House of Cards

"Pastor" Morris Turner sells dream homes that are just that -- dreams

Eileen Sanchez cradles her 2-year-old son in one arm and her set of blueprints in the other. "This was going to be our dream home," she says, unrolling the plans.

Unfurled, the blueprints reveal a two-story house with four bedrooms and a three-car garage. Sanchez envisioned each of her three children in their own room, under a roof the family owned. But her house will never be built because Sanchez and her husband relied on Faith Building Systems, a Grand Prairie company operated by a minister named Morris Turner, to build it for the low price of $91,500.

"Morris started telling us about the homes, and that no one can build a home like they can, and that they are custom-made. He said he could build my home within two months," Sanchez recalls. "We couldn't believe it. It was like a dream come true."

Eileen Sanchez hoped construction of her new home would have started by now, but these plans are as close as she will come to owning it.
Eileen Sanchez hoped construction of her new home would have started by now, but these plans are as close as she will come to owning it.

In retrospect, Sanchez sees the flaws in his pitch: The home would cost just a fraction of the typical $60 to $80 per square foot sought by most builders in Grand Prairie. Turner's company was taking her checks, which should have been made out to the mortgage companies. The price he asked for was only half of what an established builder would need. And Turner had never built a home, even for the couple who recommended him to the Sanchezes. "I didn't know at the time, so I went along with it," she says.

Prompted by a series of conversations with disappointed and skeptical mortgage loan officers, Sanchez asked for her money back. Turner has refused to return the $300 because she backed out of her contract, a copy of which she has never received. He says part of the money went to purchase the blueprints, though the vendor that sold him the plans says he bought them on credit and hasn't paid a dime.

Turner lays blame with the mortgage company that first handled Sanchez's loan application, and to a lesser degree with Sanchez herself. He pleads that his business is small, and he needs more than the average amount of time to clear the hurdles required in building a house. But it was Turner himself who has done more to delay the deal than any other factor, including giving bad checks to the same mortgage company he now blames for the delays, and abruptly switching to another company when his clients began to hear about it.

According to mortgage company loan officers and current and former clients, Turner has been taking money up front from unsuspecting clients and refusing to return it -- or phone calls -- when it becomes clear he is unwilling or unable to build their homes. Delays in some cases have stretched for more than eight months, with no progress made building any homes or purchasing any land.

"Nothing was stopping us other than a financial commitment from Turner," says Stephen Sieben, the owner of the land the Sanchez family was to build on. "Most people he's dealing with have no earthly idea of how a real estate deal works. And he knows how to tell a story. He knows how to tell you what you want to hear, and he tells you something you can't pin down."

The only thing more incredible than Turner's claims to build large, inexpensive homes is his clients' willingness to accept them. So far he has collected money in bundles ranging from $300 to $2,800 from at least a dozen low-income families to build homes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Not a single home has been built, and Turner owns no land. By his own admission, he hasn't coordinated a single bank loan, yet he claims there are 72 families signed up to build with him.

Turner's pitch relies on his temptingly low building costs, as well as the trustworthiness he projects as a religious man. From his sales pitch to the company answering machine, Turner suggests he is doing God's work. But for many of those who relied on Pastor Turner to build their homes, the only thing being built is his bank account.

Morris Dwayne Turner is a 27-year-old with blind-faith ambitions and a track record of disappointing clients and business associates. Although Turner says he tries to keep his business and his religion separate, the walls are pretty thin. Faith Building Systems' motto is, "If you have the faith to build, we have the works to get it done." Many of his clients hear about his cheap homes through church contacts.

"Everything in life you can relate to Christianity, because your life is Christianity," Turner says. "Christianity is to be Christ-like in all the parts of your life."

Turner looks like a heavier version of television's Urkel, with a soft face and pleasant voice. He tends to laugh as he speaks, and sports a ring with a red stone and "Morris" carved into the gold band. His cellular phone is a constant presence, yet clients describe him as a man who is extremely hard to reach when he wants to be.

Although he claims to have been ordained through the Fellowhip of Churches, attempts to locate the organization were fruitless. Turner calls himself senior pastor of the Faith Tabernacle Christian Center, a church that performs services in the recreation room of Lakewood Manor, an East Dallas housing project for the wheel-chair bound, mentally disabled, and the impoverished elderly. A sign heralding his Sunday service rests behind the soda machine in the antiseptic-smelling lobby. Residents and Lakewood Manor officials guessed that 20 residents and a handful of their family members attend Turner's service each week. Turner says the motto of his nondenominational ministry is "Taking the world by force through the word of God."

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