Tampa -- The couple who run Deeper Life Christian Church walked unscathed out of the Hillsborough County Courthouse on Monday, but two fellow ministers and the church itself ended up tainted by felony convictions. In an unusual deal with prosecutors, Deeper Life Christian Church pleaded guilty to one count each of trafficking in food stamps and dealing in stolen property.
Circuit Judge William Fuente placed the church on five years' probation, fined it $5,000 and ordered it to pay $21,710 to cover the cost of a Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office investigation into allegations of food stamp fraud.
"As far as we know, this is the first time in the state of Florida that a church has been convicted as a felon," Assistant State Attorney Craig Clendinen said. "We're pleased with the plea, and . . . we hope that it sends a message."
If so, it was not a message received by Deeper Life church bishop Melvin B. Jefferson Sr. and his second in command, Brenda Houston Lanier. In exchange for the church's guilty plea, prosecutors dropped all charges against the couple, who live in Brandon.
While their two sons and three other Deeper Life ministers entered guilty pleas inside the courthouse, Jefferson and Lanier walked across the street and got into their Mercedes. In response to reporters' questions, Jefferson, who is black, said he and Deeper Life were victims of a racial inquisition. "You figure it out," Jefferson told reporters. "What color am I? The church is not guilty, I am not guilty, and the police know I'm not guilty." Sheriff's investigators alleged that the church had laundered up to $20,000 a month in illegally obtained food stamps through two meat markets, Suncoast Meat and Deli Stores No. 1 and 2, which it owns. Authorities said the food stamps came from church parishioners and probationers who had been assigned to perform court-ordered community service at the church.
Deeper Life ministers were accused of buying meat for the meat markets that a confidential informant had told them was stolen and of accepting food stamps as tithes and payment for services from the church. Jefferson, 50, came to Tampa in 1980 and six years ago bought the old red brick church on N Nebraska Avenue that serves as Deeper Life's headquarters. The church is known for its evangelistic outreach to drug addicts and prostitutes as well as for its history of trouble paying its bills and its outraged protests of the criminal investigation launched against it two years ago.
While prosecutors dropped charges against Jefferson and Lanier, five others, including the couple's sons, pleaded guilty to at least one charge against them. They are: Edward Don Jefferson, 30, who was sentenced to three years of probation on one count of dealing in stolen property. He is Melvin Jefferson's son. Calvin Lanier, 23, who was sentenced to three years of probation on one count of dealing in stolen property. He is Brenda Lanier's son. Kenneth Lee, 41, who was sentenced to three years of probation on one count of trafficking in food stamps.
Steve Lavon Lee, 36, who pleaded guilty to three counts of dealing in stolen property and was sentenced to one year of community control followed by four years of probation. His sentence also resolved a pending violation of probation case on a previous charge of illegally discharging a firearm. He and Kenneth Lee are not related.
Cary Keith Fulks, 39, who pleaded guilty to one count of food stamp fraud and was sentenced to three years of probation. Steve Lee and Fulks were adjudicated guilty. The other defendants had formal findings of guilt withheld. Clendinen said prosecutors agreed to drop the charges against Melvin Jefferson and Brenda Lanier in part because they were "much farther removed" from the criminal acts that formed the basis for the case.
"The charges were different and their facts were different," Clendinen said.
"We think it's an appropriate plea in light of the circumstances."
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