(WHAS11) - Most of us have seen them; people wearing brightly colored vests collecting money in buckets at Louisville's busiest intersections. Their signs say the money goes to benefit homeless children.
But who are these people, and where does the money really go?
WHAS11's Adam Walser has been looking into the group and the money-trail during a three month investigation. He has some alarming answers to those questions.
The group is called New Life Church of Louisville, Incorporated, but the church is really just a satellite location of a much bigger operation headquartered in Tampa, Florida.
When WHAS11 started looking into that church, we discovered a cult-like group in which members are recruited from among the homeless and are thenforced to go from town-to-town collecting money in buckets.
As traffic crept beside Oxmoor Mall on the Sunday before Christmas, Louisville residents gave generously to the men holding white buckets.
Many of the same guys were back in February collecting again.
WHAS11 also has video that was shot more than 5-years-ago; men and women with similar white buckets. They are members of New Life Church of Louisville, a non-profit organization allowed by the city to collect money at intersections up to 20 days a year. And in such a giving city, you can believe the money pours in by the bucket load, and crews fan out across America.
According to former church member, Renita Arnold, when they travel they have to pay for their own expenses. She said, " You got to get the money first in order to stay in a motel room, cause they don't give you the money to stay in a motel. "
Walser asked, "And how many of you folks stay in a motel room?"& #160; The answer? "It was about six of us," said Arnold.
Members come from neighborhoods right here in Louisville. In addition to taking up donations, Arnold told us they are encouraged to sign up for federal and state benefits; and donate at least a third.
"You had to give how much to the church?" Walser asked. Arnold said, "$247 a month."
"Out of how much did you make?" "I was getting 5 something; almost half."
Down on her luck when she joined the church, Arnold said she was homeless and recovering from a drug problem when she was recruited two years ago. She says that's the case with most church members.
So just who is behind New Life Church of Louisville, Inc.? We discovered it's actually a satellite location of a much larger church founded by Bishop M.D. Jefferson of Tampa, Florida.
Jefferson started Deeper Life Ministries more than two decades ago. Experts say Deeper Life Ministries operates at least seven churches which solicit in more than two dozen states each year.
Jefferson calls himself a bishop, even though he has never provided proof that he has any formal religious training. He also has been considered 100% disabled by the Veterans Administration for the past two decades after being diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Records we found show Jefferson was charged by the feds with operating a $20,000 a month food stamp fraud ring out of his church in the late 1990's. He was acquitted, but the church itself was convicted of a felony; something that never happened before in US history.
Jefferson preaches the gospel of prosperity; something with which he has been greatly blessed.
The Hillsborough County, Floridatax assessor's office shows Jefferson and his current wife, who he married while married to another woman, own seven properties. Their combined value is $2.1 million; that includes a 9,000 square foot home, with 10 bedrooms.
In addition to homes, Florida authorities say Jefferson owns fancy cars, expensive jewelry, even a plane.
Meanwhile, church members are forced to live in places like rundown apartment complexes on West Market Street, or a former classroom building where the church operated an unlicensed shelter before the city of Louisville shut it down.
New Life Church of Louisville, Incorporated operates out of a former Catholic sanctuary on West Chestnut Street. Jefferson sent pastors Cary and Sandra Fulks to oversee the location.
WHAS11 asked a neighbor, "Is there a big service there on Sunday? " Answer? "I ain't never seen no church service. I ain't seen none," said the neighor.
Cary Fulks was arrested on federal drug trafficking and firearms charges and was convicted of food stamp fraud before moving to Louisville to operate the church. Five years ago, he told WHAS11 News who the church served, "The homeless, the needy, those that are displaced and that fall on rock bottom."
But in recent months, the Fulks are nowhere to be found.
We repeatedly visited the church and the parsonage, but were told by people who refused to identify themselves that the Fulks have gone. This was the dialogue with the woman who answered:
Adam asked, "Who's in charge now? Who's the pastor?"
"Our bishop," said the woman.
Adam: "Bishop Melvin Jefferson?"
Woman: "Uh huh."
Adam: "Is he here?"
Woman, laughing, "No."
Through property record searches, we discovered that New Life Church owns two other properties in Louisville, in addition to the church campus, including an apartment where traveling money donation collectors are sometimes housed.
Even with no leader on-site, the church is still doing what it seems to do best; raising money.
The woman said, "Yes, we still do fundraisers."
Adam: "Do you send all the money to Tampa?"
"No," she said.
Adam: "What do you do here locally?"
Woman: "Well we do the same thing they do there. We feed and clothe people."
Adam: "Do you see the ministry doing a lot to help west Louisville? Can we talk to any of the people you've helped?"< /p>
Woman: "No. Not right now."
Coming up in Part 2 of our investigation, we find out what the rules say about charitable solicitations in Louisville and how often New Life Church has been accused of breaking them.
Also hear from the pastor of another New Life church here in town about the problems this group has caused him and his congregation.