It remains to be seen if a federal fraud prosecution will silence a defiant South Side preacher or crimp his high-flying lifestyle.
Bishop William A. Ellis, pastor of Apostolic Pentecostal Church of Morgan Park, admitted earlier this summer he stole more than $500,000 in church money. That pilfered collection-plate cash came on top of the hefty salary, the $100,000 car and the Flossmoor mansion the church already provided for Ellis.
Two months after pleading guilty to felony tax fraud—and more than a year after he was first charged in the case—Ellis remains at the helm of the sprawling house of worship at 114th Street and Vincennes Avenue. Ellis was able to parlay the conviction into martyrdom, according to one longtime parishioner.
At a sentencing hearing scheduled for Tuesday, federal prosecutors are likely to tell U.S. District Judge Robert Gettleman that Ellis should spend at least two years behind bars. But the pastor’s lawyers will contend prison time isn’t appropriate—arguing in part that Ellis still is desperately needed at his church.
“Support your bishop,” blared a bulletin calling on worshipers to reserve seats on church buses bound for Chicago’s federal courthouse for the 11 a.m. sentencing. “Prayer warriors wanted. No doubters allowed.”
The evening of the sentencing—as well as the evening after it—a “victory rally” is planned at the church. In fact, there have been “victorious prayer vigils” at the church every single night of August leading up to Ellis’ sentencing.
Each night, offerings were collected, worshipers said.
“Some people don’t want to believe or accept what he’s done,” Worthon said. “I believe they would drink poison for him. There’d be a line of folks for that. They’re just that wrapped up in him as a person.”
When Ellis was indicted last year, he was accused of not reporting to the IRS $520,000 in church money he skimmed between 1996 and 2001. In addition to an estimated $1,000 he took from each Sunday’s collection plate, he also used the church’s American Express card for personal expenses and church funds to pay off his own credit card and life insurance premiums.
Although he reported his church salary hovering around $80,000 between 1996 and 2001, Ellis often was taking in double that from the scheme; prosecutors contend he owes the IRS about $165,000 in back taxes.
Prosecutors also alleged Ellis used church funds to buy himself a second Mercedes-Benz to supplement the one the church already had bought him. The fully loaded church-bought Mercedes cost $107,000, Worthon said.
In 2001, Ellis moved from a church-owned house in Olympia Fields to a new parsonage in Flossmoor, purchased by the church in part with an $820,000 loan, according to public records.