A smoky voice rings up to the rafters of the pink chapel at the Cathedral of the Valley in Glendale. With an otherworldly echo, it calls out to the 20 or so faithful gathered for the Sunday-afternoon service:

"We lift up our hands toward Heaven and say, 'Jesus, I reach up to You, reach down to me. . . .'"
The voice belongs to James Alderdice, who is trying to reach up to the Lord from the worldly trials and excesses of his past life.

Alderdice is a man of average height in a slimly cut, double-breasted suit. He's got high cheekbones, hair slicked back in a cut worthy of a television evangelist and a light-brown mustache flecked with gray. He has been legally blind since childhood, but has enough peripheral vision that as he looks at you out of the corner of his eye, his steely-blue gaze seems to focus somewhere just over your shoulder. And when he preaches, he scrunches up his eyes as if they hurt.

Or maybe it's the memories.
In Florida in the early 1980s, Alderdice and his older brother, Bill, were charged with defrauding 13,000 would-be investors out of $75 million in one of the nation's largest-ever precious-metals frauds. Jim served five years in prison, and although he did not have to make restitution to his victims, the IRS is still waiting for more than $700,000 worth of the take; proceeds from swindles are taxable income. Justice is blind, after all, and so is faith, and sometimes also the preacher.

Alderdice studied the Bible in jail in Florida, and somehow emerged as youth minister of the First Assembly of God of Glendale. His pastoral message today is about salvation, and the cadence and crescendos of raw emotion surge through the clichs: Seek and ye shall find, ask and it will be given, and so on.

Religion has saved Jim Alderdice from a life of crime and depredation. He has given his testimony, confessed his past sins and, according to the doctrine of the church that adopted him, all is forgiven. He is reborn. He is a new man.

Or is he? The Arizona District Council of Assemblies of God recently disaffiliated this tiny congregation--which has long been plagued by money problems and church politics. It's the only Arizona church in memory to have declared bankruptcy, to lose its church building through foreclosure. The District Council was so peeved that it also chose not to renew the credentials of the church's charismatic and controlling pastor, the Reverend Philip V. Sturgeon. And Jim Alderdice himself may be guilty of behavior many consider worse than fraud.

And no one there will talk about any of it, because, they say, they answer only to the Lord.

@body:The financial career of the brothers Alderdice was a fool's crusade, judging from accounts published by the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and the New York Times, and from information gleaned from police and federal prosecutors. It was a misguided mission from God that dragged thousands of investors straight to hell. The brothers, however, felt they were free of sin.

Though they professed to be good Christians, Bill and Jim Alderdice were a couple of smalltime Florida hustlers. Both (and a sister) suffered from a hereditary condition that left them with little more than peripheral vision. But they had more than enough attitude to compensate for the handicap.

Bill was Jim's guiding light, the older of the two by 12 years, and, at age 35, he had already been a hair stylist, and at various times had owned a chain of wig shops, a restaurant and a pinball emporium, all of which went out of business. But in 1978, he moved to Fort Lauderdale, where Jim was already selling gold chains door to door.

A year later, they succeeded in borrowing enough money to open a jewelry store, a classy joint with soft music and complimentary champagne. Business was good, especially in gold coins, because economic times were rough and financial survivalists were investing in gold. The brothers began selling gold bullion through the mail and over the phone, and when cash started pouring into their business, they bought full-page ads in the Wall Street Journal, and then money flowed more freely. The deal was this: The Alderdices and their new company, International Gold Bullion Exchange, would offer gold at below-market rates--provided the investors would wait a few months to take delivery.

At first, they obtained cheap gold from Latin America to fill orders. Then, as gold prices dropped, they could sell at a low price, then just let the market take over and make delivery when international prices dipped below that rate. Somewhere along the way, they started postponing delivery indefinitely, as if the money were theirs to spend.