Wednesday, August 31, 2005 View Comments
BY NATASHA KORECKI Federal Courts Reporter
They just heard that the bishop who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from their church was headed for prison.
But it was as if they had been told a family member had died.
They held hands, sobbed, hugged and broke into song and prayer as the news of William Ellis' prison sentence swept over the sea of congregants that stuffed into a federal courtroom and overflowed into a courthouse hallway Tuesday.
They later stood in line to pay their tearful respects to Ellis, 62, former bishop of the Apostolic Pentecostal Church of Morgan Park, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Owes IRS $165,000
He had pleaded guilty to felony tax fraud charges and admitted taking $1,000 a month from weekly collections. The feds say he stole $520,000 from 1996 to 2001 and owes the IRS about $165,000. They say he used church money to buy a second Mercedes Benz, even though the church already had given him a Mercedes for church business. They say he paid off his personal credit card debt and life insurance premiums with church money and racked up personal expenses on the church's American Express card.
Ellis was unemotional for most of his sentencing hearing, but when U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman handed down the sentence, Ellis, who had begged the judge for mercy and asked for no jail time, broke.
"Jesus," he muttered, then began crying.
Ellis earlier vowed he would never break the law again.
"I'm sorry, I'm deeply crushed and humiliated by this act I have committed," Ellis told Gettleman.
Gettleman said he didn't enjoy sending Ellis to prison.
'We love Bishop Ellis'
"Cheating on taxes is a very serious matter," Gettleman said. "There's a way to do good deeds [with] church collections but it's not from skimming it off the top, putting it in your pocket," and deciding how to spend it.
After Gettleman recessed court, Ellis sank in his chair at the defense table and sobbed with a clenched hand pressed against his face. He sat there for at least 15 minutes as his supporters surrounded him and hugged him.
As he left the courthouse, one woman slowly shook her head and began to sing "Thank you Jesus, thank you." Another woman joined her as a third held her hand to her mouth and wept loudly.
Trying to keep away news cameras as Ellis left the downtown Dirksen Federal Building, his supporters formed a human chain, grasping one another's arms in a protective huddle around Ellis and slowly inching their way across the lobby in a giant mass. Many wore "We love Bishop Ellis" buttons.
Ellis, who is small in stature, was well hidden.
Outside, some of the 200-plus congregants flew into a brief melee, at one point shoving a Chicago Sun-Times photographer and later a television camerawoman. The crowd poured off the sidewalk and onto Dearborn Street, briefly blocking traffic as Ellis got into a cab.
They are the very people Ellis admitted stealing from. But one churchgoer, Annie Bond, said his lifetime of good works and love for the community outweighed any money he took. The congregation had forgiven Ellis but stripped him of his bishop status for three years. That should be his penance, they said; jail time was unnecessary.
'We will always be with him'
"What man can say he is without sin?" Bond asked. "We will support him, and we will always be with him."
"He is a lovable man," said another supporter, David Foster. "He gives up his heart to everyone."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Kubiatowski said the outpouring of support for Ellis made the case difficult.
But he said Ellis' actions were nonetheless illegal.
"It doesn't matter what your status is in the community," Kubiatowski said. "You still have an obligation to pay taxes."