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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.