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Brooklyn pastor claims innocence while facing federal fraud and extortion charges

Bishop Lamor Whitehead was robbed of more than $1 million worth of jewelry in July when armed gunmen entered his church during a service. He is now facing federal fraud charges in an unrelated case.
Mary Altaffer
/
AP
Bishop Lamor Whitehead was robbed of more than $1 million worth of jewelry in July when armed gunmen entered his church during a service. He is now facing federal fraud charges in an unrelated case.

Brooklyn-based Bishop Lamor Whitehead, who became known nationally this summer after getting robbed during a livestreamed church service, is facing wire fraud and extortion charges in an unrelated case.

Whitehead, 45, is facing two counts of wire fraud, one count of extortion, and another for making false statements for crimes allegedly committed against one of his parishioners and a businessman, federal prosecutors announced.

Whitehead, known for his expensive clothes, cars and other flashy displays of wealth, leads the Leaders of Tomorrow International Churches in New York City. In July, Whitehead and his wife were robbed of $1 million in jewelry after armed gunmen entered their church.

People criticized Whitehead for his luxurious lifestyle following this incident. Others even questioned whether the robbery was real. Two men were later arrested for the robbery, however.

Following the news of the federal charges brought against him, Whitehead claimed his innocence in a 15-minute long Instagram video posted on Tuesday.

In the video, Whitehead sits in front of two smiling portraits of himself and says, "The bishop is not guilty. And I'm going to fight it. I have the right legal team, and more importantly, I have God."

"Ain't nothing changed. I'm still the same bishop," he said. "And I'll say it again. Just because you were arrested doesn't make you guilty. Don't drink the Kool-Aid. I'm telling you all. You drunk it already. Don't drink it again. Give it time."

Prosecutors allege Whitehead used threats and lies to get money from individuals, which he then spent on luxury items for himself.

In April 2020 until around July 2021, Whitehead allegedly convinced one of his parishioners to invest approximately $90,000 of her retirement savings. This was done with the promise that the bishop would help her find a home and use some of the money to invest in his real estate businesses.

Instead, Whitehead used her money for himself, according to the indictment against him.

In a separate incident, the indictment claims that Whitehead pushed an unnamed businessman to hand over large sums of cash. Sometime in the spring of 2022, Whitehead allegedly encouraged the businessman to give the church leader $500,000 and a stake in certain real estate transactions. In return, the man was told he would receive "favorable actions" from the New York City government that would enrich both Whitehead and himself, prosecutors said.

Whitehead also lied to FBI agents when they were executing a search warrant, prosecutors said. Allegedly, the pastor falsely claimed he had no other cellphones aside from the one he was carrying at the time. In fact, Whitehead did own a second phone, which he used regularly — including to send a text message describing it as "my other phone" just after telling the agents he had no other phones, prosecutors said.

Each count of wire fraud and extortion, three in total, carries a maximum sentence for 20 years in prison. Making material false statements carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jaclyn Diaz