Stranger than Fiction: The Cast of Productions Plus

Dear Friends,

In the Productions Plus/Priscilla Deters case, the cast of characters covers a range that would strain a novelist’s imagination. Consider these few:

The President’s Chaplain. If anyone deserves the melancholy credit for turning Priscilla Deters loose on Friends, it is unmistakably T. Eugene Coffin. Coffin was once pastor of the East Whittier Friends Church where Richard Nixon was a member. He preached several times at Nixon’s White House worship services. When East Whittier received minutes from more than 200 Friends meetings asking for Nixon’s disownment over Vietnam and Watergate, it was Coffin who explained that they were not going to do any such thing. (Coffin is now suffering from Alzheimers, and unable to respond to interview requests.)

The believers. Coffin is not alone in clinging to the conviction that Deters is an honorable woman, who is being hunted by a malign coalition of dark forces, from the FBI to the Vatican. Among this group are some of her victims, who remain certain that they will get their money back, plus the promised bounty, someday. The little Friends Church in Cherokee, Oklahoma includes a number of such persons, who are faithful in prayer, as, it appears, does the Houston Graduate School of Theology in Texas; each of these groups sunk almost a half million dollars in Productions Plus, according to available records.

The Suckers. Maurice Roberts, the former superintendent of Mid-America YM, may cringe at seeing himself called this. But it’s not as bad as some names he could qualify for. Besides, among evangelical Friends he’s in a pretty good-sized club. It includes, among other Quaker leaders, David Brock of Indiana, and Billy Britt, who led North Carolina YM for twenty years; Robin Johnston, ex-President of Barclay College (formerly Friends Bible College) in Kansas; Royce Frazier, who lost $10,000 of YouthQuake’s money to the scam; and Delbert Vaughn, founding President of the Houston Graduate School of Theology. This is not an exhaustive list.

There were, of course, Superintendents who never bought into Productions Plus. But if there was any among them who blew the whistle and took her on, I haven’t found him. (The generic “him” is proper here; there are no female Quaker superintendents.)

The task of stopping the fraud fell to others, who are the heroes of this story. My research indicates that two people are principally responsible for bringing down Productions Plus. One is Leatha Hein, who with her husband runs a landscaping business in Wichita. She is a logical candidate, at least institutionally, because she was chair of Mid America YM’s trustees through 1994.

It was Hein who began asking questions about Productions Plus, and who refused to stop when she was ignored, put down and lied to. After years of stonewalling and evasion, she took action on her own. Retrieving the records from the MAYM files, she painstakingly put them all together in chronological order, highlighting the revealing sections. When she laid out the resulting picture for her previously unbelieving colleagues, even the least sympathetic couldn’t deny the truth of the chicanery that had been going down on their watch.

It was also Hein who then turned these “user-friendly” records over to state and federal authorities. My personal opinion is that without Hein’s steadfast and solitary labor, Productions Plus might well still be going strong.

For her pains, however, Hein has been essentially driven away from the yearly meeting she’s been part of all her life. Shoot the messenger; it’s as old a reaction as the Bible (cf. 2 Samuel 1). But if Quakers gave medals for bravery, she’d have earned a chestful.

Hein’s work is the more significant in that the record of law enforcement in Deters’ wake has been mostly laughable. Deters shrugged off injunctions, contempt citations, and cease and desist orders like so much dandruff. Not until a year ago, when the Wichita U.S. Attorney took Hein’s records, and others seized in a search of Deters California home, to a grand jury, did her legal problems become serious.

Well, that may be somewhat of an exaggeration. It turns out that at the same time Leatha Hein’s work was bearing fruit, Deters was also under crucial, even decisive pressure from another direction, one almost totally unknown to Hein — and for that matter the feds — until this reporter told them about it.

That pressure involved our other three remarkable characters.

One is an artist, a modern day Edward Hicks; the second is his masterwork; and the third is an obscure Catholic priest in an obscure Florida town.

The artist is Jackson Bailey. He is a self-taught, “primitive” folk artist from rural Georgia, with a remarkable story of his own. Bailey overcame a series of terrible physical ailments and calamities to gain local renown as an artist with a strong religious bent. His masterpiece is the largest painting of the life of Christ in the world, a mural that measures 11 feet high by over 1000 feet long, in fifty-five panels. This painting once made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. And perhaps it was there (accounts differ), that Priscilla Deters heard about it, and him.

This being the 1990s, you can sample Jackson’s Bailey’s “primitive” art on that most modern of media, the Internet. His sons have set up a home page which tells more about his life and the big painting, including images of some of the panels. It is: http://www.jacksonbaileyart.com/

The more I learn about it, the more it seems this big painting almost has a life of its own. Certainly its history is almost as troubled as that of its creator. Although it was completed almost twenty years ago, it has never yet been put on display. It is too large, and so far all the people who have tried to find a way to get it before the public have ended up broke and in court.

Priscilla Deters, though, thought she could be the one to break this jinx. The big painting clearly represented to her the gold mine which would make everything right, make all her dreams come true.

She dreamed of putting the work on display in a specially built exhibit hall (to be located, she said at various times, in Florida, Oklahoma and/or California). A miniature version of the panels would go on tour. She wanted special lighting for it, plus original narration, to be accompanied by original music played by a full symphony orchestra (the London Philharmonic, she told some). And of course, there would be art posters, books, T-shirts, postcards, decorative plates, and so forth.

There’s no doubt about it. Jackson Bailey’s big painting was going to be the biggest production ever of Productions Plus, one which would open up an endless river of money.

Money not for yachts and big houses (Deters took good care of herself and her large family with her victims’ money, but there’s not much evidence yet that she went in for substantial personal luxuries), but money for building a foundation which would fund worthwhile evangelical ministries everywhere.

Yes, Priscilla Deters was thinking big.

But there was a problem. Between the dream and reality there were a number of hurdles. And the biggest one turned out to be a quiet priest in Kissimmee Florida named Robert Graves. It was Graves, a kind of militant neo-Franciscan, dedicated to a radical kind of poverty, free of the snares of material wealth and worldly stuff, and devoted to Christ, who nonetheless kept Priscilla Deters from achieving her grand ambition.

There are more people involved in this case, and my full report will describe the parts that many of them played. Excerpts of the report will be posted to this site. Printed copies of the full report, to be mailed as soon as they are ready, can be ordered for $10.00 postpaid from:

A Friendly Letter
P.O. Box 82,
Bellefonte PA 16823

Yours in the Light,

chucksig

 

 

Chuck Fager

Copyright © 1998 by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.

 


The Wall of Silence

Around both these scandals, there has been thrown up among the affected Friends groups something of a wall of silence.Here are two examples:First, As the 1997 sessions of Northwest Yearly Meeting gathered in Oregon last summer, an untutored observer might have been expecting an uproar. After all, Phil Harmon, long a prominent figure in the Yearly meeting had been indicted for fraud, in amounts of at least $14 million dollars.

For that matter, many members of the yearly meeting were among Harmon’s victims, many of them elderly pastors and widows robbed of their life savings, or left with huge unpaid medical bills. Stories about the uncovering of this fraud had been bannered on the front pages of the Seattle daily papers. And it wasn’t over; far from it: Harmon’s son Steve, and son-in-law Terry Beebe–also well-known in Northwest circles–had been identified as part of the scheme in the federal indictment; and the U.S. attorney was hinting at the prospect of more indictments, which might well include them, and perhaps others.

But there was no uproar. In fact, a perusal of the session’s minutes yields no direct mention of the case whatever, not one.

Only by reading between the lines can one detect traces of its impact in the work of two Nominating Committees:

One, from George Fox University, pride and joy of the yearly meeting and both Harmons’ alma mater, brought in an extra name, to replace Steve Harmon, who was, the minutes note, “Also stepping off the Board….”

The other came deep into a list of fifteen names to fill various yearly meeting offices, specifically the post of “Yearly Meeting Insurance Consultants”: This post had long been filled by a single person, namely Philip Harmon.

Since these sessions, the total of Harmon’s fraud has since been increased to around $40 million. By the time of the 1998 meeting, Harmon will likely be in jail, and others under indictment.. Will the increase in losses, Harmon’s confinement and more charges make this affair more worthy of mention in the Northwest sessions?

It’s possible, but I doubt it. And am I the only one who wonders why?

Second: In the Productions Plus/Priscilla Deters scam, her credibility among Friends collapsed finally after the Fifth Friends Ministers Conference, held in May, 1994 in Orlando, Florida. That’s because she left the conference planners holding the bag for $85,000 in unpaid hotel and conference bills. Already under pressure for lagging in promised payments of “matching funds” to various of her “beneficiaries/investors,” Deters gave conference Treasurer David Brock (Superintendent of Indiana Yearly Meeting) a check for $80,000. But Brock soon discovered that she had called the issuing bank that same day and stopped payment on the check.

That check was never paid. The same goes for the $65,000 additional that Deters had promised to send the Friends Ministers Conference.

Brock says that hotel staff said he couldn’t leave Orlando until the hotel bills were paid, and he was forced to arrange an emergency loan from funds held by Indiana Yearly Meeting trustees to cover it. Afterward, he and other superintendents agreed that if Deters did not come through with her promised money, Indiana would be repaid by each of the participating YMs that sent pastors to the Conference, in proportion to the number of participants from their group.

That’s what happened. Deters never paid, and the YMs did.

I haven’t read the minutes of every YM involved for this period, but I have gone over several, including the largest (Indiana and North Carolina); and nowhere have I yet seen an accounting or an explanation of a special payment to Indiana to cover shares of this $80,000.

If there’s a YM whose officials did explain candidly and on the record to their membership how these unexpected payments came to be made, and what was behind them, I’d like to know about it.

I don’t expect to be deluged with paper.

What does this Wall of Silence enclose? In each case, there lies behind it a major scandal unexamined, in which numerous Friends in responsible positions became involved. Few were involved in any criminal way (though, in truth, the number who were is probably larger than we now know); but many showed bad judgment, naivete, and some downright stupidity.

Who wants to have these faults paraded? No one. But is it healthy for either the persons or the groups affected to have them thus shrouded in silence when losses and criminality of this magnitude is involved? I don’t think so, and I hope I’m not alone.

Other examples of this wall of silence will be highlighted in my full report on these two scandals. Excerpts of the report will be posted here.

Further progress reports will be published as they are ready. The complete report, in printed form, can be ordered from:

A Friendly Letter
P.O. Box 82
Bellefonte PA 16823

The price is $10.00 postpaid; copies will be shipped by First Class mail as soon as they are ready.


Crazy Ideas: Double of Nothing

Chuck Hise remembers exactly when he decided that Priscilla Deters was a liar.It was late in the afternoon of Tuesday, April 16, 1996, while she was sitting in his office.Hise is Director of Quaker Gardens, the retirement community for Southwest Yearly Meeting, in Garden Grove, California.

Hise had not been eager to meet with Deters, but agreed when she pressed him, insisting she wanted to share something she was very excited about. Priscilla was that sort of person, Hise recalls. Very enthusiastic, bubbly, always talking a-mile-a-minute. Also persistent. Hise figured she had some new project to promote.

She didn’t. Deters arrived with her identical twin sister, Phyllis Beaver, and another couple, Randy and Charlene Littlefield. Deters and Beaver were about sixty, well-dressed, brunette. The Littlefields were younger, and from Kansas.

From almost the minute they arrived, for nearly two hours, they talked nonstop to him. At him. And Priscilla kept laughing. Chortling at the thought, which she repeated over and over, that somehow some people had got the silly idea into their heads that she had been promising to double their investment money in a year.

She chuckled at this. All four of them did. How could people have ever imagined such a thing?

That’s when Chuck Hise knew Priscilla had lied. Because that’s exactly what she had promised him. He didn’t join in the laughter.

This crazy idea wasn’t all Deters talked about. It turned out, she went on, that there were some people in Kansas, Quakers there, who somehow had adopted this giddy notion about money doubling, who had talked to state and federal investigators. Now she was in danger of being indicted for fraud.

Deters never lost her composure, but she pleaded with Hise to speak with his yearly meeting leadership, to urge them to intervene with the Quaker leadership in Kansas, and get them to head off this big mistake they were making.

“I think they left believing I agreed with them,” Hise told me. “They never asked if I thought they had promised to double people’s money. If they had asked me that, my answer would have been that I had that idea too. And I got it straight from them.”

Church people in 21 states lost well as much as six million dollars to Priscilla Deters, and her Productions Plus schemes. But Chuck Hise was not among them.

This despite the fact that he and the board of Quaker Gardens were one of her early “beneficiaries,” and invested $100,000 with Productions Plus. And yes, Deters had promised to double their money. In a year.

How? Hise wanted to know, as did his finance committee.

Simple, was her response. Though Hise, like many others over the course of ten years, never really understood it.

Deters claimed that she had business opportunities that were certain to be extremely lucrative. Since she did not seek riches for herself, the stream of her business profits was to be plowed back into selected Christian ministries, to help them grow and spread the word. To help, in a phrase she often used, “raise up the King of Kings.”

But the ministries to be blessed with this bounty had to be qualified, and have a plan for growth and service. And once their plan was approved, they had to show their seriousness by putting the amount of money to be matched into a certificate of deposit, which would be held in the accounts of Productions Plus for one year.

The money was perfectly safe, they were repeatedly told; the bank and its deposits were federally insured. And at the end of a year, they could redeem their CD, plus the bank interest, and receive as well a 100% matching gift.

Or they could leave the original deposit and the matching amount on deposit with Productions Plus for another year, and see the total double again, to an amount four times their original “investment” in only two years.

The Quaker Gardens board handed over its $100,000 with many doubts, and only after Deters had pressed Hise and others in a half a dozen or more meetings. Before they signed off on the deal, Hise personally visited the bank where the CD was to be held. He insisted that the CD not be used or spent without his direct advance approval and signature, and got the bank to agree, in writing.

Exactly a year later, Hise redeemed Quaker Gardens’ $100,000 CD, and collected eight percent interest on it, about what he could have received anywhere else on an insured CD.

There was no sign of a 100% matching gift, and he says he didn’t expect any. He later heard that Priscilla said they had not followed her plan correctly, and that’s why there wasn’t a matching gift.

In any event, Hise and the Quaker Gardens board breathed a collective sigh of relief, and resolved not to deal with Productions Plus again.

Hise insists he did not think Deters was a crook then, but rather, someone with too many ideas and enthusiasm, and not enough business skills to bring off her plans.

Besides, she had excellent references, people to vouch for her good character and integrity. People who were important in Hise’s world. People like Eugene Coffin, former pastor at east Whittier Friends Church; frequent visitor to the Nixon White House; and staff member at the hugely successful Crystal Cathedral near Disneyland. Coffin was “enthusiastic and confident and excited” about Deters and her program, Hise said, echoing other reports.

Hise’s suspicions paid off for him and Quaker Gardens. Other Quaker groups who got involved with productions Plus were not so lucky. They were told their money would double in a year, and they believed it; they didn’t get guarantees from the banks. And they lost it.

Excerpts from the complete report on the Harmon-Deters frauds will be posted on this site.

Further progress reports will be published as they are ready. The complete report, in printed form, can be ordered from:

A Friendly Letter
P.O. Box 82
Bellefonte PA 16823

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