to work. He’s charming and funny without much effort, interspersing updates of church events with jokes, quite a few of which poke fun at himself. These draw easy laughs from the crowd and a loud chuckle in particular from a tall blond woman standing in back who every so often says, “Oh, Larry.”
It’s a family affair at First Baptist, on the altar and off. Davis’s daughter Sarah directs the choir and her husband Tim serves as the Minister to Youth. Whenever Sarah strikes up the choir, which is often, Davis takes a seat just behind the podium, crosses his legs and looks out over his congregation. During the fourth hymn of the morning (“More Than Wonderful” ), the church’s Minister of Pastoral Care, Reverend Wilton Sharon, sings a short solo, which prompts Davis to flash a quick smile as he gets to his feet.
“I don’t like preachers who can sing,” he tells the congregation. “You ought not to get two gifts. Get one and be glad you get it.”
For Davis, there are few topics that don’t deserve some sort of interjection. The message this morning centers on the Book of Matthew, specifically the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes with five loaves of bread and two fish. But just before he delves completely into it, the pastor takes a lighthearted detour.
“It dawned on me that I have sections in my closet,” he says. “I have this part over here where my short sleeve shirts go and this place where long sleeve shirts go, and spots for my sweaters, sport coats, and suits. And then there is my Martin Luther King section-the I-have-a-dream [area] where I’m getting back into a 42.”
The congregation lets out a hearty laugh and Davis soaks it in. When he returns to his sermon, his delivery mixes folksy charm and dramatic intensity. Working without notes, Davis is a deft speaker, pumping up the volume at just the right moments as he weaves a message on the importance of believing in miracles and the power of God to “multiply” whatever it is offered to him.
“The disciples weren’t idiots. They knew you couldn’t feed the people with five loaves and two fish. They knew it wouldn’t work, unless you gave it to God,” he says, his voice picking up energy. “Little by little, God has a way of multiplying and making much out of it. The point of today’s sermon is very simple: It’s trust God, trust God, trust God.” He says this last sentence with particular force, so much so that his voice hiccups.
The sermon lasts about 20 minutes and the service just under an hour. When it concludes, Davis steps off the altar and walks down the center aisle with the purpose and confidence of a seasoned politician, shaking hands along the way. He seems to know everyone’s name and gives a hearty “hello” to the woman in the back who found him so funny.
“Sandy, I didn’t know you were here,” he says to her.
“Yeah,” she laughs, “I was hiding.”
The performance concludes with Davis opening a set of double doors at the front of the church and shaking the hand of church members as they leave. A frail-looking older couple is one of the last to leave. “Very nice sermon,” the woman says, sticking out her hand to Davis.
“You know, I have that same dream,” she says. Davis throws his head back and laughs.
Preaching runs in Larry Davis’s blood. He was born in 1948 in Jellico, Kentucky, near the Tennessee border. Early on, his father, an elementary school teacher and a pastor himself, moved the family to Dayton, Ohio, to find work. At 21, following a short stint at a Baptist college in Williamsburg, Kentucky, Davis joined the Marines but was honorably discharged six months later for physical reasons. By 1974, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Wright State University in Dayton, and three years later left a job as a plant foreman at General Motors to become a pastor at Friendship Baptist Church in Harveysburg, Ohio.
Dave Art was a First Baptist deacon serving on the pulpit committee in 1984 when Davis’s resume arrived, and it immediately got his attention. Friendship was a small country church that under Davis’s direction “was happy and growing.” It also helped that Davis was 36 and the father of two young daughters, a sharp departure from the older, more reserved preachers First Baptist had recently let go. (Locally, the church had acquired a reputation as a “graveyard for preachers.”) “He was very dynamic and persuasive,” says Art, who in the ensuing years would grow to become a close friend.
Davis took over in January 1985 and immediately set out to change First Baptist’s culture. He was smart (“a notch just below a genius,” says one former First Baptist member), enthusiastic, had an unrivaled knowledge of scripture, and was unafraid to lead. He was also a “mixer,” someone who could successfully serve the young, old, conservative, and contemporary-minded members of the church. “It was a lot different than what we were used to,” remembers Alan McCullough, a 45-year member and current chairman of the trustees. “He didn’t put us to sleep.”
Davis’s style wasn’t lost on members outside the congregation or on fellow pastors. “In the black Baptist parlance, when a preacher can preach, we all say he can say it,” says Reverend Damon Lynch Jr. of the New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Carthage. “Larry can say it.”
And unlike his predecessors, Davis loved striking out from behind the walls of First Baptist to visit his flock. John Shay, a member of the church for 22 years, recalls that when his late son, Chris, was at the University of Michigan undergoing experimental cancer surgery, Davis drove six hours in the snow to pay a surprise visit, then turned right around to make it back in time for a Wednesday night service. “The guy just went 100 miles per hour,” says Shay. “He built relationships like that where people were indebted to him.”
Outside the pulpit, Davis’s friendly “country boy” style was equally intoxicating. He transformed the low-key Wednesday night potluck dinners into something to look forward to, featuring, at least early on, his own cooking; spearheaded youth outings to Florida; led church visits to Chicago and New York; and organized fishing trips to New Smyrna Beach, Florida, where a buddy of his owned a boat.
By 2002, First Baptist was the second-largest Baptist church in Northern Kentucky, attracting nearly a thousand Sunday morning worshippers and pulling in weekly offerings of up to $20,000. The church’s prominence was matched by Davis’s own stature, something that took a major leap that June, following the conclusion of a four-day Billy Graham mission at Paul Brown Stadium. The event drew nearly 200,000 people and took in just under $2.9 million. Davis, who had written his doctoral thesis on the popular evangelist while studying at Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the mid-1980s, helped organize the mission with Reverend Lynch and retired Cincinnati Bengal Anthony Munoz. In the wake of the 2001 riots, the Graham visit was credited with healing some of the city’s wounds, and Lynch praises Davis for getting the ball rolling.
But the same qualities that made Davis a strong leader could also make him combative. “He could turn it on you,” says Dave Art. “He took things very personal. He’d say things in front of the church-he would just put them in a humorous tone.”
Not everyone trusted him, either. According to one former deacon, Davis would sometimes attend the board’s regular Monday meetings and openly discuss private matters he had been told in confidence. “He’d say, ‘Well, so-and-so are not going to be together in a couple of months,’ “ says the former deacon. “It got to be a joke that if you wanted to spread something, you told Larry.”
As the church expanded, so did the pastor’s desire to take more control over the decision-making. Business meetings were cancelled, expenditures made without church approval, and outside of the tithes and offerings, nobody but Davis seemed to have a grasp of the amount of cash coming in. “He’s a control freak,” says John Shay, who worked under Davis as an assistant for a year. “It was a dictatorship. You couldn’t even do work at that church unless he wanted you.”
In church circles, the most controversial issue involved the not-so-well-kept secret about Davis’s gambling habits. The fact that he loved to wheel and deal was well known, but in the early ’90s church members began hearing from others outside the congregation that Davis visited local racetracks. Over the next several years the deacons approached their pastor on three separate occasions about his gambling activities. Each time, says Ted Wallace, a former deacon chair; Davis pledged to stop. And each time, the rumors soon popped up again.
It was this mashing together of personas—effective minister in a crisis, savvy businessman, strident leader, gambler—that formed a complex, uneasy relationship between the pastor and some in his congregation. “You’d hate him one minute and love him the next,” says Larry Everman, another former deacon, who left First Baptist in 2004 after 35 years. “He’d do something real brazen and then do something just far beyond the call of duty. You’d begin wondering, ‘Is he a saint or is he Satan?’ ”
It was in this very complicated context that Darryl Neltner received the phone call from Fifth Third in early 2004. Davis had appointed himself general contractor of the sanctuary project and set up the construction account. Instead of letting the bank pay the contractors via submitted invoices, he’d convinced Fifth Third to let him control the outflow of money from the account, meaning that payments and withdrawals of all kinds were at his discretion alone.
To look at copies of the checks the bank had pulled, as well as the account statements, Neltner set up a meeting at his house a few days later with deacons Ted Wallace and Larry Everman, and the loan officer. There, the bank official shed light on transactions related to the construction account and the three church leaders asked for additional checks to be pulled. Of particular interest were a number of checks that had been cashed at Provident Bank, a lending institution the church no longer did business with, as far as Neltner knew. After the meeting, Neltner and Wallace visited the bank’s Cold Spring branch, where they discovered a checking account in the church’s name containing $2,500. Within days, the two men assembled a small group consisting of all 11 members of the deacon board, trustee Rick Hubbard, and church member and attorney Ron Christian, to go over the facts and figure out a plan.
On Monday, January 12, exactly a week after the phone call from Fifth Third, the group kicked off the first of three secret meetings at Everman’s home, a 75-year-old farmhouse about a mile from First Baptist. Seated around a large oak dining table, the group met for several hours each night, with Neltner bringing the others up to speed on the church’s financial information, showing them copies of checks and statements. By the third and final evening, they all knew they’d have to confront their pastor. They decided to secretly “ambush” Davis the following day by calling a meeting at the church and asking him to attend. The point man for the group would be Tom Schuck, an attorney and colleague of Ron Christian and a specialist in church fraud cases whom the deacons had been in touch with over the last several days. Just before the group broke up for the evening, however, Wallace, anticipating what might lie ahead, spoke up.
“Regardless of how we handle this,” he said, “we will have handled it wrong to most people.”
EARLY ON THE afternoon of January 16, 2004, Darryl Neltner arrived at First Baptist for a scheduled 1 p.m. meeting he had set up with Davis. The purpose of the session, the treasurer had told the pastor in a phone conversation earlier that morning, was to meet with a representative from Fifth Third and go over some questions the bank had about a few transactions. Neltner met Davis at his office and the two men made their way downstairs below the sanctuary to the church’s choir room. (“I was nervous,” admits Neltner. “It was a long walk.”) There they found many of the men who had been meeting at Larry Everman’s house that week, along with a Fifth Third lawyer and a member of the bank’s fraud department, sitting silently at an assortment of tables spread around the room.
Tom Schuck took a seat across from Davis and began questioning the preacher about why so many checks had been made out to cash. “[Davis] was shaking,” says Neltner, recalling the initial moments of what turned out to be a three-hour meeting. “But I think once he realized we didn’t have as much information as maybe we needed, he seemed to get on his feet some. “
While the tension was palpable, it was for the most part a cordial session. Trustee Rick Hubbard had come to the meeting praying that Davis could explain himself but sensed that the evidence—hundreds of thousands of dollars of unaccounted-for transactions—indicated something corrupt.
“It was sickening for a variety of reasons,” he says. “I didn’t want to jump to any conclusions, but there were some things that were pretty cut and dry, that were just dead flat wrong. You can give somebody the benefit of the doubt on a few of those that he was paying for something and just needed some cash-but there were so many of them.”
As Schuck continued to question Davis about specific transactions, a different kind of investigation was going on upstairs. Concerned that Davis might hide further evidence buried in his files, Larry Everman and fellow deacon Jerry Hitch entered the pastor’s office and rooted through the church files, unearthing a manila folder containing about half a dozen credit cards to places such as Lowe’s and Staples, as well as documents indicating that the Provident account had been open since March 200l. As Hitch called the stores to close the accounts or take Davis’s name off the cards, Everman went to a back door of the church to greet a representative from AB Bonded Locksmiths of Norwood, which the group had hired to change the four locks on Davis’s office. The security alarm settings were also changed.
It took Everman and Hitch roughly 90 minutes to complete their search, after which they went downstairs to sit in on the rest of the meeting. At the end, Schuck offered the pastor three options: Help in the investigation and take a leave of absence with pay; do nothing and take a leave of absence without pay; or resign. The group gave Davis a few days to make his decision.
“We told him that if he cooperated we wouldn’t take it to the authorities,” Neltner says. “But we also told him that depending on what we found out we may have no choice but to take it to the authorities. If he didn’t cooperate, it was automatic.”
TWO DAYS LATER, just before the start of Sunday morning services, Ted Wallace stood up before a full church and read a short statement explaining that Fifth Third had called about some financial irregularities and that Davis was on a leave of absence. When the deacons had more information, he added, they would report back. That night, all 11 deacons, most of the trustees, as well attorneys Ron Christian and Tom Schuck, met at the church and unanimously voted to propose a special business meeting for January 28 in order to present the congregation with account statements and copies of pulled checks they had received from Fifth Third. In addition, they would ask the church to approve spending up to $25,000 on an internal audit.
That was the plan. But over the next 72 hours, a flurry of e-mails and phone calls ensued among church members about what had happened and where things might be headed. Rumors began circulating that a faction of the congregation would force the ouster of the deacons, with the intent of closing the book on the investigation and returning Davis to the pulpit. The meltdown came that Wednesday night, January 21, when the weekly Bible study session was interrupted by an impromptu business meeting, the church’s first in five months. To those walking into the sanctuary, two things immediately stood out: It was standing room only—these meetings typically attracted only 200 people—and the lines had already been drawn. Those in support of Davis sat on the right side, while those opposed to him, or who wanted to learn more about what the deacons had discovered, sat on the left.
The evening opened with Davis, who was wearing a light colored suit—”He looked like Boss Hogg,” quipped one former deacon—striding up the center aisle of the sanctuary to the podium and delivering a 10-minute speech in which he described his meeting with the deacons and stated he had no intention of stepping down. When he finished, he walked to the back of the church—to the sound of applause—and took a seat in the balcony to watch the meeting unfold.
Ted Wallace, who moderated the three hour long session, stepped to the microphone to begin what he anticipated would be a discussion on what the deacons were investigating. Instead, John Roseberry, the chairman of the trustees and a close associate of Davis, immediately stood up and introduced a motion that the group be made inactive, which was quickly seconded. From there, the congregation descended into a 90-minute debate, with much of the anger directed at Wallace and Neltner.
“It surprised me,” says Alan McCullough. “You’d watch one family member be on one side of the issue and another family member be on the other side.”
Looking back on the meeting, says 63-year-old Lester Smith, a current deacon and lifetime member of the church who sat just a few seats from Davis in the balcony, it was. obvious that the pastor was now doing the ambushing. Smith found the debate disheartening and eventually leaned forward to get the attention of the pastor. “You can’t allow this to happen,” Smith told him. Davis was silent.
Meanwhile, Neltner was calling Tom Schuck, asking him what he should do. Schuck’s reply: Nothing. “We told him that if he didn’t cooperate, we would have to take this to the authorities,” the lawyer said. “You need to carry through on what you told him.” Neltner agreed and tracked down Cold Spring Police Chief Rick Sears, who also happened to be a member of the church. “We need to talk,” he told him.
THE VOTE TO MAKE the 11 deacons inactive wasn’t even close-a 10-to-l margin in favor of neutralizing them, according to one estimate. Still, it was premature to assume they were completely out of the picture. On the following Monday evening,the group gathered at Everman’s house, where another church member, Stuart Oehrle, asked the men to attend the next business meeting, scheduled for that Wednesday night, at which he would surprise the congregation and make a motion for a vote to reinstate them. At first they demurred, says Wallace, but eventually they agreed to it, in large part because they wanted to support Neltner, who was still the church treasurer.
Neltner, who had spent the last week trying to summarize the church bank statements and other financial records, had contacted the Kentucky State Police to inform them of his findings. In a single-page, single-spaced letter dated January 23, he informed Major Mike Sapp in Frankfort of the pastor’s handling of the construction account: $40,000 of debit card transactions, $24,600 of which were withdrawn at racetracks; checks made out to cash in the amount of $263,700; and another $157,000 in check activity. In tracking down where the checks had been cashed, Neltner wrote, he discovered the Provident account, which between March 2001 and December 2003 “had $426,000 of deposits and withdrawals.” The account included “cancelled checks in the amount of $37,500 written to Larry Davis, $148,000 written to ‘cash,’ and $45,000 written to Provident Bank…. I request that you open an investigation into this matter as soon as possible.”
Minutes before the second business meeting on the evening of January 28, Neltner approached Davis and offered an ultimatum. If Davis moved ahead with his plan to elect a new set of deacons, Neltner, who had made 500 copies of the letter, would hand out one to every person in the church.
Neltner was struck by Davis’s response. “He said, ‘There’s no reason to get upset about this. You ran out of here last week and ran to the police and there’s no need to do that.’ I just remember that comment, ‘You ran out of here because you were upset.’ ”
Davis ultimately backed down and the deacons were momentarily reinstated by a hand vote of 236–179.
IN SHEDDING its small country church identity and embracing the rapid expansion that Davis guided, First Baptist had also embraced something else: a changing social dynamic. Lost was a congregation comprised of people whose relationships went back years. Different services and different formats meant that many members were strangers to one another. Rather than being bound as a spiritual community, the gravitational pull of the church was centered on the man who was leading them. When that center lost its hold, so did the congregation.
On February 27, a Saturday, all of the deacons, as well as Neltner, received a typed, single page letter with no return address. The writer made no secret of his or her disdain for the group. “Your false religion makes me sick at my stomach,” the letter read. “…There may come a day when I vote for Bro. Larry to leave this church. But the day that I would vote for you to leave this church is already here.”
Indeed, that vote came just two and a half weeks later at a business meeting on March 17. The topic that night was supposed to be Fifth Third’s threat to call the church’s $3.5 million loan; instead debate swirled around the removal of some 200 First Baptist members from their administrative posts at the church. The group included all 11 deacons, a number of trustees, various committee members, nursery school instructors, even a secretary.
At issue was the decision by this faction to worship at an alternative service created outside of First Baptist. What had begun in late January with 60 people meeting in the family room of trustee Rick Hubbard’s home in Cold Spring had quickly expanded to 200. Some who came to the service were regular attendees, others, disheartened by the atmosphere at First Baptist, had come only once or twice. Yet regardless of position or frequency of visits, Davis pushed for a vote to remove them from their duties and essentially oust them from his church.
According to the The Cincinnati Enquirer, Chris Mehling, one of First Baptist’s attorneys, warned Davis that such a move would give “the bank more reason to foreclose.” But the pastor was defiant. “The bank doesn’t run this church,” he told the attorneys, who dropped First Baptist as a client the next day. “The lawyers shouldn’t either.”
The debate before the vote was contentious. A small scuffle broke out between two women in the balcony, people shouted one another down, and a few members ran out of the building in tears. The vote was done by paper ballot and when Wallace announced the results—334–202 in favor of letting the members go—the congregation fell silent. After closing the meeting, Wallace says he “walked down the center aisle, picked up my wife who was sitting near the back, and left.” He hasn’t been back since.
AL MCCULLOUGH, a 56-year-old manager at CSX Railroad in Ft. Mitchell who joined First Baptist around the same time Wallace did, was one of those who felt the dissident group needed to go. “At the time, I felt like they were turning their backs on us,” he says.
Still, in the weeks leading up to the church’s overhaul of its leadership, details about some of the financial irregularities had begun to trickle out. The most revealing had been a March 15 story in The Cincinnati Enquirer that broke down the church’s account statements from November and December 2003 and detailed hotel, restaurant, and gambling expenses, as well as ATM withdrawals, a $10,000 check made out to the pastor, and another for $9,666.67 to “cash.”
But for McCullough and other supporters, matching up the pastor they’d come to know over the last two decades with the allegations of financial abuse was a difficult task. According to various First Baptist members, Davis, who refused to speak publicly about the case, repeatedly assured the congregation of his innocence and said that he would eventually explain his side of the story. He asserted his innocence in April 2004, when the case was handed over to federal authorities and the IRS became involved; asserted it again in June 2005, when he was indicted on seven counts (one for submitting false documents to secure a $500,000 loan from Fifth Third; four for federal income tax evasion; and two for diverting money from church funds for personal expenses, including the purchase of a used Porsche 911 and a minivan); and continued to deny any wrongdoing during the months that followed.
“I’d known him for 20 years and I figured he must be confident he can prove his innocence,” says McCullough.
Things quieted down considerably between April 2004 and June 2005, in part because of the forced exodus of the 200 dissident members (who founded a new church called Christ Baptist), but also because the feds largely remained quiet during their investigation. “I certainly think we’re beginning to heal and beginning to move on,” Davis told reporters in April 2004. “And frankly, I think the people who have left have begun to move on as well.”
But by the following year, the FBI and IRS were closing in on the pastor. According to Lester Smith, who became a deacon following the changeover in church leadership in March 2004, Davis started preparing First Baptist elders for the possibility of a plea agreement in the spring of 2005—before his indictment. “He’d started saying that ‘it could go against me and not that I’m going to lose, but I could spend as much as eight years in jail,’” says Smith.
On October 5, 2005, after the evening’s Bible service, Davis called about 60 members of the congregation to the choir room, where he spent an hour outlining on a dry erase board the different scenarios he was facing if he reached a plea agreement or tried to fight the case in court. For McCullough, who’d had Davis marry his daughter just a month before, the meeting was a wake-up call.
“I always felt that he was telling the truth, that he was going to court, and that he was going to prove his innocence,” he says. “But when he started talking to us that night about the plea agreement and what he should do, I’m thinking, ‘Well, why would we even be discussing this if you can prove your innocence?’”
On the face of it, Davis appeared to be genuinely seeking input from his most loyal supporters. But that wasn’t the case. He’d already decided. The next morning he appeared before U.S. District Court Judge David Bunning in Covington and pled guilty to two counts of the original seven-count indictment. Davis admitted to stealing between $500,000 and $730,000 from the church and agreed that in September 2003 he submitted two “false” documents to Fifth Third, including one that contained the signature of a First Baptist member to secure an additional $500,000—a loan the congregation never authorized but that was needed because the church was running out of money to pay for the construction of the new sanctuary.
In the paperwork for that $500,000 loan, Davis had outlined a list of payments it would cover. In addition to including the names of several contractors that had already been paid, another had been added—Art Partin Trucking, which was owned by a friend of Davis’s and which he had claimed was owed $60,583. In his plea agreement, he was forced to admit that Art Partin Trucking “had never participated in the construction project.” In addition, he confessed to evading paying federal taxes on up to $199,000 in income between 2000 and 2003, the last year of which he was reported to have taken in $400,000. Through it all, the plea states, Davis, “believed [the church] would repay the loan in full.”
In essence, the man who had pushed for such loyalty from his church members expected in the end for First Baptist to pay for his sins. When McCullough picked up a copy of the plea agreement a few days later, his blood began to boil.
“It was signed on the third [of October],” says McCullough. “He’d already made his decision.”
THE PLEA BASICALLY terminated Davis’s tenure at First Baptist, and a week later, about 40 members left the church in support of him. At the very least, the group wanted their pastor in the pulpit until he was sentenced in February 2006, but some at First Baptist contend that what they really wanted was for the church to keep the position available to Davis upon his release from prison. When it was clear this was not going to happen, they quit. (The sentencing, scheduled for February 17, occurred after this magazine went to press; however, according to Davis’s attorney, Patrick Hanley, the pastor was expected to be sentenced to 24–30 months in a federal prison, most likely at a facility in either Ashland or Manchester, Kentucky.)
Still, with all that had transpired, Davis continued to preach. After receiving the three weeks paid vacation he was due and an undetermined “love offering” from individual members of the congregation (the church voted down two different severance packages, including one spearheaded by his supporters just before their exodus for up to $18,000), Davis and his flock decamped to a strip mall in Alexandria. There, in the same beige stucco building that houses a Gold’s Gym and an AutoZone, the group met in a 1,500-square-foot space that most recently was home to an embroidery shop.
None of the members of this group that were contacted for this piece wanted to be interviewed. “I don’t need to help you earn a buck,” one former trustee said. Another said she had “prayed and talked about it” with Davis but had decided that, in the end, she didn’t want to do it. Before hanging up the phone, however, she offered a quick defense of her pastor, saying it was impossible that he ever stole that much money from the church, otherwise “something would be missing in the sanctuary.” Another woman would not speak either, but her husband, who doesn’t support Davis, would. “I call it a cult,” he said, chuckling. “It hasn’t helped our family life at all.”
Up the road, First Baptist is trying to get on its feet, too. The finance committee has been given more power and an audit team has been created to keep an eye on finances, and in December, the newly formed pulpit committee began collecting input from the congregation for its search for a new pastor. The church is grappling with an existential issue that just a few years ago would have seemed difficult, if not impossible, to fathom: life without Larry Davis. “The leadership of the church is demonstrating to the congregation that we want to move forward,” says McCullough, the church’s trustee chairman. “We want to do the right things. We don’t want to do anything behind their backs.”
As for what lies ahead, in the church business, more heads means more offerings, and a successful future for First Baptist is predicated on growing its congregation and managing the payments on its now $4 million note with Fifth Third. (Average Sunday morning attendance is currently 641, down from 941 just four years ago.) At a December 11 service, donations totaled $12,008, a far cry from the $20,000 in offerings that regularly poured in prior to the Davis investigation. After fending off foreclosure in 2004 and later reaching a temporary deal to pay only the interest, the church began in January to make full monthly payments (approximately $29,000) on the borrowed amount.
Just up the street at Christ Baptist, growth seems to be a constant theme. Much of its building—the former home of First Baptist, which the spin-off congregation purchased in April 2004—has been renovated. Last fall, the church hired its first pastor, Reverend Randy Coleman, a 36-year-old Tennessee native who has already helped grow membership by more than 30 percent, to around 350. There’s even talk that at some point in the future the congregation is going to need a larger facility. “It was probably more fun watching Christ Baptist come together,” says Larry Everman, the deacon who left First Baptist in March 2004, “than all the pain we went through during the break up at First.”
But the pain Davis left behind still lingers, and what his sentencing means for people depends on whom you ask. When I asked Neltner in December, he paused for a second.
“I’m not going to be happy about it,” he said. “I’m not going to be sad about it, either. I’ll just be glad that it’s finally over.”
Originally published in the March 2006 issue.