The revelation came to Bell in 1988. At the time, he was a 56-year-old Olathe builder and developer contemplating semi-retirement. Two sons worked for him. Cutting back and spending more time in Naples, Florida, a favorite vacation spot, seemed highly appealing.
But after a night of tossing and turning, Bell awoke believing that he had been touched by the Holy Spirit. "Sometimes I think an angel came," he told the Christian Community Foundation of Kansas City in 2002.
Today, Bell is chairman of Security Savings Bank, a chain of thrifts with 13 branches across Kansas (including two in Olathe) and assets of $800 million.
Security Savings has a mission to further God's kingdom. "We're losing our country from within," Bell writes in a glossy history of the bank. "I desire to use our resources to turn the heart of America back to God."
The bank's profits have allowed him to give money to Nazarene colleges, Focus on the Family (James Dobson's politically influential evangelical ministry) and the Alliance Defense Fund (a legal advocacy group that opposes same-sex marriage and the rigid separation of church and state). He's contributed thousands to Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline.
Bell considers himself a blessed servant of the Lord, but he's been visited by tribulation in recent months.
Last fall, the president of Security Savings and the board's audit committee tried to remove Bell from serving as the bank's chief executive officer. Bell responded by replacing the board members who had sought his ouster. The reconstituted board immediately fired the president, Tom Wilbur, and the bank's chief loan officer.
Shortly after he was fired, Wilbur told The Kansas City Star that the audit committee had confronted Bell about "corporate governance issues" and "conflicts of interest." Not long after Wilbur was canned, three loan officers resigned. No details were made public, but the Pitch has learned that one source of tension at the bank involved Bell's close relationship with Carl Herbster, the pastor of Tri-City Ministries in Independence, Missouri.
Herbster is a politically active Baptist preacher who spoke out last year in favor of a constitutional amendment that defined marriage in Missouri as between a man and a woman. In 2001, when President George W. Bush named John Ashcroft to be his attorney general, Republican strategist Karl Rove told The New York Times that Herbster was among the conservative leaders who had spoken up on Ashcroft's behalf.
Bell and Herbster formed a friendship a decade ago. One brought wealth to the relationship; the other, influence. Their worlds intersect at several points. Security Savings, for instance, is the church's principal lender, and Herbster lives in a Don Bell real estate development called Brittany Ridge.
The arrangements warrant attention. Last December, Tri-City's former bookkeeper entered a guilty plea in federal court and admitted to embezzling more than $600,000. The bookkeeper, prosecutors say, deposited most of the money in a business that sold lots in Brittany Ridge.
There's more. Security Savings and Tri-City, records show, have lent millions of dollars to a for-profit development company controlled on paper by church insiders and a wealthy Pennsylvania industrialist whose former company, Graco Children's Products, recently agreed to pay the largest civil penalty in the history of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. The government claimed that Graco was slow to disclose problems with its baby swings, highchairs and strollers; hundreds of kids were injured by the company's products, and some died.
The transactions between the money-changers have been nearly impossible to untangle -- which may be by design.
Easter morning. Blue skies shine on Tri-City.
The independent Baptist church sits on a crest overlooking Interstate 70 in southeastern Independence, near the city's borders with Lee's Summit and Blue Springs. In addition to the church, the ministry also operates a K-12 school and a theological seminary.
The Easter service takes place in the gymnasium. Sunday-morning services are normally in an auditorium, which has been unavailable since it became a crime scene around Christmastime. According to a police report, vandals gained entry to the church, tore Bibles, slashed paintings, stole computers and drew a smiley face in blood on the piano bench. The church is in the midst of a fund-raising campaign to supplement the insurance award with $500,000 to remodel the facility.
Meeting in a gymnasium does not cheapen the Easter service, however. In fact, the white folding chairs and retracted basketball goals lend the proceedings a spirit of indomitability.
In many respects, the service is like countless others taking place on this holiest of Sundays. The choir and congregation join to sing the hymn "He Arose." A moment is taken to greet thy neighbor. A women's quartet praises God with harmony.
The sound of thin pages turning fills the gymnasium whenever Herbster cites Scripture.
Herbster, 54, stands more than 6 feet tall and has a full head of gray hair. He wears a dark-blue suit and gold-rimmed glasses. His deep voice is as rich as the black soil of northern Indiana, where he grew up.
"I know my redeemer lives," the pastor says at the beginning of his sermon. "Not a question. A fact."
But the Terri Schiavo case is dominating the news, causing Herbster to stray from the subject of redemption. Herbster says it is a time to pray for the understanding of judges, making it clear that he wishes for courts to intervene and order the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube reinserted. "I would always err toward life," he says, using words similar to those of the president.
Current events yield eventually to the life and death of Christ. Calling it "a historical fact" that Jesus rose from the grave, Herbster validates the worship experience. "My friends, don't doubt that Christianity is the true religion," he says.
The story of the resurrection serves also as a subtle endorsement of George W. Bush's foreign policy. Herbster says Christians hold a faith that can give freedom. "Study the Muslim religion and tell me they're not under bondage," he says.
Herbster, who would not consent to an interview with the Pitch, has held the pulpit at Tri-City since 1983, when the church met in Raytown. He accepted the pastor's job on two conditions, according to a 1993 Star profile: that the church move and expand, and that it start a seminary.
The congregation fulfilled Herbster's original demands and rose to meet other challenges. In later years, the church planted Bible colleges in Mexico and Romania and took over a camp in Ringgold, Louisiana. Most churches simply donate to faraway missions; Tri-City sought the glory of owning and operating, though the wisdom of owning a camp that is an 800-mile drive from Independence is hard to fathom.
As the church increased its holdings, Herbster raised his profile in the community. He hosted a radio show on KMBZ 980. He led a group of picketers that shut down a Blue Springs strip club. He challenged a Missouri law that added new rules for religious day-care facilities.
Herbster, who had worked as a salesman before studying divinity at the fundamentalist Bob Jones University in South Carolina, built a national profile as well. The American Association of Christian Schools opened an office in Washington, D.C., after Herbster became the group's president in 1992.
Those who know him say Herbster moves gracefully in the halls of power. He has bragged about once sitting in with the Singing Senators group that Ashcroft used to harmonize with. One former member of the church calls Herbster "the ultimate politician."
Herbster's reputation owes much to the people of Tri-City, who provide the pastor with a base of operation. Earlier this month, Herbster and his wife, Debbie, were the main attraction at a couples' retreat at the Wilds, a Christian conference center in South Carolina. The pastor's bio on the Wilds' Web site lists the many ministries -- such as the Heart of America Theological Seminary, the Christian University of the Americas in Mexico and the Independent Baptist College of Costei, Romania -- under his direction.
But empires require money.
The streets of the Brittany Ridge subdivision in Independence wind arbitrarily. Mature trees are scarce. Big garage doors are the most prominent architectural features of the single-family homes.
Located off U.S. Highway 40 near Blue Springs Lake, Brittany Ridge owes its existence to the automobile and is designed accordingly. Without a car, a Brittany Ridge resident is condemned to wander from cul-de-sac to cul-de-sac. As if to acknowledge their meaninglessness, sidewalks line only one side of most streets.
Brittany Ridge was developed by Don Bell, and it's fairly typical of the other subdivisions he has created at the edge of sprawl. Working primarily in Johnson County, Kansas, Bell was one the area's most prolific home builders and developers in the 1980s and '90s.
Don Bell's homes tend to be affordably priced. Several lawsuits filed against Bell over the years describe cut corners: cracked door frames, faulty driveways, heaving basement floors. Of course, a buyer who pays less than $200,000 for four bedrooms and Olathe schools is not in a position to demand expert carpentry.
Brittany Ridge is one of Bell's less successful ventures. Sections remain undeveloped. Existing homes fail to command a premium. Reece & Nichols sales agent Debi Allen lists a three-bedroom house built in 1997 for less than $180,000. "Brittany Ridge has always been a hard sell," Allen tells the Pitch.
When the development was new and struggling, Bell found assistance from an unlikely source: Tri-City Ministries, the steeple of which is visible from Brittany Ridge's higher elevations.
In the fall of 1996, church insiders created a business, Ridgecrest Development Corporation, that acted as a sales agent for Brittany Ridge. The church's business manager at the time, W. Dwight Free, filed the incorporation papers. A church deacon, Paul Swisher, was the company secretary in registration reports filed with the state in 1999 and 2000. Another church member, Rayburn Hare, was the vice president.
Free (who stayed as the church's business manager until 2002) used his home address when he incorporated Ridgecrest, but a person who was told about the arrangement says Herbster was instrumental in forming the company and that Herbster suggested to Bell that Hare was equipped to sell lots in Brittany Ridge.
The development itself is initially what drew Herbster to Bell.
Herbster, church sources say, was interested in building a home on a Brittany Ridge plot that afforded a view of the church. And Bell, a strong supporter of Christian education, was intrigued by Herbster's work with the American Association of Christian Schools. A 1953 graduate of Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois, Bell had given that institution its first million-dollar gift. Bell and his wife also have given to MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe.
The two Christian execs formed a friendship -- and more. For a time, Security Savings helped the American Association of Christian Schools issue AACS-branded credit cards to its members. Also, several Tri-City employees and churchgoers bought property in Brittany Ridge. Herbster owns two houses in the subdivision, according to tax records. He lives in a home appraised at $232,400 and has a "for sale by owner" sign in front of another appraised at $149,000. (Neither residence offers a view of the church -- the Brittany Ridge plots with the best vistas remain unbuilt.)
Tri-City even guaranteed a $200,000 loan to Ridgecrest, according to a document obtained by the Pitch.
No law prevents church members from creating businesses together or settling in the same neighborhood, of course. Tax-exempt organizations are even allowed to use for-profit subsidiaries -- if the proceeds are used to support charitable endeavors. Charities, after all, exist to serve public -- not private -- interests.
Yet Tri-City members had a hard time figuring out whose interests were being served. Tri-City officials weren't forthcoming about the extent of their church's involvement with Ridgecrest, former members say. One ex-Tri-Citian calls it a "black project." Another describes it as a "slush fund" for the ministry's jet-setting brand of evangelism. "He traveled all the time," a former member says of Herbster. (The pastor recently announced in church that businessmen supportive of the ministry had arranged for him to have access to a plane.)
Though seemingly hidden from the laity, church leaders' involvement in Brittany Ridge was apparently no secret in the real estate community. Allen says she was told that Tri-City (rather than Don Bell) was developing the subdivision. Not that she approved.
"Tri-City really, in my opinion, shouldn't have been developing property," she says. "They should have stuck to church, but they thought they could make a lot of money doing that. It just didn't work from the very beginning."
Tri-City eventually was punished for its leaders' association with Ridgecrest -- the Brittany Ridge marketing company figured in a staggering embezzlement of church funds.
Free pleaded guilty last year to defrauding the church of $618,000. According to the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas City, Free gave $540,600 of the stolen money to Ridgecrest. He used the rest to pay his Visa bill, give money to his family, and bankroll another business he owned.
Where did the $540,600 go? Those affiliated with Tri-City refuse to discuss Ridgecrest or postulate what happened to the money. (Free's attorney did not return the Pitch's phone calls.)
Paul Swisher, the former secretary of Ridgecrest, says the company existed to "develop property," but he provides no other details. "I'm not really interested to talk about it, to tell you the truth," he says. "I really don't have any input that would be valuable for anything that you're doing, so I really can't shed any light on anything."
As for Free, Swisher says, "He was keeping the record, and he apparently had a second set of records that he was keeping. I have no idea. I mean, I assume he knew where the money was. I would have no ideas about how he did it, even."
Hare, who still attends the church and still works in real estate, acknowledges that he sold homes in Brittany Ridge. "Oh, goodness, that was a lot of years ago," he says. But he declines to comment further when he learns the Pitch is writing about Tri-City. "I wouldn't want to be any part of that," he says.
Herbster says he is unable to talk about Ridgecrest because of the criminal proceeding.
Free, after entering his plea, is scheduled to be sentenced in September.
"Our counsel is saying I shouldn't do any interviews until this sentencing thing is over," Herbster tells the Pitch a day after saying a reporter was welcome to visit the church. "I just have to stay away from the press for a while."
On July 18, 2002, Tri-City took out a $1.6 million loan that revealed the extent to which Herbster dominated the ministry. Its financial controls, Free's plea agreement demonstrates, were clearly inadequate.
Herbster signed for the loan himself. As the church president, Herbster had the authority to conduct such a transaction. But he obtained the loan without a vote of the congregation. Only later -- and with a fair measure of skepticism -- did church members consent to the deal.
The loan did not serve a conventional church purpose. The AACS, the Christian school association over which Herbster presided, needed the money to pay mounting health-insurance claims. The AACS had self-insured the policies. The program insured about 1,600 employees and worked well for a time. But a spike in claims forced a scramble for money.
Loans leave paper trails. A group of church members discovered the $1.6 million loan a short time after Herbster borrowed the money; that prompted a more thorough inspection of church finances.
Tri-City, it turned out, was $15 million in debt.
The news came as a shock.
"Everybody was surprised," former church member Preston Smith tells the Pitch. "It was a lot of debt. We thought we were a rich church."
The church's extensive land holdings had given Smith and others reason to believe they belonged to a "rich" church. Tri-City purchased more than 115 acres when it bought the land for the church in 1984. The church building, gymnasium and parking lot rest on a 29-acre parcel -- the rest is undeveloped.
Once remote, the area is alive today with restaurants and hotels supported by tax-increment financing. Around the time a new interchange opened at Little Blue Parkway and I-70, Blue Ridge Bank and Trust bought five acres from the church and put up an office tower. Proceeds from the sale, in 1999, defrayed the cost of a new gymnasium.
But in 2002 the church was so crunched for cash that its bills weren't being paid on time.
The debts aroused suspicion about Herbster. The congregation voted to approve the $1.6 million loan after the fact, in September 2002. But the vote tally -- 62 percent voted in favor -- suggested a measure of lost trust. (The congregation voted a short time later for an outside audit of the church's finances, which revealed Free's theft.)
Smith felt that his questions were not being answered, so he filed a formal complaint with the deacons and the administration. Unsatisfied with the response, he and his family left the church after the first of the year.
Others drifted away.
Paul DeMo left Tri-City believing that a promise had been broken.
In 1999 the church had borrowed $200,000 to buy an old bank building in downtown Independence. For the first few years, the building served as a base of operations for the AACS and a more overtly political organization Herbster had incorporated, People Advancing Christian Education.
The original plan was for the church to find a rent-paying tenant to occupy the first floor; Herbster's organizations would use the second floor. But in 2002 the church decided to lease the entire building to the Jackson County Election Board. The county signed an $11,250-a-month lease with an option to buy.
DeMo says he helped arrange the church's purchase of the bank building and supervised some of the remodeling work, paying an employee at his carpet business (DeMo is now retired) to assist church volunteers. DeMo says he put in the effort on the understanding that any profit the building generated would be used to fund scholarships at Tri-City Christian Schools. DeMo, who attended a Catholic school in his native Birmingham, Alabama, prizes Christian education. "I think it did me good, going to a private school instead of a public school, and I want to help afford the same opportunity to other kids," he says.
But from what DeMo knows, the scholarships were not funded.
"I was under the impression that all of that [rent money] would go to scholarships. And then I was told it didn't," he says.
Public records support DeMo's understanding of the situation. A document filed with the county in January 2003 shows that Tri-City assigned the rents from the building to Security Savings Bank to service a $1 million loan.
The loan may explain why Herbster refuses to sell the building to the county. The county sued Tri-City last year, claiming that the church violated the lease-purchase agreement. County officials suspect that Herbster wouldn't sell because their option price -- $550,000 -- would not cover the debts assigned to the building. The county asked in court papers for the church to produce a number of financial documents, even minutes of church meetings.
Herbster told the Star last year that Tri-City wanted a "fair price."
The case is scheduled for mediation May 3.
By one former member's calculation, Herbster spent $6 million to $7 million without a vote of the membership. But Herbster's presidency was never put to a vote of the congregation -- the deacons would not allow it.
In the fall of 2002, one deacon, Dave Hawkins, wrote a seven-page letter to address "common misperceptions" that members of the church might have held. Hawkins argued that Tri-City was in a sound financial position because of its land holdings. In fact, the church had two offers on the table for $15 million, according to the document (which the Pitch has obtained).
Hawkins wrote that Herbster had acknowledged that it had been "unwise" to borrow the $1.6 million without a vote of the congregation. "But we Deacons are UNANIMOUS that he IS DOING A GOOD JOB and he is no way deserving of even a reprimand," read the letter (which made frequent use of all caps).
The deacons' unanimity did not prevent the church's troubles from becoming well-known. The Kansas City Star reported the $15 million debt in an April 2003 story that described Herbster as being on the defensive with his flock.
Herbster also had to contend with state regulators. For several years, the church had sold securities to its members, who were told that an investment in Tri-City was as safe as money in a bank.
The church, though, did not bother to register its securities with the state, as is required by law. The Secretary of State's Office began an investigation.
Herbster defended his stewardship. He told the Star that the church owned assets -- the land -- to support the debt. The church securities, he insisted, were a good deal for the church members who had chosen to invest.
Still, some investors asked for their money. Deposits fell from a peak of $2.5 million to $900,000, the Star reported.
Hawkins, who still attends Tri-City, tells the Pitch that mistakes were made. But he suggests that the more serious accusations were unfounded.
"I will admit no church is perfect, and ours is not," Hawkins says. "But, boy, you'd think from reading this Kansas City Star article that we're ripping off old ladies and we're running a bank and we're just wheeling and dealing and this kind of thing, and it's just unfair."
Hawkins says 850 to 900 people usually attend Sunday worship at Tri-City, down from the 1,050-1,100 range of a few years ago. If Hawkins' understanding of recent events is typical of those who stuck with Tri-City, Herbster has succeeded in casting away questions about his leadership as the complaints of a few disgruntled members.
Hawkins, for example, says the secretary of state's investigation into the sale of church notes found just "one little technical violation that is, in my opinion, pretty minor."
In fact, all of the deposits had to be returned. Herbster signed a consent order with the secretary of state's office last year, which directed the church to steadily refund its outstanding notes and pay a $15,000 fine to a state investor-education fund.
One former Tri-City member calls the church deacons "enablers."
Dave Hawkins occasionally serves as Herbster's pilot.
As much as it has depended on compliant deacons, Herbster's ministry has relied also on evangelicals with deep pockets.
Don Bell became the church's primary lender in 2001, when Tri-City moved its mortgage to Security Savings, securing a $7.7 million note. Tri-City borrowed another $470,000 in 2002 and $1 million in 2003, all from Security Savings.
The church borrowed from other Christian sources, too. FirstFruits Foundation, a Pennsylvania charity that supports Baptist ministries, has lent hundreds of thousands of dollars to Tri-City on different occasions.
The president of FirstFruits is a man named Robert Cone. Cone is the former chairman of Graco Children's Products, a company Cone ran with his brother, Edward, until Graco was sold almost nine years ago.
As Graco owners, the Cones were known for being media-shy and for being devout Baptists. According to published reports, employees broke for prayer regularly at the Graco headquarters in Elverson, Pennsylvania.
The Cones were also known for their enthusiastic support of conservative Christian candidates for public office. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report that the family funneled as much as $1.8 million to accounts controlled by an organization called Triad Management Services.
Triad spent the money on advertisements that aided Republicans before the 1996 election; the donations came to light during a 1997 Senate investigation into campaign finances. The New York Times reported that Triad donors helped Sam Brownback of Kansas -- who sat on the Senate committee investigating the giving and spending -- win his seat by spending $400,000 on ads that painted his Democratic opponent, Jill Docking, as an out-of-state liberal. (Docking, a Wichita investment broker, was raised in Massachusetts.)
For the Cones, supporting conservative Republicans appeared to be a matter of more than faith.
In 1992 Graco recalled 169,000 cradle swings. A 1994 Boston Globe investigation linked the swings to the death of 12 infants and the near suffocation of two dozen others. Graco blamed the fatalities on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, but the Globe reported that the company had settled at least a half-dozen lawsuits.
Robert Cone told the liberal Mother Jones magazine in 1996 that his family's political contributions had nothing to do with product liability. (The Cones did not respond to the Pitch's interview requests.) Yet, as Mother Jones reported, one of the recipients of the Cones' giving was Idaho Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth, who sponsored a 1995 bill called the Common Sense Legal Reform Act. A section of the bill capped punitive damages in product-liability cases at $250,000. (President Clinton eventually vetoed the legislation.)
The Cones sold to Rubbermaid in 1996 for a reported $320 million. The company, however, continues to be haunted by claims that its products injure and kill. In a settlement reached last month, the company agreed to pay $4 million to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. In a press release announcing the settlement, the commission said that Graco had failed to report in a timely manner hundreds of incidents and injuries involving 16 products, all used by young children, sold between 1991 and 2002.
Having unloaded Graco, the Cones have been able to put their wealth and energy toward pursuits other than fighting lawsuits and the government. The FirstFruits Foundation and the Cornerstone Foundation (Edward Cone, president) control assets of more than $30 million, according to their most recent tax filings.
Of the two brothers, Robert Cone is the one more impressed by Tri-City. In addition to making a grant to Tri-City in the amount of $45,000, FirstFruits reported loans to Tri-City in excess of $2 million at the end of 2003.
Robert Cone has become something more than the church's benefactor and lender. He is today the nominal president of a company that now owns several dozen acres of what was formerly the church's property.
Tri-City members have been told that their church sold its major asset -- its excess land holdings -- for $18 million. But the paper trail leads down a much more convoluted path.
The Trinity Real Estate Development company was conceived on August 22, 2003. Less than a year later, Trinity took title to Tri-City's prize -- the undeveloped property around the church.
Robert Cone appears as the president of Trinity in documents filed later with Jackson County. The incorporation papers were filed by Gene Ruiz, an accountant who manages Tri-City's business affairs.
But did the church really get $18 million for selling its 70 prime acres to Trinity?
No -- not in cash, at least.
On July 30, 2004, the date of the title transfer, Trinity Real Estate Development borrowed $7.15 million from Security Savings. Logic dictates that Trinity would then have paid Tri-City $7.15 million for its 70 acres. But Tri-City lent $6 million to Trinity on the day of the sale.
It appears that the church used a portion of the money from the land sale to pay off some debts on the property; then it lent the remaining $6 million back to Trinity, giving Trinity some working capital.
The sale allowed the church to wipe only a portion of its obligations. A modification of the church's mortgage with Security Savings filed last October described debts totaling $6.9 million.
The $6 million loan from Tri-City to Trinity appears to represent the church's investment in any future earnings the property generates.
The church's loan, however, is subordinate to the Security Savings loan, according to court papers. In other words, if for some reason builders were unable to develop the land for a profit (a part of it sits in a flood plane) and Trinity went bust, Security Savings would take control and would be the first to collect.
Also, the deal is structured in such a way that Security Savings gets the first taste from sale of the property. Security Savings, the agreement reads, would receive $1.6 million, plus $2.35 per square foot. Sharing what's left would be Tri-City (70 percent) and Trinity (30 percent).
Trinity's plans for the land are unclear. The company submitted a proposal to the city of Independence last December to build shops, a hotel, a restaurant and a bank at the corner of Valley View and Little Blue parkways, but the plan was later withdrawn. Trinity has also inquired about tax-increment financing.
The sale, such as it is, was approved by a vote of the congregation.
"We got a good price for it," says Dave Hawkins (who is no longer a deacon). "It's kind of a tiered deal. You know, it's actually more than what I expected to get. It hasn't all come to fruition yet. It's a staged deal."
Pressed for details, Hawkins says, "I think the public information is that it's an $18 million purchase price. I don't know the intricacies of it, but it's a certain amount at one period of time and then more later and more later, et cetera. It might be a two- or three-year deal, I don't know."
Whatever church members have been told, what was theirs is now in the hands of a private company run by Herbster allies.
Mark Bainbridge, a church member and Herbster confidant, was made privy to correspondence between Trinity's development consultant, Jim Harpool, and the city of Independence, records show. Bainbridge is the president of a nonprofit organization, International Development Corporation, that reincorporated around the time that Trinity came into being. One former church member who has looked at the transactions imagines a scenario in which Herbster becomes "pastor emeritus" of Tri-City and lands in a new nest feathered by the proceeds of church-property development.
Herbster is already at the helm of a new political organization, Advance USA, which has joined with Focus on the Family and other conservative groups in calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning same-sex marriage and for an end to Senate filibusters against court nominees. "He's got a lot more interest in lobbying than he does in pastoring his church," the former member says of Herbster.
Church officials refuse to discuss the arrangement. Gene Ruiz did not return repeated phone calls. Bainbridge declined to comment, as did Ron Leeper, a deacon who is chairman of the church's finance committee.
"I won't be the one that helps you understand that," Leeper said when asked about transactions.
Don Bell tells the Pitch in a brief phone interview that Herbster is a "close friend" and a "wonderful Christian brother."
But Bell is unwilling to discuss loans and land deals.
"You and I, I'm told, we're not on the same wavelength," Bell says. "I wanted to give you the courtesy to call you. Everything's been done upright, and everything's in good stead. Any land transactions, I guess you can go to the county building or somewhere, if you chose. You're an American."
Then Bell quotes from the Bible.
"You know, everything -- everything -- in the heavens and earth are yours, O Lord, and this is your kingdom. So we get to live in this beautiful place called the United States of America because He placed us here. And I'm so honored. So we give God glory. Did someone give you a copy of our story, my wife and I, the book?"
The "book" is Solid Ground: The Story of Security Savings Bank, a 22-page brochure that begins with the story of Bell and his wife, Faith, driving their Chevy Impala into Kansas from Texas in 1976. The pamphlet goes on to describe how Bell, after starting and growing a home-building business, took a leap of faith and bought a bank.
Bell credits his success with his reading of the prayer of Jabez. The Old Testament book of 1 Chronicles describes Jabez as a common Israelite. One day, Jabez calls on God: "Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain." God grants the wish.
The prayer became a sensation after the 2001 publication of The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life. The slim book, written by an industrious evangelist named Bruce Wilkinson, explained that the granting of a wish for enlarged territories was a sign that God wants his followers to take entrepreneurial risks. The prayer even found its way onto motivational coffee mugs. Critics accused Wilkinson of using a passage from an otherwise obscure book of the Bible to justify materialism. "It fits with the narcissism of the age," a theology professor explained to The New York Times. "Religious life is focused on me and my needs."
Solid Ground purports to give glory to God, but Don Bell doesn't come off looking too shabby, either. There are several photographs of Bell and his family. Men such as James Dobson, Phill Kline and Michael Copeland, the mayor of Olathe, attest to Bell's wisdom and generosity.
Bell has surrounded himself with Christian conservatives. Copeland was invited to sit on the bank's board of directors after Bell sacked the audit committee last fall, as was Olathe City Councilman and Kansas Board of Education member John Bacon, who is aligned with the state school board's conservative members. Kevin Gilmore, a former state school board member and current member of the Olathe School Board, is now the bank's chief executive officer.
The words "In God We Trust" hang on the wall of the Security Savings branch on Ridgeview Road in Olathe. Bell, who is now in his early 70s, says he is no longer involved in the day-to-day operations of the bank. He remains chairman. He would not comment on the upheaval at Security Savings, except to say that he didn't fire anyone.
"I always take the high road," he says.
Bell's decision to ally himself with Herbster might not prove so uplifting, however.
The distant date of Free's sentencing and the mention of cooperation with authorities in his plea agreement suggest that an investigation is ongoing.
Also, Herbster's political influence -- what attracted Bell to Herbster in the first place -- appears to have suffered. The number of candidates for office who visited the church in 2004 was down from previous election years.
Ex-church member Preston Smith says he saw Herbster in Jefferson City on the day that Governor Matt Blunt was inaugurated. Smith, a Blunt supporter, was sitting on the lawn with his son when he saw Herbster standing and waving his big arms in an effort to get the attention of dignitaries seated on the stage.
No one waved back.
"It appeared to me, as soon as they caught his eye, they looked the other way," Smith says.