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Alleged victim testifies in pastor’s fraud trial

 

By Carlotta Grandstaff

Harris Himes’s alleged victim, Geoffrey Serata, took the witness stand today and told a tale that’s as old as humankind itself: innocent, unworldly naïf comes into some money and discloses it to someone slicker and worldlier. The money vanishes. The naïf has his eyes opened, trust is broken and, in modern American times, everyone ends up in court.

Himes, a pastor with the Big Sky Christian Center atop ‘beer can hill’ just outside Hamilton, has been charged with six felony counts of theft and securities fraud by the state auditor’s office. The charges stem from state claims that Himes swindled Serata of $150,000 by persuading Serata to invest in a manufacturing plant in Mexico, even though the plant was nothing but an empty shell of a building and did not belong to Himes. Himes also was not registered with the state as securities salesman when he sold Serata on the investment. Himes is being prosecuted by two attorneys from the Attorney General’s office. He’s representing himself.

In the case files, Himes accused the auditor’s office of an anti-Christian bias, which appeared to form the bulk of his defense. But in his opening statement, and in his rather awkward cross-examination of Serata, Himes switched gears and attempted to impeach Serata by claiming that Serata defrauded the Bureau of Veteran Affairs when he failed to disclose to the VA a $425,000 inheritance.

Serata is a Navy veteran who served from 1978 to 1981 and received a general discharge under honorable conditions. In 1983 Serata was riding a motorcycle when he was hit head on by a drunk driver. He subsequently received health care from the VA and a small disability pension of $127 a month.

On the witness stand, and under questioning by the state’s attorney, Brett O’Neil, Serata came across as a religious man, naïve about money, interested in doing religious work and thoroughly trusting in Himes and his co-pastor James Bryant.

“I knew him (Himes) to be a godly man,” a trusted friend and confidante and spiritual advisor, Serata said. When he received his inheritance – larger than he expected – he went to Himes for counsel. “I went to him because I knew him and trusted him to give me sound counsel, good advice. Pastor Himes asked me if I was interested in investing in the Lord’s work.”

That’s when Serata learned of Duratherm Building Systems, a structural insulated panel manufacturing plant in Mexico. Himes and Bryant represented themselves to Serata as partners in DBS.

The story has been reported previously: Serata invested the money through a circuitous route that wound from Hamilton to Chicago, Rockville, Md. and Puerto Escondido, Mexico.

Serata repeatedly asked for a receipt or some type of accounting on paper to memorialize his investment, but was just as repeatedly put off by both Himes and Bryant, until Himes finally relented and drew up something called a “subscription agreement” which was signed only by Serata. He never read the agreement before he signed it, such was his trust in his pastor. Confronted with it on the witness stand, Serata said, “I deeply regret not reading this document. If I’d read it, I’d never have signed it as is.” What he thought he was signing, he said, was an agreement that he was buying a 6% interest in Duratherm, not shares in a mine, as the agreement stated.

At various time throughout his testimony, Serata spoke directly to Himes, displaying neither animosity nor emotion of any kind. Himes had assured him, Serata said, that his investment was a covenant between them and God, and that Himes did business “by the book.” The Book, that is, the Bible, which gave Serata confidence that he was dealing with honest men, rather than dishonestly with the confidence men that he came to believe they were.

When he ultimately traveled 1,000 miles south of the border to examine the business in which he had invested $150,000, he found a “shell of a structure” that belonged not to Himes or Bryant or Duratherm, but to someone named Felipe. He never met Felipe, but was told by Himes and Bryant that Felipe was a partner in Duratherm. When Serata attended church services with Felipe’s children, however, they denied that their father was a partner in the business.

“I’m still believing in these guys and their vision,” Serata said. “Just slow to wake up.”

Eventually, though, Serata did wake up when his repeated requests for a written contract went ignored or deflected. “It’s over here, it’s over there, it’s nowhere,” he said of the requested contract.

“When he (Himes) said he had my interests at heart, I believed him.” However, he added, “My trust and faith in them was very shaky at this point.”

By September 2008, several months after he made his investment, he finally came to believe “something of a criminal nature had occurred.” He didn’t know what type of crime, however. Embezzlement, perhaps. All he knew was that nothing was as it was presented to him.

Himes’s opening statement was rambling, unfocused and off-point. The state, he said, confused his co-pastor, James Edward Bryant with another James Edward Bryant from Tennessee, the latter having a lengthy rap sheet. It was easier for the state to charge him – Himes – with securities fraud and theft because he was easier to locate than his co-pastor Bryant, who is currently out of the area.

When Himes began his cross-examination of his accuser and former parishioner, he had been joined at the defense table by Hollis Poe, a Christian minister with All Nations Ministry on Sheafman Creek and a would-be politician who put himself forward as a replacement candidate for former state Sen. Bob Lake after Lake won a seat on the Public Service Commission in 2012 and was compelled to resign his legislative seat. Poe was not appointed.

Himes introduced Poe as his “technical advisor” though it became clear almost immediately that Poe’s technical skills were questionable. The first two exhibits Himes entered created some technical and legal problems that slowed the court proceedings and clearly tried the patience of Judge Loren Tucker.

With Serata on the stand facing cross-examination from the defense attorney who also was his close spiritual advisor and close friend, the questioning turned briefly weird. Himes questioned Serata about lying, stealing, scamming and other decidedly non-Christian activities, but in such a nuanced way that it more closely resembled a pastor discussing sin with a parishioner, rather than a defense attorney cross-examining a state witness. Serata responded in kind until, apparently emboldened, he responded to Himes’s question about Serata’s “purpose” in court: “To keep you from hurting other people in the future.”

Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, Himes was the only attorney to use the word “scam” in court to refer to the charges against him, as in “not a scam” and this “so-called scam.”

Testimony continues Wednesday.

 

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