House of Cards
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."
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."
Talking with Turner about his background can become a maze of hedged comments, refashioned tales, and qualified statements. For example, Turner says he took two years of classes at Dallas Baptist University in pursuit of a law degree. A call to the registrar's office reveals he took four classes during the spring semester of 1999. Turner failed three of them and withdrew from the fourth. He also has 13 hours of "portfolio credits," which are granted to adult students based on their professional experience. In Turner's case, his experience as the operator of Faith Building Systems counted toward his degree.
Turner's version of his temporal and spiritual biography begins with the Army in Hawaii, where he managed a warehouse storing military equipment. In February 1993 he left the military and returned to his native Dallas, where he began work collecting overdue bills for a jewelry retailer. That same year, Turner, who has attended services of various denominations since age 5, decided to become a self-educated pastor. By 1994 he was preaching.
"It's a lot of responsibility, and I didn't want to do it. But I had to do what God told me to do," Turner says. "I wasn't going to be hard-headed about it. It was a great leap, a great stepping out."
His great stepping out was interrupted by an allegation of sexual abuse hurled at him by a 15-year old neighbor. In 1995, Turner was arrested and charged with indecency with a child. He was acquitted three years later.
According to statements given to the Cedar Hill police, Turner met the boy through church. "I always wanted to meet him, cause he always look at me crazy," the boy told police. "Later on, he moved next door with his mother and father, so then we started hanging around each other night and day. When we started going out to eat, I would tell him how my older brother died, so then we got in talking about how he would like to be my big brother now."
Turner's account is one of a man who tried to keep a troubled youth company, only to be rewarded by being stalked. The boy's mother, he says, wanted him to treat her son like a brother. Turner claims the boy became intensely jealous when he found out that Turner was engaged to his current wife, Jennifer. The jealousy culminated in the arson of Turner's car, an action that Turner's first defense attorney Charles Maduka says was attributed to the boy and virtually destroyed the case against Turner.
The charge is not alone on Morris Turner's rap sheet; his record includes five charges of theft by check. Four are fairly typical bounced checks made out to supermarkets, ranging from $39 to $76. The district attorney dismissed each case in exchange for repayment to the store owners. The largest bounced check was $1,000 made out to a Christian newsletter called Life in the Spirit.
Life in the Spirit owner Venita Dillard-Allen recalls that in 1997, Turner bought a full-page ad in the now-defunct newsletter promoting a gospel concert that the Faith Tabernacle Christian Center was sponsoring. The check bounced. Turner promised to pay, then stopped returning calls. Dillard-Allen filed charges and Turner was arrested; soon after that she started receiving checks from him.
"I thought, 'Well he's a minister. He seems so sincere, he must be legitimate,'" she says. "I was determined to get the money. It really bothered me that he called himself a minister."
In late 1998, Turner hung a shingle reading "builder" and began taking clients. Faith Building Systems is an unincorporated business, and he needs no license to operate legally.
What Morris Turner lacks in credentials he makes up for in ambition. His new dream revolves around subleasing commercial property while building a multifamily development in Cedar Hill. His original building plans focused on Mountain Creek, until he discovered the land he was supposedly considering is in a floodplain.
"Most of the people with us know the process and understand that they are building with a new company, and they know we have to go through hoops and red tape," Turner says. "But you can't get everyone to understand everything all the time."
But if Turner's problems are those of a first-time builder with good intentions, he could easily repair the damage by returning money or even admitting he was confused by the process.
"I've never worked with a builder that operates like this guy," says Kevin Miller, senior loan officer and vice president of 1st Team Mortgage, one of several mortgage companies that dealt with Turner's clients. "Whatever's going on, it's bad. This 'God Bless You' guy is just taking everyone's money."
Turner's current enterprises now center around office space at 726 W. Highway 303 in Grand Prairie that he leases from Southwest Commercial Management. The space is home to Faith Building Systems, but Turner is busy subleasing office spaces to any interested businesses. So far he has signed on a golf store and security alarm company, and Turner says a barbershop, beauty salon, and an Asian grocery store are close to setting up shop.
The building needs work. The roof leaks and the parking lot is cracked and uneven. A broken but legible bank sign -- a vestige of the former occupant -- stands by the road. Turner's office lacks wallboard. Buckets sit on the floor to catch water from the leaky roof.
The man who can't even build his own church is offering to build one for one of his tenants, the C.H.A.N.G.E.D. Family Outreach Center, a self-professed "multicultural and dynamic ministry." The unwieldy acronym stands for Christ Helping A New Generation Excel Daily. The church was the first tenant in the building and serves as the spiritual cornerstone of the rental space.
The church and its dual pastors, Liz and Paul Juarez, have been caught in the overlap of Turner's shady business deals and his religious trappings. They helped coordinate meetings where Turner speaks to -- and collects money from -- new and existing home-building clients. Turner calls these "status meetings."
The Juarezes are two transplanted evangelicals who left their street ministry and prison revivals in Lansing, Michigan, three years ago for the spiritually fertile Bible Belt. Their ambitions dovetailed with Turner's: He wanted to establish 726 W. Highway 303 as a profitable business space, and the Juarezes needed a cheap space to build their new church.
Liz Juarez says she and her husband were renting out spaces in Relax Inn halls and retirement homes to hold Bible studies and revivals when they met Turner at a meeting of God's Tabernacle of Deliverance, a loose network of area churches devoted to promoting new churches.
"We were just waiting and praying for something better," she says.
Turner and the Juarezes' dreams were mutually supporting. Turner was able to give the Juarez family hope of fulfilling their most prized ambition -- building a community around their church, achieving the status of a supported parsonage. The Juarezes have what Turner lacks, a church with a congregation. Their first step closer together came when Turner offered them below-market rent in the building he was leasing.
"Pastor Turner told us the building was old and had leaks. But anywhere was better than what we had," Liz Juarez says. "He told us there would be a lot of work. We felt grateful. Pastor Turner has been a blessing."
By the time C.H.A.N.G.E.D was established, Turner had also sold the pastors on entrusting him to build a new church from scratch. After handing over $400 in earnest money, Liz Juarez said her husband drew a set of floor plans to give Turner an idea of what they wanted. Turner replied that they were "pretty good floor plans," and left it at that. No blueprints for the church have been drafted. There is no land selected for construction. The delay has not rattled the Juarezes, even as stories from in and out of their congregation cast Turner in a less-than-holy light.
"I know if I continue to wait, my church will be built," Liz Juarez says. "We have patience. No one knows what we've been through, moving here and starting all over. We took a lot of blows from other people when we were starting out, working from our home. I understand beginnings, and I know what things look like to other people from the outside."
Turner quickly raided the Juarezes' congregation for home-building clients. The church and Turner co-sponsored a meeting at the Mountain Creek branch of Dallas Public Library. The DeGollido family attended the meeting and gave Turner $400. The description and prices Turner offered were great -- a home in a new community with the C.H.A.N.G.E.D. church as its center.
"Morris Turner was doing all the talking," says Andrea DeGollido, a 29-year-old mother of four who attended with her husband, Robert. "He said, 'This is going to happen, God wants it to happen.' There was more preaching than anything else. And Paul [Juarez] was backing him up."
The meeting was even stranger when it came time for paperwork. "He gave us this big ol' blank paper and asked us to sign. He said he'd fill the rest in later," she says. "He took the original papers and said he'd take them to the mortgage company."
As time went on, the deal Turner was selling became less focused. The DeGollidos' hearts sank when Turner finally admitted he had no land to build on after the land at Mountain Creek was found to be in a floodplain.
Turner began to spit out dates and deadlines, only to miss them and set new ones. "He always said it would happen at the end of the month. December came to January. Then it was March, June, July," DeGollido says. "Then he wouldn't return my calls. It had been months."
Now she is paying for storage, where she keeps the new furniture and decorations she had accumulated for the new house. Even worse, her brother hired Turner to build a fence. After paying him in advance, the family has not heard from Turner.
There may be a sea change within the C.H.A.N.G.E.D ministry. Once ardent boosters, Liz Juarez says she and her husband are no longer recommending that anyone from her congregation build with Turner.
"I believe in Pastor Turner. A lot of people make mistakes. I just hope he takes the opportunity to make it right," she says. "He's just one man trying to do the right thing."
It would be hard to convince Eileen Sanchez that Turner is trying to do the right thing.
She heard about Faith Building Systems through the DeGollidos, who were impressed with the prices they had been quoted. Sanchez's husband, James, a co-worker with Robert DeGollido, brought home news of the possibility of owning a cheap home. The prospect was tempting enough for them to meet with Turner.
James Sanchez works in Grand Prairie as a machine operator for Smurffit Stone Container, a corrugated carton manufacturer. Eileen stays home with the three children. Faced with an imminent rent increase, the Sanchez family was eager to leave the family's two-bedroom apartment. She and her husband were under the impression there was land to build on, and the price was fantastic.
"All this whole time I was trying to get a big house. I thought, 'I guess God is going to give us what we really want,'" she says.
When Sanchez and her husband first met Turner at the ramshackle Faith Building offices last December, she immediately became leery because he was wearing black sweat pants, a faded Nike T-shirt, and sneakers. Nevertheless, they gave him a $300 personal check as earnest money, funds that ensure that the Sanchez family would not back out of the deal. Turner fed them details about the house, including the washing machine units, bedrooms, and decor. He never mentioned the absence of land to build on.
"He told us everything we wanted to hear," Sanchez says. "Everything out of his mouth was 'God loves you. God cares.'"
At a later meeting, Turner showed them a book of floor plans and asked for another $325 for an "appraisal." Exactly what was being appraised, and by whom, was never explained. The Sanchezes, who had never bought property, handed over a money order. In the meantime, she recommended friends and family speak with Turner about other building projects.
"I gave everyone here in my apartment complex his cards. Only one couple gave him money. I went to everyone later and said get rid of those cards," Eileen Sanchez says. "He gave us a lot of business cards and we, like dummies, passed them along."
Turner referred her name to Classic Mortgage, of Duncanville, to get a loan.
Diane May, owner of Classic Mortgage, says Turner referred at least eight clients to Classic and asked the company to run credit checks on them. Turner himself collected the money for these credit checks, but when it came time to pay, he bounced a $500 check, May says.
"He said he was coming, coming, coming. But he never came," May says. "I told Mr. Turner, 'Stop collecting my credit money,' but he still did."
Turner maintains that May was trying to overcharge Faith Building Systems for credit checks, so he stopped payment on the checks. (The usual practice for builders is to have clients write checks directly to the mortgage company.)
Shortly afterward, Turner changed his phone number. Turner stopped referring clients to Classic and switched to 1st Team Mortgage in Dallas. Eileen Sanchez was one of the clients who switched; May returned $325 to the Sanchez family for the "appraisal."
"For me, I lost $500, and I'm disappointed about that. But I'm also so disappointed with him, because he represented himself as a Christian man. I figured he wouldn't take advantage of his people," May says. "Dummy me, I took him at his word."
Like many of Turner's jaded business associates, May is throwing up her hands. "I'll just write it off and leave it alone," she says. "It will eventually come out if he is a home builder and a man of his word." May pauses. "I guess it is coming out."
Turner lays much of the blame for the Sanchez deal breakdown on Classic Mortgage, which failed the Sanchez family by not "getting her paperwork in on time." By paperwork, he explains, he means a "preliminary appraisal" on the plans he sold her. But without land to appraise or financial backing of a bank, both of which Turner said he'd coordinate, the deal was effectively dead.
Turner also maintains that his clients have 30 days from the execution of the contract to get their paperwork in order -- described as a "feasibility period" -- before their right to have a refund of the earnest money expires. In short, he is asking people who know next to nothing about property deals to arrange their own paperwork, sending them blindly to confused mortgage companies.
After the blowout with Classic Mortgage, Turner began referring clients to Kevin Miller of 1st Team Mortgage. But things didn't go smoothly with that company, either.
Miller said Turner's methods were far from the professionalism he normally sees in builders, especially new builders eager to inspire confidence. As the referrals added up and the potential borrowers told Miller about the fantastic deals Turner was offering, the lender became suspicious.
"Normally a builder will establish a relationship by sending borrowers one at a time and making sure they are worthy of a loan," Miller says. "He seemed to be saying, 'I'm going to send people to you and don't bother approving them.'"
For starters, Turner didn't have the credit even to approach the deals he was putting together. For someone with no financial backing, he couldn't afford the property deals he was involved in. Turner's clients would tell them how much they could afford and how big a house they wanted, and he'd promise to deliver blueprints within their budget. At best, Miller reasoned, Turner was overreaching by taking money from multiple people up front, especially before building a single home.
When Turner's clients spoke of an interim loan that was holding up the building process, Miller was suspicious. Banks require documentation from mortgage companies before handing out an interim loan used to begin construction in order to ensure that the building will be built. Turner never asked Miller for this documentation. Banks also require an official evaluation of the land where the home will be built. Miller saw that Turner's clients didn't know anything about this.
After Miller requested a meeting with Turner, telling him he was uncomfortable with their business relationship, Turner stood him up three times and stopped referring clients to him.
In the meantime, the Sanchezes had picked out a plot of land for their house. Stephen Sieben owns the land, which he offered to sell for $16,000. Sanchez called him and said her builder -- Turner -- would contact him to buy the property.
On December 16, Sieben received a letter of proposal to buy land from Turner. Two weeks later he signed a contract with no earnest money down and no closing date. On the contract, any space requiring a date read: "To be Determined."
Sieben says Turner promised that his unspecified financial backers would contact Sieben to reassure him that they were working on their land deal. No call ever came. Two weeks later, Sieben convinced Turner to go to a title company and pushed the deal to a point where all that was lacking was a letter from the bank saying the money was in place.
It was put up or shut up time. The title company and Sieben never heard anything from Turner or any of his purported lenders. Sieben turned away three potential buyers in the confusion, and his land remains unsold. Angered, Sieben complained to the Dallas Better Business Bureau, stating in a letter: "Mr. Turner has not made any progress toward the purchase of this property and has no intention to do so. Mr. Turner is running a scam building company to take advantage of people by taking earnest money from them with the promise of building them a house for an unusually low price."
Turner replied with a letter of his own: "This complaint is without merit and legally inaccurate. Our company contracted with Mr. Sieben to purchase land for the Sanchezes. Their financing was never finished and or [sic] the appraisal needed for our company to get the interim loan needed to build and purchase the land. Mr. Sieben has been pressuring this couple to buy the property ever since we contracted. The Sanchezes have withdrawn from their contract with Faith Building Systems and are entitled to their money back less any fees or items purchased for their project. In that case the Sanchez's are entitled to $0 back. Their home plans, which are being forwarded to them, plus the copy, have cost $565."
Yet Turner hasn't even paid for Sanchez's blueprints. Studer Residential Design, an architecture firm based in Newport, Kentucky, drafted the plans. Co-owner Paul Studer says his company sells their designs through magazines and blueprint catalogues for builders nationwide.
Turner bought the Studer plans for the Sanchez dream home through Garlinghouse Magazine, based in Middletown, Connecticut. Garlinghouse has records of Turner's purchases and, according to a company official, sometimes their accounting department refers to him as "that little S.O.B."
"He gave us this sap story that he was an ordained minister who was building low-income homes," says Regina Curtis, a Garlinghouse spokeswoman and main customer service liaison. "We did a credit check, and it came up clean. So the company gave him a $2,000 line of credit."
According to Garlinghouse invoices, Turner bought three sets of home blueprints and four construction cost estimates with $1,950 of credit. He gave no money up front and, according to Curtis, "hasn't paid a dime since." His account now reads, "Customer is on bad credit. Do not process any new orders."
Turner does not dispute that he owes Garlinghouse money, but says he is taking steps to pay them. But there is something else: Turner says he exclusively orders his blueprints from Garlinghouse, meaning he bought the right to build only three homes. But according to mortgage company employees and Turner's clients, there are at least a dozen prospective home buyers dealing with Turner. Although many clients say they've not received blueprints, that still leaves a sizable gap between the number of blueprints Turner possesses and the number of homes he wants to build.
According to Garlinghouse, all blueprints distributed by their company are copyrighted and marked for authenticity with a bright red stamp. Sanchez's blueprints have no red stamp. Copyright laws make it illegal to copy or modify plans to make a home that is derivative of the original plans. The law states that each infraction is punishable by a fine of up to $100,000.
For a more positive tale, Turner recommended that the Dallas Observer speak with Eric Graves, owner of Rerunz in Wilmer. The former truck driver and his wife started their "resell store" two years ago. Their hobby has now grown into a business that supports the family's five children. A frequent customer overheard a discussion about buying a new home and recommended Turner for the job.
"He's cheap, and if he does everything that he says, it'll be a great deal," Graves says.
Graves gave Turner $800 in earnest money six months ago, followed by another $2,000 once the deal seemed to be progressing. Graves now has blueprints for a six-bedroom, three-bathroom house to be built for less than $80,000. Graves says he does not know how Turner spent his money and has seen no evidence that building materials were purchased. All he has are blueprints. An original land deal, coordinated by Graves, fell through.
"I was going to buy the land and he'd build on it," Graves says. "It's not his fault."
Turner is now helping him find land on which to build his home.
"I'm not real leery," Graves says of entrusting the construction of his family's home to an untested builder. "It took longer than I thought it would to get the blueprints. But from what I've read and what he's given me, it seems all right. I have no complaints."
Not so complacent are Jesus and Julie Fabela. In January the Fabelas visited with Turner at the Faith Building Systems office. The family has two children, ages 3 years and 8 months. He is a 22-year-old janitor and maintenance clerk. His wife is 21.
"We thought he was a very good person, that there was nothing wrong about him," Julie Fabela says.
Turner asked the Fabelas to give him $500 to get started on the blueprints and other unspecified "paperwork." Turner, dressed in his usual shorts, tennis shoes, and T-shirt, said he could build a 1,900-square-foot home for $79,000. When the Fabelas said they were looking at land to build on, he told them he had land picked out but never revealed the address.
Jesus Fabela only gave him $250 of the $500 Turner requested. Turner was accommodating when Fabela asked to pay in installments.
"I had a good impression at first...He never showed me anything he had ever built. How could I be sure he'll build one for me if he's never done it before?" Jesus says. "So I asked a lot of questions. He had an answer for every one."
But when Jesus went to his father-in-law for money to give to Turner, his father-in-law refused because he had reservations about the builder. His suspicion proved prescient when Turner's deals languished and promises were broken. The delays became a permanent stall, now a tailspin. It became evident that the blueprints they purchased were never going to arrive.
"After I gave him the money, he said it would take a week to get my blueprints," Jesus says. "I never received them at all." A similar ordeal faced the Fabelas when they tried to get their money back. "He said he was sending it through the mail, but I haven't received anything."
Turner stopped returning phone calls after Fabela asked for his money back. The family is now looking at pre-built homes and is steadily realizing how ludicrous his offer was.
2"Now we look at homes and how much they cost," Julie Fabela says. "My husband says, 'Look how expensive.' But I tell him that [Morris Turner] wasn't being truthful."
Eileen Sanchez and Morris Turner are virtually neighbors. Oftentimes Sanchez will pass the Faith Building Systems parking lot and see Turner's truck parked there. She wonders if he paid for it with her money.
In late April, Sanchez pulled up next to Turner at a stoplight in Grand Prairie. "I was staring at him to see if he'd turn his head and look at me again. He had a hamburger in one hand," she says. "We made eye contact at first, but then he kept his head turned so he'd never have to look at me again."
Sanchez now keeps busy gathering information and plaintiffs for a small claims lawsuit aimed at Faith Building Systems. She is slowly gathering information, making contacts, comparing stories, and accruing documentation. She now understands the details of how she was conned. And the diminutive woman starts to get angry.
"I want my money back, and I want him to stop doing what he's doing," she says. "He's playing games with people's lives."
Sanchez's other project is searching for a larger apartment to meet the needs of her family as the children grow. Recently, she began conversations with another builder regarding a custom-built home. Armed with her experience, she peppered the man with questions bordering on paranoia.
"I apologized to him for not believing him," Sanchez says. "But I learned not to trust anybody. That's what it comes down to."
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