Backed by local ministers, Petro America promised investors millions -- but it's the CEO who got rich 

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Scruggs says he, too, was offered free shares in exchange for corralling more investors. When he bought his shares from his pastor, the pastor gave him a sheet with 10 blank spaces for names of new shareholders. “Every ten entries equals 1,000,000 shares earned/No exceptions,” the sheet reads.

Other investors bought shares from total strangers, even though regulators' warnings are just a Google search away. A Canadian man named Dave says he heard about Petro from a friend this spring and paid a woman in Texas $2,000 for 200,000 shares. The only confirmation he received was a text message from the woman saying she'd received his money.

“If I go gambling at the card table, at least I know I stand a legitimate chance,” Dave says. “If I were playing cards with Owen Hawkins, I’d be playing with a marked deck.”

According to the affidavit, the woman Dave bought from, Teresa Brown, is one of Hawkins' key conspirators. She “received in excess of $3 million from Petro America investors,” the affidavit says. She routed much of that back to Hawkins, the affidavit says, and spent the rest on a Showcase Showdown's worth of luxury, including a boat, an SUV, jewelry, timeshares and $15,000 worth of merchandise from the QVC shopping network.

As the Denny's meeting wears on, things start to get heated. White steps in, saying the company has not sold a single security since 2008. “If any shares have been sold since then, it’s been privately by other shareholders. And that’s not under the cease-and-desist order,” he declares, although authorities may interpret the order differently. “The company is under a cease-and-desist order.”

Scruggs jumps to his feet. “Any of y’all selling them?” he asks, pointing at the ministers. None of them responds.

If the shareholders are so disgruntled, one minister says, they can simply get their money back. Ernest Batiste, a member of the Ministers Alliance who is an elder at Victorious Life Church — and who went to jail for passing a bad check in 1997 — says later that it’s easy to get your money back from Petro: “All you do is write corporate. Send them an e-mail. We make sure they get their money back. We got people who buy their shares. We’ll buy their shares, no problem.”

But Scruggs is fuming now. “Shit, a lie’s a lie!” he says.

At the sound of foul language, a pastor scolds Scruggs. “This meeting has been prayed on. It’s just like when you're in the church.”

“No,” Scruggs says. “This ain’t church. This is Denny’s.”

Suddenly, a soothing voice penetrates the brewing yelling match. It’s the first time Halliburton has spoken tonight. He puts down the spoon he’s been using to scoop up a vanilla-ice-cream-and-caramel sundae.

“All we wanna do is just hear your complaints,” he says. “We're all on the same team, right?”

“I’m on the team of the truth!” Scruggs fires back.

Scruggs’ tirade crescendos until a cacophony of silverware smashes against the table and ministers yell at him to sit down. Finally, Roper asks Scruggs if he wants his money back. “Yes,” he answers. “Plus interest. 'Cause you can’t give my money back. … This is a glorified receipt for money that we donated to Owen Hawkins,” he says, waving around his certificate.

“Let it be duly noted that Wiley Scruggs asked for his money back,” shouts one of the ministers, to no one in particular. No one makes a move to write it down, and weeks later Scruggs won't have seen a penny.


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