Ashes to ashes: Rev torches own church

By James Quiggle
November 1, 2004
For Rev. Gerald Rayborn, the gospel of ashes to ashes had a different meaning.

The South Memphis pastor torched his own church, reducing it to charred rubble so he could haul in nearly $800,000 in insurance money to loot for personal expenses.

Rayborn faithfully shepherded the New Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church for nearly two decades since founding it in 1981.

But hoping to snag a large insurance payout, he spread gasoline around the building and reduced it to charred rubble one smoke-filled night in 1998.

It didn’t take long for police to finger Rayborn. At first they thought it was a tragic accident. But a trained police dog named Hurricane Bob soon sniffed a fire-starting accelerant amid the ruins, and a local TV crew found a gasoline can next to the wreckage.

Gas and diesel fuel

Rayborn had poured a mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel in the church attic and his pastoral offices, then lit the fire. He wrapped paper envelopes around an air-conditioning cord, then tried to burn the envelopes to make it seem a freak electrical accident had started the blaze.

He’d stopped by the church just before the fire broke to get tax information for a builder working on his home, he told the court. That little side trip was the golden word for prosecutors: opportunity.

Rayborn also was strangely evasive. Right after the fire, he never told insurance investigators he’d returned to the church for the tax information. Nor did he tell them flammable liquids were stored in the church. And at trial, he kept telling prosecutors he didn’t remember what he’d told the insurer right after the fire.

Looting own church

Rayborn also was looting his own church all along, his secretary testified during his trial. He wrote more than $100,000 in checks to himself over two years before the fire, she said under oath. In other words, if he stole from church checking accounts, it was likely he’d try to steal church insurance money.

Further fueling suspicions, Rayborn couldn’t explain why he kept $23,000 of church money in a briefcase, or what he used it for

Rayborn’s evasiveness on other issues dug his hole deeper. He kept saying he didn’t know the answer to prosecutors’ questions, and couldn’t remember what he’d earlier told insurance investigators.

“Only one person had exclusive access, exclusive opportunity, exclusive motive” to torch the church, a prosecutor told the jury. “The church would still be here if it didn’t have insurance of $792,000.”

Cloud of suspicion

Rayborn’s parishioners, meanwhile, faced a trial as difficult as his own. Not only did they have to continue on while charges hung over their church’s own founder, but the insurer had refused to pay the church’s claim while the cloud of suspicion hung over the fire. So church members had to pony up $900,000 themselves to rebuild the gutted structure.

The federal jury finally convicted Rayborn after lengthy debates. He was scheduled for sentencing in November 2004.

When asked at trial whether he’d set the fire, Rayborn replied, “Absolutely not. I love that church.”

Apparently not enough.

View previous "Fraud Cases of the Month"

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