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In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Wholly Owned Subsidiary

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This is not the sort of retirement the Gilmores had planned.
"The thing," says Jesse, "that runs through my heart and head is, 'Jesse, you made a lousy deal. How are you going to recover your money?'"

Eighty-eight-year-old Lonnie Davis believes he has strayed from the path God intended him to take.

He feels imprisoned in the north Phoenix "garden home" he and his wife purchased in 1987, thinking they were making a good investment in the retirement village for elderly Christians. The man who sold them on the idea was a Baptist minister, for heaven's sake.

"I think the Lord has told me a lot of things without words," Lonnie says. "I think the Lord didn't want us here, we weren't meant to be here and that's why all of this happened to us."

His wife, Lena, 83, pats her husband's knee to soothe him.
"Now Lonnie, the Bible says all things work together for good to those who love the Lord," she says.

Their little residence is crammed with artifacts of their 61 years together--pictures of Jesus, portraits of children, a cuckoo clock, a copper kettle, a crystal candy dish.

Lena still plays her piano, and Lonnie still belts out tunes he learned in the dance halls in the days before he found Jesus.

They've had a good life, they say--until they moved to the retirement community.

"We should never have come here," Lonnie says again. "I loved our old place. It had fruit trees and everything." The Davises trusted the Reverend Robert Lindstrom when they paid $63,000 for their two-bedroom residence at Paradise Valley Estates. The pastor had assured them they were making a good investment that would appreciate.

Lonnie reluctantly moved out of the couple's east Phoenix home, said goodbye to his fruit trees and carted his tools to the retirement center's woodworking shop. A natural handyman, he kept himself busy by helping other residents fix up their places.

Lonnie and Lena never dreamed of suing anyone, let alone a bunch of ministers. But they joined the Gilmores and other residents in the 1995 lawsuit.

They never would have chosen to live at Baptist Village, they say, if they'd been told the company building the retirement center was insolvent. Or if they'd been told they didn't actually own their residence.

They are appalled that no representative of the church has ever expressed remorse for what has happened.

The Davises want to move in with their daughter in Sun City, but they have only social security income and no savings other than the money they paid for their unit. And the units aren't exactly liquid assets.

They see the lawsuit as their only hope, but they wonder if it will be settled during their lifetimes.

Since they've filed suit, they say, they've felt unwelcome. It's not the other residents, Lena says, it's subtle actions taken by the management (an accusation Southern Baptist representatives deny). For example, Lonnie was warned not to park his golf cart by the woodworking shop, not to help other residents with fix-it projects. And Lena was enraged when the new owners told her and others to remove her plants and outdoor furniture from her front porch. She defied the order.

"How can they treat old people this way?" Lena asks. "This is supposed to be our home."

After their children grew up, Paula and Tom Mentis decided to try out retirement living. Because Paula is an Assembly of God minister and both are devout Christians, Paradise Valley Estates appealed to them. They sold their house for about $105,000.

In March 1994, they believed Whitney Benson, a salesman who told them they were purchasing two "condo-type" units for $105,000--one unit for Paula's mother and the other for Tom and Paula. Because the Mentises are relatively "young"--Tom is 69 and Paula is 63--they figured they'd sell their unit if they didn't like the lifestyle.

When the retirement center was sold to the Southern Baptists in 1995, the Mentises say they approached the new owners and asked how to go about selling their "condo-type unit." They thought they could live in the unit until they recovered their money, much like they had sold their previous home.

"You can't sell it," they remember the man saying. "You don't own it."
"It was like someone had handed down a jail sentence," says Paula.
"We can't sell it and they won't sell it."

The salesman, Whitney Benson, was also apparently deceived. In a sworn affidavit, Benson said in 1995 that his boss, the Reverend Edward L. Mitchell, instructed him to tell buyers that the complex was "debt free, that a buyer or buyers were buying a condominium type residence which, after being vacated by an owner or owners would be re-sold by Arizona Baptist Retirement Services. . . . I was never told that a buyer owned nothing nor did any of the sales literature or contract so state. . . . I was not told that the Arizona Baptist Retirement Services was in default on more than $2,500,000 of bonds which were not subject to then pending litigation. . . . I had no knowledge of any inquiry, investigation or any other activity by the Arizona Corporation Commission as to Arizona Baptist Retirement Services . . ."

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Terry Greene Sterling