By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Alderdice claimed he never knew the police had been called. "I don't know where it comes from," Alderdice said of the allegation, "and, of course, it's absolutely untrue."
@body:Discerning the truth about anything that involves the former First Assembly of God of Glendale is like being on Wheel of Fortune with six vowels and eight consonants exposed and still not being able to read the secret message. The members seem good, God-fearing folk, but they will not be questioned, they maintain, because they need answer only to the Lord.
One thing is clear: The Reverend Philip Sturgeon commands a faithful following that is willing to turn a blind eye to his peculiar escapades and lapses of business logic.
In the early 1980s, Sturgeon decided to trade a paid-for church building on 59th Avenue in Glendale for a five-acre parcel of prime land farther north on Peoria Avenue. There, he intended to remodel a small house on the property and turn it into a chapel, where the 300-member congregation could worship until it could build a new church.
Though Sturgeon portrays the land swap as a unanimous decision on the part of the congregation, his church membership mysteriously dropped from 300 to 16 when the paperwork was final.
"I was setting in my office with boxes of books stacked around me and a stack of letters on the floor that had been dropped through my mail slot during that night or that morning," Sturgeon wrote in a recent letter to Assemblies of God headquarters in Springfield, Missouri. "These letters were from members of the church saying how much they loved me, the church, the choir, the music, the teaching, etc.; but the Lord had told them to leave. . . . These letters were all coming from three hundred people who just a few weeks earlier had voted 100 percent to relocate the church."
Perhaps truth is defined by the version of events that history chooses to remember, regardless of what may have happened. The collective memory of Sturgeon's congregation says that the former members "dropped the ball."
The Reverend Leroy Owens, pastor of Victory Assembly of God in Glendale, recalls it differently: "My daughter attended there," Owens says. "[Sturgeon] would call a special business meeting and have all the members there, and they would turn it down," he says, referring to the land swap. "They didn't want to do it. They left before he moved out and sold the church. They saw he was determined to do certain things, so they just left."
Sturgeon, however, saw himself as the victim, and in his letter to the church fathers in Missouri, compared himself to Christ. "I believe a similar thing happened to our Lord just six days after a triumphal entry into Jerusalem," he wrote.
Until it could fashion the new chapel, the remains of the congregation met in a local school cafeteria.
There followed a string of interest-free loans from Sturgeon's family and followers--some for as much as $100,000--and high-interest loans taken through mortgage companies. According to church-board members, each of these loans was to cover earlier notes, hundreds of thousands of dollars that never seemed to get paid off. On more than one occasion, Sturgeon was reduced to borrowing the church mortgage payments from his garage mechanic, who was not even a member of the church. "Phil, he's the type of guy, he could have a brand-new car and it would break down on him every time he drove 100 miles," the mechanic says.
Often, the church could not afford to pay Sturgeon's salary, so he returned to school--though in his late 40s--to become a surgeon's assistant, and was eventually forced into bankruptcy.
So was the church. In 1987, Sturgeon and his board of directors mortgaged the property for $185,000, then quickly fell behind on those payments.
The Arizona District Council of Assemblies of God lent them another $70,000. However, only a fraction of the money went toward the impending mortgage.
"When we lent them the $70,000 to hold off the creditors on their loan, I think Sturgeon used that for back salary and a lot of other things that were due him," says Reverend Sites, superintendent of the District Council.
Four months' back payments went directly to the title company; the rest went to pay off a $30,000 loan from Sturgeon's wife's uncle and a smaller loan from Sturgeon's garage mechanic. Nearly $24,000 went directly to the church, and, at most, $8,400 of that may have gone toward the mortgage.
In spring 1991, a little more than a year after Jim Alderdice's arrival, the First Assembly of God of Glendale filed for protection under Chapter 11. Though the church's board of directors insists that Alderdice has no say in church finances, the reorganization papers listed him as a board member. On the articles of disclosure filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission, Alderdice was also listed as a board member--even though the church had checked a box stating that no board member had ever served as an officer of a corporation that had gone bankrupt. Then, as IGBE had on a grander scale, the church simply walked away from $273,000 in loans, including the district money, the mortgage and loans from church members.