By Bob Allen
An Alabama woman who lost her home, business and health as a result of a bookkeeper’s scam says in a new book that she never would have met the man who stole tens of thousands of dollars from her and her clients if the Southern Baptist Convention had prosecuted him for previously embezzling mission funds in Turkey.
Wynona Rogers, author of Riches to Rags: One Woman’s Story of Betrayal and Redemption (Tate Publishing), says she first met Benton Gray Harvey through his mother, who worked for her at Starfish Insurance Agency in Gulf Shores, Ala.
Harvey and his roommate started coming by her office and they became friends. She went to the office Christmas party where Harvey worked, and his boss stopped by their table to tell her what a great employee he was and that she didn’t know what she would do without him.
Rogers knew that Harvey was a former missionary, but what no one told her was that in 2005 the SBC International Mission Board had won a judgment of $359,499.62 to recover money he admitted to stealing earmarked for earthquake relief and other purposes in Istanbul.
IMB trustees reportedly agreed in executive session not to press criminal charges, fearing publicity might cause other missionaries to be kicked out of Turkey. According to Wade Burleson, a former IMB trustee who came on the board after the secrecy pact but tried to get trustees to change their minds and inform Southern Baptists about the theft, another stated concern was that it might harm fundraising for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.
“I’ve been Baptist all my life, and I have always donated to Lottie Moon,” Rogers said in an interview Feb. 13. “I’ve always donated to the church.”
“Since it came to light what Gray has done, I donate to the church but I do not donate to Lottie Moon anymore, because I don’t want my money going to another thief,” she said. “If they don’t prosecute him, they ain’t going to prosecute the next one.”
When Rogers needed a new bookkeeper, Harvey came to work for her. He volunteered to help take care of her dogs and every morning brought her coffee. Afterward, her health started to decline.
“I laid in bed for five months,” she said. “Out of 24 hours I would sleep 23.”
“I got to the point I was so weak I couldn’t keep anything down,” she said. “I went from a Size 14 to a Size 2. I was a walking stick.”
Rogers said she has reason to believe Harvey was putting arsenic in her coffee to get her out of the way so he could sell bogus homeowner policies to at least 118 customers. Harvey pleaded guilty in 2011 to a single count of misappropriation of insurance premiums in exchange for a lighter sentence by cooperating with federal law enforcement in another investigation.
Prosecutors wouldn’t share the nature of that cooperation, and a U.S. district judge withheld a separate indictment detailing the remaining crimes of which Harvey was accused. The plea bargain called for a minimum sentence of two years in federal prison, but when Harvey failed to appear for his sentencing hearing the judge increased it to three and a half years. He is now serving prison time.
That left Rogers responsible for all the customers to whom Harvey sold policies without her knowledge and kept the premiums for himself. She testified at a 2009 hearing in Mobile, Ala., that she had spent more than $450,000 repaying victims of the fraud perpetrated in her absence. She was ordered to pay a $36,000 fine and adopt multiple accounting controls or else lose her license to sell insurance.
After the case received publicity, the IRS got involved, and she discovered that Harvey had shredded checks she wrote to pay her taxes. She owed them $26,000 that she had to borrow from her mother.
“Next week I have to go to Montgomery, because Gulf Finance is still trying to get money from me that he stole,” she said. “I have to prove to the court that I have no money. I have no assets. I got foreclosed on. I sold what I could. The bank took the rest. I went from being worth four million dollars to sixty-eight cents.”
Rogers said it never occurred to her to do a background check before hiring Harvey, but it wouldn’t have made any difference if she did.
“He wouldn’t have had a criminal record because the International Mission Board never prosecuted him,” she said. “He still would have had a clean record.”
Except for Burleson and a former IMB missionary who served with Harvey in Turkey who she says was so aggressive in his advocacy on her behalf that he ended up getting fired and now works as an independent missionary, Rogers said nobody in Southern Baptist life has reached out to her.
“I even had my cousin who is an attorney write them a letter telling them that I held them responsible for not prosecuting him,” she said. “They didn’t send a letter, no phone call, nothing. They don’t care.”
Rogers said after a bank robber sentenced just before Harvey was ordered to make restitution, she expected the same and was surprised when the judge did not order him to repay her as well.
“I went up to the feds and said ‘What about my money,’ and they said, ‘If we do find it, Wynona, it will go to the International Mission Board to pay them off, and what’s left will go to pay for the investigation, so you can forget it. You’re not getting your money back.’”
“So I blame the International Mission Board,” she said. “If they had put him in prison, I never would have met him. If they had done the right thing — because one of the Ten Commandments is ‘thou shalt not steal’ and he stole — and they just chose to look the other way; turn a blind eye to it.”
Rogers said she never expected to write a book, until one day a couple came to her office. She asked them if they wanted a refund or needed insurance, and the wife said: “No, you already paid us back. We just want an update on what’s going on in your life. I said ‘Why would you want an update?’ She said ‘because you’ve got the most interesting life of any person I’ve ever met. You need to write a book.”
“I said ‘I ain’t writing no book,’” she said. “But I started doing it for therapy. I wanted to find some humor in what happened in the day. I never really planned on writing a book. I did it for my own sanity.”
“Then eventually I had to sell my business because I wasn’t making enough to pay rent and gas and all that, so when I moved in with Mom I decided that lady was right and I needed to write a book.”
She said she never expected the book to be published. Another thing she never expected was being invited to share her story in churches and other venues.
“I took speech in college, and all I had to do was speak five minutes to get an ‘A,’” she recalled. “I got up, and I had a poster of a shark, and I pointed to it and I said, ‘Stay out of the water’ and I sat down. The professor said ‘if you don’t get up there and finish speaking I’m going to flunk you,’ and I said ‘go ahead,’ and sure enough ….”
Recently Rogers said she was invited to speak for 15 or 20 minutes and didn’t think she could do it. “Well, I talked 45,” she said. “I couldn’t shut up. It was all about the book, and they had questions.”
Rogers said a lot more happened that didn’t make it into the book. “Frankly, I got tired of reliving it,” she said. “I mean, every time I wrote it I cried.”
“I did solve one thing,” she said. “He took away my money. He took away my health. But one thing he couldn’t take from me was my happiness. That was up to me.”
“Falling down is not the sin,” she said. “The sin is not getting back up. If you just let it beat you down you can’t do that. You’ve got to dream big and work hard and never give up. That’s my theory anyway. It may not be everybody’s, but it’s mine.”
Rogers said she hopes the book, written in a style using what she calls “redneck humor” for perspective and a motto of “keep it light,” will give hope to others who are going through hard times.
“Bad things happen to good people, and if you hit bottom the only way you can go is up,” she said. “Don’t give up. Keep trying.”
Rogers said both she and her husband are currently seeking a job.
“I’m doing OK on book sales, but it’s not enough to pay all the bills,” she said. “I actually went on food stamps a couple of months ago. I didn’t have a choice. I never thought I’d be the type person to end up broke, poor, on food stamps, going to food banks, and it’s all thanks to Benton Gray Harvey Jr.”
Rogers said she is already thinking about a sequel. “I’m going to get my money back one book at a time,” she said.