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Wednesday, January 18, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Baptist pastor guilty in scam

A Baptist pastor faces up to five years in prison for his role in a real estate scheme that bilked $1.5 million from lenders and home buyers, including some members of his congregation.

The Rev. Paul J. Starnes, 40, pleaded guilty yesterday in U.S. District Court to wire fraud and money laundering charges.

The leader of the Morning Star Church in Springfield is scheduled to be sentenced on May 9. His lawyer, Peter Ettenberg, said he will ask that Starnes be placed on probation. But Assistant U.S. Attorney William Welch indicated he would push for Starnes to serve 51 to 63 months behind bars.

Welch said Starnes and two others were involved in a land-flip scheme that involved buying depressed properties, paying off appraisers to inflate their values, recruiting poor first-time buyers and drafting phony financial documents to obtain mortgages.

Welch said at least two of the approximately 20 home buyers who wound up defaulting on their mortgages were members of Starnes' congregation.

Starnes formerly owned Trinity Mortgage Brokerage Inc. and was a partner in Trinity Land Co., which purchased and sold properties in the Springfield area.

The two others charged in the case, David McCoy and Marc Brown, were also brokers at the mortgage company, authorities have said.

McCoy is scheduled to stand trial next week, and Brown pleaded guilty to his role in the scheme last month.

Ettenberg said Starnes is "glad this part of the process is behind him."