2011-02-25 / Community

Pastor pleads guilty to felony charges

Agreement allows case against his wife to be dropped
By Tom Bronzini
Special to the Acorn

A Camarillo man who is the pastor of a Christian church in Ventura has pleaded guilty to three felony charges, including stealing the home equity of a Ventura man in his 80s.

Alonzo Gene McCowan, 50, pastor of Solid Rock Christian Center, pleaded guilty Feb. 17 before Superior Court Judge Bruce Young to charges of theft of real property from an elder, money laundering and grand theft related to a series of real estate transactions.

The Ventura County district attorney’s office said it reached a plea agreement with McCowan that provides for a year of jail time, extended probation and payments of restitution to the victim, Leo Gilmond, now 87.

The agreement provides for dismissal of all felony charges against McCowan’s wife, Kimberly Ann McCowan, 47.

The pastor, known more commonly as Lonnie McCowan, also admitted to making false and misleading statements to lenders in the purchase of real estate properties in Camarillo and Oxnard.

Senior Dep. District Attorney Miles Weiss said securing restitution payments to Gilmond weighed heavily in the prosecutor’s decision to reach a plea agreement.

“One of the main components of the agreement was the district attorney’s main concern on behalf of the elderly victim of receiving actual money at this stage of his life,” Weiss said. “That was one of his primary requests in the handling of the case.”

If approved by the county’s probation agency, McCowan will enter a work furlough program during his incarceration. He would be released from a locked facility near the Camarillo Airport during work hours and continue to serve his congregation in Ventura.

“(McCowan) is very pleased that his wife’s case has now been dismissed,” said defense attorney Ron Bamieh. “She faces no more prosecution. That was the main reason for the plea. When the district attorney’s office put that on the table, it was an offer he could not refuse.”

The transaction with the elderly Ventura man dates to October 2004 when Gilmond sold his home to McCowan for $460,000 so it could be used by church visitors and students.

Weiss, outlining the case, said Gilmond carried the loan for McCowan, expecting monthly installments and a balloon payment for the balance in three years. Weiss said McCowan made payments totaling $10,000 but never had the deed of trust recorded after the title was signed over to him. He instead gained access to $ 420,000 of the property’s equity by later taking out a separate loan in his wife’s name from a commercial lender.

“And thus Mr. Gilmond was left without getting paid and now with a property that was encumbered by not one but two very sizable mortgages, now over $800,000 combined,” Weiss said.

The house went into foreclosure shortly before the balloon payment was due. According to court records, McCowan said that he had lost the money in the stock market.

McCowan had faced up to 16 years and eight months in jail and $1.74 million in fines and restitution if he were convicted of all charges in a trial.

Weiss said that under the plea agreement, McCowan has already paid $75,000 in restitution from a verified source and owes a balance of $349,100. McCowan is required to pay $1,000 a month at 10 percent interest during a probation that could last up to 13 years. If he pays the full restitution balance before 13 years, he can request termination of probation, but he must serve a minimum of five years of probation, Weiss said.

Gilmond’s heirs will receive the balance of the restitution if he dies before it is paid in full, the prosecutor noted.

Commenting on the sentencing agreement, Weiss said, “Generally we are satisfied with it because we think it first and foremost addresses some of the genuine concerns on behalf of Mr. Gilmond. We also think it provides both a punitive sanction as well as gives Mr. McCowan an opportunity during probation to perform his duties in paying restitution.”

Kimberly McCowan had faced a maximum sentence of six years and four months in jail and $250,000 in fines and restitution if convicted of grand theft, money laundering and enhancement charges because the money taken fraudulently was in excess of $500,000. Lonnie McCowan took responsibility for all transactions in the case, and the charges against his wife are to be dismissed.

Weiss said facts uncovered after the case was filed mitigated the case against Kimberly McCowan.

“There was evidence uncovered later, after the preliminary hearing, that Mrs. McCowan’s signature may have not been genuine on certain documents of concern,” Weiss said. “Secondly, there were funds that we were able to trace in the transaction that did not go though Mrs. McCowan as originally believed but had been transferred to Mr. McCowan through an alternative funding stream.”

The defense attorney for the McCowans strongly disputed that new evidence surfaced and said the dismissal of the case against Mrs. McCowan was strictly the result of plea bargaining.

“She was a strong negotiating chip for them,” Bamieh said, referring to prosecutors. The defense attorney said Lonnie McCowan “did what anybody who loved his wife would do. He took responsibility so she could walk away.”

Bamieh said the information about questionable signatures and an alternative funding stream was known to him a year ago.

“It was not until my client agreed to plead guilty (that they would) dismiss her. Trust me. That was the negotiation regarding the dismissal of her case,” he said.

Lonnie McCowan’s sentencing hearing is set for March 18 before Judge Young. He has been free on bail.

Weiss said that Gilmond sued McCowan based on essentially the same facts and won a civil judgment in excess of $500,000. When restitution is made in the criminal case, those funds will be subtracted from the civil judgment, Weiss said.

In the two other real estate transactions, McCowan admitted to making false and misleading statements to lenders about his income, financial condition and ability to repay loans.

As a result, commercial lenders approved loans of $336,000 to McCowan to buy a home in Camarillo and $115,000 to buy property in Oxnard based on misrepresentations. The district attorney’s office said that one property was sold just before foreclosure and the other was foreclosed upon.

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