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How to Spot a Holy Con





They speak in tongues, porphesy and tell stories of missionary exploits. Is their next victim in your church?

They come in all shapes and sizes. They are men, and they are women. They are friendly, they speak and behave like devout Christians—and they are looking to bleed you dry of every last penny in your possession. Christian con artists, spiritual seducers, godly grifters.

They’re constantly on the prowl for easy prey in the church—typically widows, widowers, the recently divorced and the relationship-starved. The more money you have, the bigger a target you are. Here you’ll meet one such charlatan—Jane Smith. Her name and those of her victims have been changed, but her story is true.

While you observe examples of her well-practiced art of deception, you’ll also hear from Jeffrey P. Bjorck, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology, as well as Wayde Goodall, pastor of Winston-Salem (North Carolina) First Assembly of God.

From their expert perspectives, they will point out warning signs and red flags in Smith’s twisted behavior so that those who are a part of your ministries are less likely to become victims of Christian con artists. Smith’s whereabouts are unknown as of this writing. But for many years she traveled around the country—and around the world—earning a very comfortable living by ripping off unsuspecting Christians.

And not only men. Smith was able to seduce and lure women into her traps as well. She sometimes posed as a full-time, Third-World missionary, sometimes as a rich widow, sometimes as a worker for or follower of various Christian ministries—and always speaking familiar “Christian-ese,” and always expertly plucking on the heartstrings of her targets.

That’s how it began for one woman, Michelle, who met Smith on a flight to California in 2003. According to a Dallas Observer article from December 2004, Smith was dressed in musty, secondhand clothes, sported a medical boot on one foot and began a sweet, seductive chat with Michelle, outlining her experiences as a missionary in India.

Michelle was charmed by the slight-looking woman with the bright, dancing eyes. When the flight attendant asked if either of the women wanted some wine, Smith expressed immediate interest. “She hinted it in such a way that I had to pay for it from the get-go,” Michelle said.

  • RED FLAG: First of all, many missionaries don’t drink—so this raises a question from the start. But more than that, Michelle got the sense from the get-go that she was supposed to be paying another person’s way—someone she barely knew. Smith was pushing on boundaries already. Bjorck

    As the two sipped their drinks, Michelle talked about her booming business in the Napa Valley area. That’s when Smith really turned on the charm. “She started with the light fluttering in her eyes, the touching, making intimate contact,” Michelle said. “It was warm, a tad bit flirtatious ... right from the beginning.”

  • RED FLAG: Isn’t “flirtatious missionary” an oxymoron? This is a huge sign that something isn’t right, given the presumed spiritual maturity of missionaries. And when missionaries are on furlough, their primary task is often to raise support from churches. Plane travel is often their time to de-stress, not to engage in questionable interpersonal behavior and conversation. Bjorck

    Turns out that during their conversation, Smith revealed to Michelle that she felt led by God to settle in California—to find property where she could instruct young people from developing nations the process of organic farming.

    What’s more, Smith told Michelle that before their flight she was praying with a woman in an airport chapel, and her prayer partner said she must get on their particular flight because she would meet someone “elemental” to her life. Then, to seal the deal, a pastor from out of nowhere bought Smith a ticket, positive he was performing a service for the Almighty.

  • RED FLAG: This is quite an amazing chain of miracles. But believing in miracles does not preclude the necessity to be “wise as serpents”—and typically valid miracles decrease exponentially as the chain of claimed ones increases. Her story here must be called into question. Bjorck

    Smith seemed so kind, so brave in her missionary adventures and so giving. And at that moment, Michelle found out how giving she could be, too. As the plane landed, Smith—without a dime on her person—launched a plea of sorts:

    “You’ll pay for my room tonight, won’t you?”

  • RED FLAG: Michelle could have asked: “What were your plans concerning your lodging before you got on the plane? Who are your contacts in California? Why would you come here with no solid contacts or accommodations?” Dishonest panhandlers and church scam artists frequently use Smith’s type of approach as they prey on the generosity of sensitive Christians. We are to be sensitive to the needs of all people, however, ever watchful, because we live in a world where dishonesty is normal. Discernment asks questions and then responds accordingly. Goodall

    Michelle was ill-prepared and had precious little time to mull over the matter. Of course—as with so many others before her—Michelle slipped Smith a handout. And the con was only just beginning.

  • RED FLAG: Notice Smith’s question—the wording is passive-aggressive and sets the woman up. She disguised her question as a statement: “You’ll pay for my room tonight.” If Smith’s victim says no, she risks disagreeing with what’s been put forward as a seemingly reasonable assumption—and then she’s the bad guy. Manipulative guilt is an excellent motivational tool. Bjorck

    Diane Jones is a California real-estate agent who has surprisingly sympathetic memories of Smith, despite a multimillion-dollar property transaction that went bad due to Smith misrepresenting her assets and forging official documents.

    “Ah, Jane,” Jones sighs, in a recent interview with Ministries Today. “She was obviously a sociopath and suffered from some kind of a mental illness, but she was also amazingly charismatic. She was quite convincing, very bright and did a brilliant job studying human nature.

    “She was a joyous person who praised the Lord. She mentioned God at every turn, and when someone’s telling you that and has it down pat, it’s completely disarming. I can’t replay the situation in my mind and see anything I did wrong. I loved that woman—whoever she was pretending to be.”

    Turn back the clock a bit—to 2000. Smith set her sights on a two-week conference in Colorado. That’s where she first held hands and prayed with James Dandridge, a career military officer from Texas, who was three years past a messy divorce and searching for direction in his life.

    After the pair prayed, Dandridge learned that Smith had a pretty impressive spiritual résumé. “She said she’d just come back from a trip with a prominent female charismatic minister,” Dandridge told the Observer. Smith also offered that she was “mentored” by the minister herself.

    Dandridge was enchanted by Smith—her gentle nature, her apparent spiritual depth. She was looking for a “Boaz” who desired an honest-to-goodness “Proverbs 31 wife”—an industrious housewife and helpmate as described in the Old Testament.

    Soon, Dandridge was offering Smith money. “She had access to my credit cards early on,” he recalled. “It was a seduction.”

  • RED FLAG: Anyone who would give credit card, Social Security or bank information to a friend or significant other needs a shot of reality. Con artists see and sense naive, hurting, overly compassionate people. They know when to ask the right questions, and they close the sale without hesitation. — Goodall

    Not that Dandridge seemed to notice. Just three months later—and after Smith visited his hometown and met his friends from church—Dandridge asked Smith to marry him. “I thought God was having mercy on me and brought somebody to me to fulfill my destiny,” Dandridge said.

  • RED FLAG: Dandridge’s account sounds as though there were no warning signs. He describes a series of small, passive choices. But once again I would suspect that these choices each involved manipulation masquerading under a facade of warmth that invokes pity. (Plus, a good rule of thumb is spending at least a year getting to know a potential spouse—shorter courtships often blind reality with romance.) Bjorck

    Soon money was flying all over the place. Dandridge lavished Smith with everything she wanted—including a lavish engagement ring and posh nuptials at a five-star hotel. The bill for the bash: in the neighborhood of $60,000.

    But on their wedding night, the once bubbly Smith turned on Dandridge, and became hostile and indifferent. In a marriage that would last but four months, Dandridge and Smith never consummated it. “Within 24 hours,” he recalled, “she’d turned into a witch.”

  • RED FLAG: Working with couples for more than 30 years has helped me understand that there are warning signs in relationships and marriages. No consummation and a quick personality change? Dandridge should have immediately (within two weeks) sought a pastor’s advice or a Christian counselor’s professional opinion. Dandridge was lonely, desirous of a life companion and wanted a normal home. Smith knew this. His unwillingness to get help—and embarrassment over his questionable decision—escalated into a downward spiral, and soon cost him his financial security and further damaged his trust in people. Goodall

    When they married, Dandridge had no debt and owned lucrative property and possessions, but he would eventually lose it all. This “Proverbs 31” wife hocked her engagement ring to buy a bigger diamond, milking her “Boaz husband” for yet another $15,000, and racked up the credit card bills with first-class air travel, designer clothes and frequent massages.

  • RED FLAG: Once again, the incongruity didn’t begin on their wedding night. Someone who wants to be a Proverbs 31 wife and is seeking a Boaz husband doesn’t insist on five-star anything. But for his part, why didn’t he behave as a Boaz husband after his wedding night and insist on a visit with the pastor for post-marital counseling? And how much did he really get to know Smith to begin with? In our often-privatized culture, people tend to avoid in-depth investigation into others’ lives—in previous years, such investigation might be called “healthy relationship.” Bjorck

    By the time Christmas rolled around, Dandridge felt like a prisoner in his own home—trapped there with a critical, psychologically abusive mate who, just a few months earlier, was so much the answer to all of his prayers.

    “She was so deceptive and dominating,” he recalls. “It was like witchcraft. The whole thing was a nightmare. She seemed to manifest different personalities. I know she’s demon-possessed.”

    Smith simply vanished by the start of the new year. Dandridge’s new SUV was gone, too, along with his safety net of gold coins. He had to pawn his wedding ring to get money for the barest of essentials. After filing for an annulment, Dandridge started getting phone calls from bill collectors.

    Turns out Smith charged up $100,000 on credit cards and used a host of different Social Security numbers. Their annulment came through almost a year after he had first prayed with the woman who flashed her seductive eyes at him. Dandridge had no choice but to sell his house to pay off the debts.

    “She pretty much cleaned me out,” he told the Observer. “She’s one scary lady.”

  • RED FLAG: I would encourage pastors in situations like this to keep more careful watches on those in their congregations who can invariably represent targets for such persons. In any congregation there will likely be a few persons who present as more gullible and needy than others, either due to their situations (like the loss of a spouse), their personalities or both. Case in point: A pastor should be particularly cautious when asked to perform a hasty wedding between a wealthy parishioner and future spouse who is relatively unknown. Bjorck

    Daniel Crane met Smith at a revival meeting in a megachurch just outside Atlanta in the summer of 2003. Like Smith’s other victims, Crane was looking for something deep in his life after the death of one of his children, a difficult divorce and business difficulties. Smith pumped him up with words of knowledge—especially that he would soon embark on a “seven-year season of prosperity.”

    Then the flirting started. Smith told Crane how much she liked his eyes, handsome features and well-conditioned body. “Her eyes would just dance,” Crane recalled. “She’d squeeze my hands. Her ability to know how to push and how to pull back was faultless.”

    After the tête-à-tête, Crane saw Smith moving in for what he thought was a typical “church hug. Instead, “She reaches in to kiss me on the mouth and presses herself full-frontal on me,” Crane said. “But it was quick, graceful and soft. It was surprising to me, but very elegant and very appealing.”

  • RED FLAG: Again a Proverbs 31 woman doesn’t appear to be flirtatious or inappropriate. Once again Smith is crossing interpersonal boundaries. In addition, those who combine authoritative words of the Lord and claims of other such spiritual gifts with an equal level of flirtatiousness should be viewed with healthy caution as a contradiction of terms. Bjorck

    When Smith expressed her desire to meet Crane’s children, he invited her home that day. There Smith told him of her unhappy living situation—her roommate was a con artist. “Deceitful” was the word Smith used to describe her—and, by the way, could she stay at his house for just one night?

    A month later, and Smith hadn’t yet left—in fact, she was now running the show, insisting that Crane’s children address her as “Mommy.” While Crane required Smith to sleep on the couch, and while Smith wasn’t sexually aggressive, she said some very odd, suggestive things. To his shock, Crane overheard Smith conversing with strangers that she was his wife.

  • RED FLAG: Subtle and overt sensuality—whether from a woman or a man—can cause victims of it to bypass logic and common sense. Her kiss? Her appeal to stay overnight? Her suggestive comments and telephone conversations? Why we ignore the obvious is a curious study. Our sensitivity to people’s needs must be balanced with caution and discernment. Goodall

    After an ugly argument, Smith threw a phone at Crane’s chest and finally left for good.

  • RED FLAG: One might parallel the abusive nature of Smith’s manipulation to sexual abuse of children. Molestation can involve pleasure but also typically invokes a gut reaction that something is not right. We educate children to notice such contradictory feelings as out of the ordinary, wrong and inappropriate, and we instruct them to get away and tell someone. In the previous scenarios, Smith exhibited similar kinds of danger signs. When a situation feels not quite right or too good to be true, it usually is. Bjorck

    Smith was later seen in a California homeless shelter with a Bible on her lap. The next day, she vanished again. Her last known sighting came courtesy of a diner waitress who watched Smith befriend a kindly couple … who offered to give her a ride to her next destination.


    Dave Urbanski is senior developmental editor for Youth Specialties, author of The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash (Relevant Books), music editor for the Mars Hill Review, and writes about music, movies and culture for several publications.
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