Mary Murphy has spent more than ten years trying to make Calvary Temple pastor Charles Blair pay for his sins. As a member of the James 1:27 Committee, a group formed by investors who lost millions of dollars in Life Center, a Calvary-backed senior citizens' complex that failed in the Seventies and resulted in Blair's conviction for securities fraud, Murphy contends that Blair needs to do more to compensate his victims and to publicly apologize for his behavior. Moreover, Murphy, a nursing home administrator, wants the original purpose of the Life Center, at 5775 and 5785 East Eighth Avenue, to finally be achieved. "We think it's a cursed building," she says. "And it needs redemption."
At long last, she may get her wish. The buildings made famous by Denver's best-known discredited televangelist are being put on the block on Wednesday, January 19, by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Mike Ohrt, director of multifamily sales for HUD, says his agency isn't telling potential bidders how they may or may not use the buildings, but he expects they will be most attractive to companies in the medical industry. He adds, "We are going to bid a million dollars for them--but we really want to be outbid."
The buildings were first used as a chiropractic center that promptly went bust. They were sitting vacant when, during the mid-Sixties, Calvary Temple's Blair conceived a plan to transform them into a four-tower, six-story nursing home. According to Blair's book The Man Who Could Do No Wrong, the idea came to him in a dream.
Life Center soon became a nightmare for Blair, his church and the mostly elderly members of his congregation induced to invest in it by hints of a 6-to-8.5 percent return on their money and first shot at apartments set to fill half the premises. The complex began partial operation in 1970, and during its four years of use, the debts accrued by Life Center, Calvary Temple and the Charles E. Blair Foundation, which backed the project, reached $23 million. Blair ultimately declared bankruptcy and was convicted on seventeen counts of securities fraud in part for engaging in what a Securities and Exchange Commission document described as a Ponzi scheme--that is, the use of money advanced by new investors in the project to pay promised returns to previous investors whose funds had already been spent.
After receiving a sentence of five years' probation and an order to come up with a plan to repay his creditors, Blair sold the Life Center at a tremendous loss and engaged in an erratic series of fundraisers that produced little relief for those whose savings had been lost in the project. By 1981, Murphy, then working as a paralegal, was put in touch by an acquaintance with one of the several hundred victims: Lorraine Noles, a missionary who had been trying without success to speak with Blair and tell him of the financial distress Life Center's collapse had caused her. Murphy offered to help her, and eventually Noles's case became the cornerstone of a lawsuit that convinced Blair to make a bankruptcy settlement that repaid creditors around 33 cents on the dollar.
This agreement meant that Blair had no legal obligation to make additional payments to creditors. But after a group of Christian lawyers acting as a reconciliation committee issued a critical 1984 letter stating that he had a moral imperative to make good on the losses, Blair launched the so-called "Second Mile" campaign to raise more funds. Between 1986 and 1988, $1.7 million was collected, but a class-action suit filed by attorney Dan Lynch on behalf of investors ultimately led to the revelation that $600,000 of that total had gone to Calvary Temple and church lawyers, and over $2,000 had gone to Blair personally. More litigation loomed, but the complainants settled out of court for $700,000. Some of these investors were swayed by phone calls from Blair, who promised to redouble his efforts to make full restitution. However, Lynch says no payments beyond those directed by the 1991 settlement have been made.
Although their legal recourses have been exhausted, Murphy and Lynch, representing members of the James 1:27 Committee (named after a Bible passage concerned with the Church's responsibility to care for widows and orphans), have continued to put pressure on Blair to keep his promises. They've had little success in speaking with Blair, who did not respond to several requests for an interview with Westword, or with several religious and community leaders who threw their support behind the Second Mile fundraiser. "There's not a single member of the Christian community who has ever withdrawn any official recognition of these people," adds Lynch, who is writing a book about Blair and Life Center. "I think that's appalling."
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Murphy was awarded a degree from St. Thomas Seminary in 1986 and became a chaplain. She worked in that capacity for the Veterans Administration and a Department of Corrections facility in Limon before earning a license as a nursing home administrator. Her work at a Denver nursing home, Valley Manor, convinced her that veterans in the Denver area were desperately in need of a facility designed specifically for them, and she saw the former Life Center as the ideal place to start one. Conveniently, it was empty again. It had been purchased in 1987 by Good Shepherd Health Facilities of Colorado, Inc. (operated by Arkansas businessman Ralph Thiel) with the aid of revenue bonds issued by Adams County. The following year, according to HUD's Ohrt, the state shut down the operation and rescinded Thiel's license amid accusations of improper patient care. Thiel subsequently defaulted on two loans and filed for personal bankruptcy, leaving the Eighth Street buildings in government hands.
Murphy has spent the past several months organizing surviving members of the James 1:27 Committee to get behind an attempt to purchase the buildings, and has secured a vote of confidence from the United Veterans Committee of Colorado for her nursing home concept, dubbed the Rocky Mountain Institute of Pastoral Care. She also considered requesting that Blair and Calvary Temple put money into the project as an act of what she calls "redemption and spiritual rebirth--an opportunity to do with the building what was promised." But before her group could get off the ground, Murphy learned that the structure was going on the market. Rather than becoming upset, she was elated. "This is providential," she says. "Whoever buys the building will have to use it for medical purposes, and we would be able to contract with them to do their pastoral care. We would offer this service for free as a model of pastoral care in this country."
That plan may be premature, given that the buildings have not yet been purchased. But HUD's Ohrt confirms that a number of potential bidders have shown interest. He admits to a feeling of relief. "We honestly don't expect to own it," he says. "At least we hope we won't.