Former United Methodist megachurch pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell of Houston has been sentenced to 6 years in federal prison and another year on supervised release for conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
U.S. District Court Judge S. Maurice Hicks Jr. also gave Caldwell a $125,000 fine during a Jan. 13 sentencing hearing in Shreveport, Louisiana.
“This experience has brought me to the valley of disgrace and dishonor. I’m ashamed of my actions,” Caldwell told Hicks before being sentenced.
Caldwell, 67, began as pastor of Houston’s Windsor Village United Methodist Church in 1982 with 25 families. Under him it grew to be The United Methodist Church’s largest congregation in membership, with more than 18,000 on its rolls.
He surrendered his clergy credentials before pleading guilty last March to collaborating with Gregory Alan Smith of Shreveport in a $3.5 million investment scheme. The scheme involved antique Chinese bonds and victimized more than 20 Louisiana residents who entrusted funds to Caldwell and Smith.
Caldwell’s lawyers presented evidence at the hearing that he has repaid his victims more than $4 million. They also pleaded for him to be confined to his home, rather than going to prison, citing his ongoing treatment for prostate cancer, as well his hypertension and the threat COVID-19 poses for those incarcerated with underlying conditions.
Defense attorney Karima Maloney referred to prison as a “potential death sentence” for Caldwell.
But Hicks said the plea agreement agreed to by Caldwell and prosecutors clearly anticipated prison time. He acknowledged the COVID-19 pandemic, though, and deferred Caldwell’s report date for prison to June 22 of this year. In Texas, people 65 years and older are already receiving the vaccine.
Hicks also agreed to recommend that Caldwell serve in the low-security federal prison in Bastrop, Texas, about 120 miles from Houston.
Hicks noted the many letters he’d received lauding Caldwell’s church and community work, and he credited Caldwell with making the victims financially whole. But he also remarked on Caldwell’s high level of education and willingness to use pastoral standing to attract investors he victimized.
“What I have never heard from the defendant is the answer to the age-old question of why this occurred,” Hicks said.
Caldwell grew up in Houston and made his way to elite Carleton College in Minnesota. He went on to earn an MBA from the Wharton School of Business and worked as an investment banker in New York. But he felt a call to ministry, enrolling at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, and later taking an appointment at Windsor Village.
There he combined stirring preaching with innovative community outreach, focused on housing, education and job training. The church grew to become not only the largest in membership in the denomination, but easily its largest predominately African American church.
Caldwell himself became well-known in Houston and beyond. He served on corporate and nonprofit boards and co-wrote the books “The Gospel of Good Success” and “Entrepreneurial Faith.”
He was close to President George W. Bush, presiding at the wedding of his daughter, Jenna Bush, and made a high-profile endorsement of Barack Obama for president.
In 2012, Windsor Village celebrated Caldwell’s 30 years in leading the church, with accolades pouring in from public officials and the city of Houston declaring a “Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell Day.”
But in 2013, Caldwell began a criminal collaboration with Smith, a Shreveport investment advisor.
According to a court document titled “Factual Basis for Plea” and signed by Caldwell, Smith would approach existing clients and acquaintances, promising rapid, high rates of return if they would invest in Chinese bonds to be sold in a deal put together by Caldwell.
But the bonds were historical, dating to the period before communists took over the Chinese government. They had value only as memorabilia.
Caldwell and Smith took in about $3.5 million from unsuspecting investors, who were instructed to wire funds to bank accounts controlled by Caldwell and an associate.
The factual-basis document says Caldwell personally got about $900,000, part of which he used to pay down personal loans, mortgages and credit cards, and to maintain his lifestyle.
Caldwell did not at first realize the historical bond investments were illegitimate but “deliberately ignored repeated information received during the relevant time period that these transactions would not come to fruition,” the factual basis document says.
Smith pleaded guilty in July 2019 to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and last November was sentenced by Hicks to six years in prison, followed by three years of supervised released. Hicks ordered Smith to pay $3.5 million in restitution and a $100,000 fine.
Both Caldwell and Smith were indicted in March 2018, following an FBI investigation. Caldwell and his attorneys held a press conference and insisted he was innocent.
“As we move forward the truth will prevail,” Caldwell said.
But at the sentencing hearing, Caldwell apologized repeatedly, saying of his victims, “I profited at their expense and for that I am very sorry.”
He apologized as well to his family and to members of Windsor Village, choking up at times.
One of his victims also testified, detailing the distress she and her husband endured and noting Caldwell had abused his standing as a respected pastor. “To hide your criminal actions under the cloak of Christianity is heinous,” she said.
Though Caldwell is no longer a United Methodist pastor, he continued to be a staff member and lay preacher at Windsor Village while awaiting sentencing.
His wife, the Rev. Suzette Caldwell, was a long-standing associate pastor at the church and last year Texas Conference Bishop Scott Jones appointed her to succeed her husband as lead pastor. Jones said the decision to retain Kirbyjon Caldwell on staff was the church’s.
Both Suzette and Kirbyjon Caldwell have been prominent in Windsor Village’s online services during the pandemic.
At the sentencing hearing, there was mention of Windsor Village making payments to some of the investment scheme victims, with Kirbyjon Caldwell paying the church back. Hicks said he understood those payments to be advances against Caldwell’s salary.
The Windsor Village lay leadership shared a statement on Facebook soon after the sentencing. It concludes:
“The Lord will see our church family through this season. Let’s continue to have faith and pray together. Be encouraged by Psalm 30:5, which promises that joy will follow sorrow.”
Floyd LeBlanc, chair of the church’s staff parish relations committee, said by phone that the sentence “just feels very heavy” given Caldwell’s record of church and community service.
“He made a bad decision on business partners in this thing, and he took extraordinary measures to make things right,” LeBlanc said. “He’s made so many positive contributions and impacted so many lives in a positive way.”
But LeBlanc also promised Windsor Village would move forward.
“We continue to seek first the kingdom of God,” LeBlanc said, noting that the church currently is partnering with a local food bank to feed needy people during the pandemic.
Bishop Jones also issued a statement after the sentencing, noting what he called Kirbyjon Caldwell's "eloquent statement of remorse."
“We continue to pray for healing for all affected including Mr. Caldwell, his family, the victims and the Windsor Village United Methodist Church family," the bishop said.
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