Fleecing The Faithful – Prelude: Down the Garden Path & Opening Pandora’s Box

The 1989 Friends Ministers Conference was the fourth in a series that were held every five years. The event had started out as the Friends Pastors Conference, but this was changed for the 1984 gathering in a bow to traditional Quaker nomenclature, and to accommodate the sensibilities of the handful of attenders who came from the non-pastoral Quaker groups. (I was one.)

The 1989 gathering was scheduled for Denver. The planning committee’s chairman was Eugene Coffin. Priscilla Deters’ introduction to the committee was succinctly described by an Investigator for the Kansas State Security Commission, Gary Fulton. Writing in 1994, he explained that:

“Dr. Eugene Coffin…told [the]…Committee about this ‘exceptional’ investment program being offered by Deters d/b/a Productions Plus to non-profit charitable organizations. Dr. Coffin told Roberts and other Committee members that Deters would match dollar for dollar all investment funds placed into her charitable gift giving program in a fifty two (52) week time period.

“Dr. Coffin assured the Committee that deters was a highly respected and religious business woman who could be trusted with their investment funds.

“Based upon the representation of Dr. Coffin, the Committee decided to invest by mailing a $5700 check to Deters…in early 1988.”

Thus was opened Pandora’s Box.

The check was drawn up by the Conference Treasurer, Maurice Roberts. Roberts was Superintendent of MidAmerica Yearly Meeting, which had its headquarters in Wichita, Kansas.Unlike most superintendents, Roberts was not a former pastor, though he had taken a minor in Bible at Friends University, the Quaker college in Wichita. Instead, he had run a real estate business in Topeka, and served ten years as Clerk of MidAmerica Yearly Meeting, before becoming Superintendent. A year after sending their deposit, with the conference date drawing near, the planning committee wrote to Deters, asking for a “disbursement” of their matching gift. On April 20, 1989, Productions Plus sent them a check.

But the check was not for double their original deposit.

Instead, it was for $50,000, almost ten times what they had put in.

Investigator Fulton wrote, in official deadpan, that once this check arrived, committee “…members became very excited and pleased with Deters’ generosity from her investment program.”

Roberts had still not met Deters. But having been in business, he knew a tenfold return in a year was remarkable to say the least, and wanted to know how she had done it. So he asked Gene Coffin.

Roberts recalls that Coffin’s answer was: Simple. Deters was in the advertising business, he explained; she marketed coupon booklets, which were mailed out to people in many communities; advertisers paid to be included in these booklets. She allocated profits of these booklet mailings in designated zip code areas for her “beneficiaries,” and the Friends Ministers Conference had been the beneficiary of this in various areas. Evidently their zip codes had been quite productive.

That neither Roberts nor anyone else raised a red flag at this point seems incredible in hindsight. What kind of legal business produces close to a 1000 per cent profit in one year? But they didn’t.

Yet if Eugene Coffin remained convinced of the authenticity of the Productions Plus program, some other evangelical Quakers were not.

Early Targets, Not Victims

Chuck Hise was one of the doubters. He was also among Priscilla Deters’ first targets. Hise is Director of Quaker Gardens, the retirement community operated by Friends Church-Southwest Yearly Meeting in Stanton, California. Quaker Gardens is where Eugene Coffin is now being cared for, as an Alzheimer’s patient, in the continuing care unit.

Hise remembers meeting Deters as long ago as 1984, when Productions Plus was newly-minted. She pitched it at a dinner meeting in a restaurant in Whittier, before a dozen or more people from the Yearly Meeting. Eugene Coffin came with her to the session.

“She talked about her desire to support the Friends ministries,” Hise told me. “She had an electronic sign business, and the signs were to be sold through community involvement by churches and schools. She said there was profit to be made in commissions from the sales, and then ongoing profits from advertising rentals on the signs. (We will hear more about these signs.) From this stream of profits would come the matching gifts to double the investors’ money in a year.

It was an interesting scheme, but Hise didn’t feel he understood it completely (another common reaction).

The sticking point very likely had to do with the safety of the investors’ money. Deters assured people their money would be kept safe and untouched while it waited to be doubled.

But if it was so safe, why did they need to make a “deposit” with her at all?

Maybe, Hise thought he also heard, the money was actually going to be used to capitalize her business. But in that case, it wouldn’t be untouched, and it would not necessarily be safe, given the very high failure rate of new businesses.

So how could it be both safe and untouched, and at the same time the basis for growing Productions Plus?

Deters couldn’t really have it both ways. But over the years, this was the circle that she left many people thinking was really a square.

Hise was not alone in feeling confused; nobody nibbled after that first meeting. So Deters came back at them, every few months. Hise recalls meeting with her, at her request, as many as eight times in the next several years. He also sent her to Quaker Gardens’ Finance Committee, hoping they could understand better what she was about.

Some of his Board members were not confused at all, but downright skeptical. One doubter was Joe Coffin, a relation of Gene. Joe Coffin told me he was not impressed with Deters’ claims about the profit potential of her signs. He had once worked selling advertising to small businesses, and found it a tough, competitive field where profits were not easy to come by and risks were substantial.

Deters didn’t give up. Hise recalled once taking two friends to meet with her; one was a business professor, the other an accountant.

They listened closely, and after the meeting, talking in the parking lot, Hise asked them, “What do you think?”

The CPA said, “Chuck, I don’t have a clue what she’s up to. I’m not saying she’s a thief or a con artist or anything. But if I was you, I’d put my money in my pocket and run.”

Hise insists he didn’t think she was crooked either, just enthusiastic, perhaps overly so. In any case, Quaker Gardens kept its money in its pocket until after the news of the 1989 Friends ministers Conference hit. Then the Finance Committee said, in effect: “Okay. Maybe this thing is worth a try–IF we can make sure our money really is safe.”

And Quaker Gardens deposited $100,000 with Productions Plus. Priscilla Deters promised them that at the end of a year they would get a 100% match for their money, doubling the total, and that their money would be safe, kept in a certificate of deposit at a federally insured bank.

But Hise and his committee wanted to be sure. Damn sure, actually, though they might not admit to using profanity about it.

Hise says he called the FDIC, to make sure the bank was insured. He also called an attorney, to double check on applicable regulations. Finally, he went to the bank along with the chairman of his Finance Committee, and insisted that he be given a letter guaranteeing that no one (read: Deters) could get at that CD without his signature, in advance. Period. The bank wrote the letter.

The result? The CD sat in the bank for twelve months. And on the anniversary date, Hise made damn sure that the money was returned. He thinks he may even have driven to the bank personally to pick it up.

Along with the original $100,000, Quaker Gardens collected a year’s worth of bank interest. That was it.

“But what about the match?” I asked. “Weren’t you supposed to double your money?”

“There was no match,” Hise said. Not then, or later. But Hise says he didn’t care. The Board hadn’t counted on the doubling, and they were simply relieved to have their money back, safe and sound.

After that, neither Chuck Hise nor any other group that was part of Friends Church-Southwest Yearly Meeting deposited any more money with Productions Plus. “I later heard indirectly that Priscilla said we hadn’t followed her plan and that’s why we didn’t get a match.”

Although secondhand, this comment has the ring of truth. All of the many “service agreements” I have seen between Productions Plus and various churches include this language about the accounts where the investor’s deposits are to be held:

“Signatories on said account will be designated Trustees of the Beneficiary Savings Fund.”

Since Deters was the one who did the “designating”, this language in fact gave control of the deposit to Productions Plus.

Following the Money

However skeptical the Quaker Gardens Board may have been, on the Friends Ministers Conference Committee, there may have been questions, but there evidently weren’t real doubts. After all, the $50,000 was in the bank, and Priscilla Deters continued to have the enthusiastic endorsement of Eugene Coffin.

Coffin’s explanation about coupon book mailings as the source of the $50,000 grant sounds like a variation on the Savings Plus plan. But Phillip Deters, Priscilla’s son, testified that savings Plus had not continued after about 1987, and in her own account of the business, his mother mentioned no such campaigns. So I’m doubtful there ever were any coupon booklets, or any zip codes reserved for the Friends Ministers Conference.

In that case, though, where did the $50,000 come from?

Chronology may provide a clue: the committee sent its $5700 to Deters in 1988. That was the same year a friend of Priscilla’s, Wayne Ashworth, began making a series of quiet loans to her; these loans, and their fateful aftermath, will be described in more detail in another part of this report. By the next spring, when it was time to send the Conference a match, maybe she didn’t need Savings Plus anymore.

In any event, the Fourth Friends Ministers Conference in Denver was a success. I was there, and can testify to it. Hundreds of pastors soaked up the atmosphere and perks of a luxurious hotel; we went to many workshops, like one which touted telemarketing campaigns as a surefire way of “planting” new churches, and another about “ministering” to homosexuals who wanted to overcome their “sin.” There were banquets, impassioned sermons, lots of spiritual schmoozing, and little traffic in the hotel bar; just what you would expect. I recall feeling the conference was a bargain, that we got a lot for our money.

When we had all gone home, the conference committee basked in its achievement. After all the bills were paid, there was still $22,000 left over. The Committee looked ahead enthusiastically toward the fifth conference, planned for Orlando, Florida in 1994. It also had a new chairman: Maurice Roberts. In its euphoria, the group was happy to send the $22,000 surplus back to Productions Plus, as a new deposit for future matching gifts.

Maurice Roberts had high hopes for the next conference, especially financially. Deters told him that if the committee left their $22,000 with her for four of the intervening five years, she would match the accumulated total each year, for a total of $176,000 by 1994, an 800 per cent return on their investment.

Could they really count on this bountiful amount as they drew up their next conference budget? Roberts insists he asked her this specific question, and Deters assured him that they could. (Deters later said that was not true. But we will get to that in due time.)

[This post is part of a detailed report on the activities of Productions Plus, particularly among Quaker groups. Watch for additional excerpts on this site.

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