By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Iolanda and Pasquale Ranalli immigrated to New York from Italy in 1953. Middle-aged and poor, they had modest aspirations--to raise their three children, and then to save enough money for a happy retirement in America.
But life in America was more of a struggle than they had envisioned. Unable to speak English, Iolanda worked as a seamstress for 65 cents an hour; Pasquale was a railroad laborer.
In 1978, the couple moved to Phoenix for health reasons. Ten years later, Pasquale died.
The next year, 1989, Iolanda was 77 years old, weary of living alone in the little house she and her husband had purchased. So she sold the house, her only asset, and "invested" the proceeds--$66,000, all the money she owned--in a two-bedroom, two-bath residence in a Christian retirement community called Paradise Valley Estates. Now known as Baptist Village-Paradise Valley, the retirement community is located at 25th Place and Cactus, near the Phoenix Mountains Preserve.
Iolanda, a Catholic, liked the fact that elderly Christians of all denominations were welcome. Touted as a place where elderly believers could live happily and safely, the retirement community was being built and promoted by ministers affiliated with the Conservative Baptist Church, a Baptist denomination.
Iolanda now says that because she was personally dealing with Robert Lindstrom, a Baptist minister, she trusted him when he asked her to sign a so-called "equity agreement." Based on what Lindstrom told her, she says, she was convinced that by signing the agreement she was investing her life savings in a condolike "garden home" that she could sell--for a profit--when she could no longer live independently.
Iolanda did not consult a lawyer before closing the deal because Lindstrom impressed her as a good Christian who quoted the Bible.
"I know the Bible, I live by the Bible," she says in broken English during a recent interview with New Times. "I trusted," Iolanda says.
Iolanda Ranalli doesn't trust anymore.
In 1993, Iolanda broke her back and could no longer live alone in her "garden home"--actually a small suite in a rectangular two-story building that could pass for any number of cookie-cutter apartment complexes in Phoenix.
But when Iolanda tried to sell her place, she was stunned to learn that she didn't own the residence, had never owned it, had only purchased the right to occupy it until she died.
And her money would be refunded to her only if someone else first purchased the right to "occupy" the residence, she discovered.
But four years later, Iolanda's little unit is still empty, even though Paradise Valley Estates was sold in 1995 to companies controlled by a different, and richer, Baptist denomination--the Southern Baptists.
Last year, when Iolanda was 83, the new owners offered to lease Iolanda's place and return her life savings in increments of $580 monthly, noting that she would receive the entire sum in "approximately 8.5 years."
Iolanda angrily refused the offer, observing that she can't wait until she is 91 to recover her savings.
Iolanda is now 84, ashamed that she must live with an adult daughter after years of saving for a secure retirement. Her only income--a $600 monthly social security check--does not cover costs of food, expensive medicine, clothing.
Because Iolanda is too poor to afford a lawyer, her daughter sought assistance from the State Bar Association, which refers poor elderly people to law firms that volunteer their services.
In March, Iolanda Ranalli filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court. She contends that Conservative Baptist companies and several affiliated ministers had defrauded her of her life savings. She also claims that the Southern Baptists, the new owners, have made no effort to sell her "garden home" so that she can get her money back, but are instead using it as a model for prospective tenants.
"There is a statute in Arizona that forbids financial exploitation of the elderly," says Dennis Kiker, Iolanda's attorney. "This is not a simple contract or tort suit. This is a social issue--the exploitation of an extremely vulnerable class of people."
Public documents obtained by New Times reveal that Iolanda Ranalli isn't the only elderly Christian who claims to have been cheated of her money by the Baptist groups connected with the northeast Phoenix retirement center.
In a 1993 Superior Court lawsuit that was settled out of court, investors, many of whom were elderly, claimed that Conservative Baptist ministers used their stature as men of the cloth to sell them unregistered securities (bonds) issued by an insolvent Conservative Baptist corporation.
In a separate, ongoing case, 16 elderly residents of Baptist Village-Paradise Valley accuse ministers and several Baptist companies of fraud in connection with sales of the residences in the retirement center, and of "using their name, appearance of integrity and church affiliation to instill trust" of prospective buyers.
In that same lawsuit, some retirees also claim they sank their life savings into the retirement center because ministers falsely assured them that a nursing home would be built on the property to accommodate them as their health failed.
The nursing home has not been built.
Several widows, like Ranalli, claim they have no means other than their equity in the retirement center--equity they had been told at the time of their purchase would be easily recoverable. They claim that because the units aren't selling and have decreased in value, they cannot recover their life savings.