What would Jesus drive?
That may not have been the question parishioners across the country asked themselves in the 1990s, when ministers and deacons proclaimed that faithful Christians deserved nice new wheels and that, as former Car and Driver editor Phillips’s title has it, “God wants you to roll.” The source of vehicles for those loyal flocks was, the promise continued, an estate so roiled in legal turmoil that a judge had ordered a grand clearance under a gag order, so that no one could talk about the details: just pony up a few thousand dollars, and some almost-new vehicle, a Lincoln or a Camry or an Aries, would soon be rolling down your driveway. It was all a scam, perpetrated by a couple of 19-year-olds of smart criminal bent. In fact, Robert Gomez, known as “Buddha” in the casinos he haunted, and James Nichols got away with their scam in part because Nichols’s parents, with whom they lived, couldn’t believe that kids could dream up a hoax so diabolical—and so they took it to their Compton church, where the con took on a life of its own. And besides, Nichols’s mom said, “If you were going to run a scam, who’d hire his mother as the general sales manager?” Well, Nichols would. But even as the scam became transparent close to home—and even as Nichols himself got scammed—church groups across the country got wind of this new means of fattening their building funds by brokering auto deals; one Georgia minister collected nearly $3 million for the lads. Finally, federal agents busted Gomez and Nichols, who are now doing time. Still, Phillips notes, it’s amazing that “two boys could sell 7,000 cars to 4,000 US citizens and never deliver on a single promise for seven years”—and that millions of dollars have yet to be accounted for.
An endlessly engaging, well-written tale of true crime, again proving that P.T. Barnum was righter than he knew.