Rony Denis and his House of Prayer church were known to the military community long before they were raided last month by the FBI.
For years, soldiers had shared accounts on message boards of crossing the church's path. They told alarming stories of church members showing up in barracks unannounced or encouraging troops to get into vans that roamed bases.
Fort Stewart in Georgia even put several businesses tied to church leadership on an "off limits" list in 2017, along with a couple of unrelated adult stores and a cash advance shop.
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The House of Prayer had been approaching troops for nearly two decades, promising them a religious community that would understand them. But former members now say Denis and his church were in the business of bilking veterans out of their service benefits.
Since 2013, the church collected more than $7 million in GI Bill payments for Bible study classes, which former students and the former director of the program say were little more than disorganized meetings that provided little to no educational content for veterans.
Former members also allege Denis and the church pressured veteran members to apply for home loans through the Department of Veterans Affairs so they could cash in on the cheaper interest rates and then charge rent that was handed over to the church.
Injured veterans were also coached on how to maximize VA disability payments, which would then be donated to the church, the former members told Military.com.
"They said this was another way God is going to bless the church while blessing you as well," said Rosalie Wright, an Army veteran and mother of four who was talked into spending her GI Bill benefits at the church.
The FBI raided five church facilities -- all right outside major military installations -- in June. Those locations included Hinesville and Augusta, Georgia; Tacoma, Washington; Killeen, Texas; and Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Authorities seized computers, church records and cash, but made no arrests. Law enforcement officials declined requests to detail what the raids were about.
A Military.com reporter visited the church's campus in Hinesville to ask about the federal investigation, but congregants declined to answer questions or comment. They did provide a tour of their facility, pointing to damage on several interior doors with splinters near the frames allegedly caused by agents during their raid.
"We have been advised by our lawyers not to speak, make comments, or make statements to the media or anyone while the Bible Seminary is being investigated," Rev. Jeff Derby, a spokesperson for the church, told Military.com in a statement. In emails, Derby also warned this publication not to approach members for interviews.
Those who have left the church describe it as a cult that used high-pressure and sometimes humiliating tactics on them to remain and donate. An expert on cults described the House of Prayer as a "destructive authoritarian church," but said Denis could be seen as a charismatic authoritarian cult leader because of his methods.
"God gave me permission to kill everybody in here," Denis preached during one Sunday service, according to Wright, the Army veteran and former parishioner. "But I won't, because I love you."
Denis, an Army veteran himself, placed veterans at the center of his flock. He delivered sermons painting all those who question him, the church or its pursuit of VA benefits as threats, according to interviews with former members of the church.
The former soldier turned church leader has amassed three multimillion-dollar homes in Georgia and Florida, real estate records show. Meanwhile, he has built an insular community where anyone who leaves is shunned by any loved ones who remain, the former members said. Many were told to live in church dorms so that they would be protected from the perils of the outside world, while their houses could be rented to bring in revenue for the church.
Some said they believe Denis, whose Army service included an administrative role in South Korea in the mid-1980s, is no longer in Hinesville, where the church is headquartered, or has potentially left the country. He recently told some members of the church to have their passports ready.
Military.com interviewed a dozen former members who attended the church's various locations, many of whom said their traumatic experiences pushed them away from organized religion altogether. The publication also reviewed court filings, the church's business filings and recordings of Denis' sermons. Other sources included families of former members, regulators, veteran advocates, law enforcement officials, lawmakers and officials with the VA.
A River of GI Bill Money
The GI Bill program is one of the federal government's most successful entitlement programs. It has helped generations of service members into steady, middle-class jobs, on top of being a key recruiting incentive for the military. Roughly 1 million beneficiaries use the scholarship every year.
The House of Prayer charged the government millions in GI Bill benefits, according to public records, but it seldom gave out diplomas and failed to meet a series of key VA standards put in place to make sure schools are providing useful education to vets.
Veterans who have earned GI Bill benefits are provided a certain number of semesters, based on the length of their service, before they've exhausted the benefit.
Arlen Bradeen, who served in the Army in the 1980s, ran the Bible school from its inception in 2004 until he left the church in 2018. He said the school was built to bleed veterans of that tuition benefit, with the church dramatically increasing semester costs when it was approved for the GI Bill around 2013. Semesters cost roughly $300 when the school started, but that price rose to about $3,000 once the church became a GI Bill-approved school, Bradeen said.
"It burns me because there were a lot of good people who burned their VA money at these schools," Bradeen said. "They used all their college money to donate to Denis' Rolls Royces."
The schools do not maintain the full array of courses that is typical of other education institutions, and Bradeen described a series of tricks he says the church employed to make sure the GI Bill money would keep flowing.
Classes were often renamed to satisfy a VA requirement that federal dollars can't be used for a student to repeat a course, Bradeen said, with most resembling a regular Sunday school session centered around different elements of the Bible.
"We wanted all of them in there full time," Bradeen said. "So, we would rename classes so they can retake the class."
To impress VA inspectors who would occasionally visit, students would often be tasked with dressing up the building, he said, bringing in desks and placing books to make it appear the church had functional classrooms.
For service members who see the GI Bill as a lifeline, those years of potentially wasted benefits are still haunting them.
Wright served three years in the Army in supply logistics and is a mother of four striving to become a nurse. But the schooling she needs to be able to do the job is too expensive without taking out loans, and the years in the church depleted her GI Bill benefit and left her without a degree or marketable skills.
"I am still trying to get established, and it doesn't feel great," she told Military.com. "When I got two kids in high school, I feel I should be further along and I could really use the GI Bill right now."
Wright got out of church roughly six years ago. She was pressured to attend the Bible school and use her GI Bill benefit, she said.
Will Hubbard, the vice president for veterans and military policy at Veterans Education Success, an advocacy group, told Military.com that regulators should have spotted the red flags with the church.
"I think your average taxpayer or veteran, or really anybody is going to be like, 'How did this happen?'" Hubbard said. "The answer is poor front-end filters. A school like this should have never been approved for the GI Bill."
Despite his reservations about the program he was running that was pulling in millions for the church intended for veterans' education, Bradeen said one thing that kept him around was the organization's hold on his wife. While Bradeen slowly broke away, she was fully committed and wouldn't leave. He described a series of events in which church leaders would force his wife to confess to sins she never committed, a common method of manipulation described by other sources.
But after years of what he described as psychological abuse, Bradeen finally left the church, which meant leaving his wife behind.
"When I got home that night after leaving the church, my family had all of my belongings at the front door of my house," he said. "I became homeless."
State approving agencies, or SAAs, have the responsibility to determine what constitutes a legitimate school that is eligible for GI Bill money. They are tasked with scrutinizing some 4,000 approved schools.
The SAAs started cracking down on House of Prayer earlier this year, following a complaint from Veterans Education Success outlining allegations against the church and accusing it of "defrauding veterans of their hard-earned benefits."
The North Carolina SAA terminated GI Bill eligibility for the church's Fayetteville location in January. Georgia followed suit on June 27, the week after the FBI's raids. Shortly after, Texas and North Carolina suspended eligibility for the churches in their states, but only temporarily and lasting no longer than 60 days, a relatively typical practice that gives schools a chance to defend their access to GI Bill money.
U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., has also received complaints and allegations about the Hinesville House of Prayer -- which is located in his district -- and has forwarded them to the FBI in its ongoing investigation, his office said.
Meanwhile, the VA has relatively little oversight over what constitutes a legitimate school that is eligible for GI Bill money.
"VA takes seriously its commitment to provide oversight and protect the integrity of the GI Bill program for GI Bill beneficiaries, as well as to ensure good stewardship of the taxpayers' dollars," Terrence Hayes, a department spokesperson, told Military.com in an email.
Hayes said the VA will continue to "monitor all GI Bill schools' compliance with applicable statutes and regulations, and when necessary, will take appropriate action including referring matters to the appropriate law enforcement agency."
Real Estate Empire
The church's schemes to rake in money from the military community's service benefits went beyond just the GI Bill, according to former members. It encouraged members to tap VA home loans; then, church leaders took control of those properties.
Military.com reviewed more than two dozen documents showing homeowners giving power of attorney for at least 30 properties to Anthony Oloans, a close confidant of Denis who was listed as the treasurer of the House of Prayer church from 2003 to 2009 in annual reports filed with the state of Georgia. The loans through the VA can help veterans buy houses with no money down and at very competitive interest rates.
Oloans hung up the phone when called by Military.com seeking an interview.
Ismail Somai served as an infantryman in the Army for about 14 years. In addition to using up most of his GI Bill benefit for Bible study at House of Prayer, he said he was also coerced into allowing the church to rent out his home in Fayetteville when he was reassigned to Texas.
"You want to do the right thing, you don't want to be a sinner," Somai said.
A pastor served as the landlord, collecting rent money directly from another member of the church living there. Somai described pressure from the church to acquire as much real estate as possible.
The church also owned several apartment complexes in addition to the houses used to generate rental income, according to business documents reviewed by Military.com.
One of the church's apartment complexes is nestled behind a Popeyes chicken in Hinesville. It has been used for service members, veterans and anyone in the House of Prayer who has been convinced or told to live there. A sign outside of the complex reads, "This Is Your Home. Take Care Of It."
The full scope of the church's real estate empire is unclear because its leaders used multiple names for the organization's properties, making accounting difficult.
Frederick Irwin, who was the chairman of the church until he left in 2006, said that Denis' focus was making as much money from veterans and troops as possible.
"I was disgusted at the priority he was placing on buying up houses," said Irwin, who signed the original paperwork forming the church in Louisiana. "He was manipulating people. ... It wasn't what I signed up for."
Irwin said the real estate holdings were the subject of a decade-long investigation by federal authorities.
The U.S. attorney's office in Savannah appears to have filed a lawsuit in April 2007 against church members, including Denis, Denis' wife, Irwin, Oloans and 17 others, according to the federal government's electronic court records system.
But the nature of the lawsuit and any allegations or charges by the U.S. attorney's office were not listed in the online electronic records available to the public. The case was terminated in January 2017, though there was no description of how it was resolved.
Denis himself appears to own at least three homes, according to public records: one each in Hinesville and Augusta, Georgia, and another in West Palm Beach, Florida. Online real estate estimates put the value of each at around $2 million.
A reporter also visited one of Denis' homes in an attempt to interview him ahead of this story. Denis' house is a large brick mansion nestled at the end of a lengthy driveway. There is a fountain in the front yard, and a black SUV was parked by the garage next to a jungle gym and slide. Behind a privacy fence, a large green tent -- reminiscent of ones used by early evangelical preachers to hold services -- sat in a side yard.
He did not answer his door.
A Pattern of Control
Veteran disability payments may also have been a source of revenue for the church, former members said.
The church saw injured veterans as prime recruiting targets, and its leadership coached those veterans on how to get maximum disability ratings to net the highest payouts, which would then be donated to the church, they said.
Tax donations are often tax exempt, and churches themselves are generally exempt from federal, state and local taxes.
"They would shame people into giving more money, especially if they knew you had a VA disability rating," Darnell Emanuel, a former minister of the church and Denis' personal assistant, told Military.com.
"People are basically walking ratings there," said Emanuel, an Iraq War veteran. "Everyone was getting more disability; you had very able-bodied people with very high ratings."
He said veterans with high disability ratings were considered heroes in the church, not because of the valor they may have displayed to be wounded, but because of the extra income they generated for the church. If the money wasn't donated, church leaders saw it as a cushion allowing those veterans to perform free labor for the church, such as landscaping and roof maintenance, because they did not need to work a full-time job.
One former member told Military.com that Denis had instructed him to take a job with the VA so that they could process claims for church members maximizing the benefit. Denis wanted "someone on the inside," the source said, so the church could increase disability compensation to members to boost donations.
The former church member still works for the VA and agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity because they could potentially face legal ramifications for describing the plan. They said they "inappropriately" helped roughly 20 church members juice their disability claims.
"The underlying motivation was the church wanted the money," the source told Military.com. "They really just wanted people to give money to the church. I coached [members] to tell the truth, not to lie. I would tell them they have to aim for an Academy Award to portray their worst possible day [at their VA medical exams]."
Doing what the church wanted was drilled into parishioners, according to former members.
Most of the former congregants who spoke to Military.com are veterans or were active-duty service members at the time they were involved with the church. Some sources described having suicidal ideation or previous attempts. All sources had strikingly similar stories: They were wounded in the post-9/11 wars or had previous trauma such as being a victim of sexual assault or came from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Gladys Jordan, a former member of the House of Prayer, knows that pain firsthand. Since leaving the church in 2016, she has been bullied by current members, cast as an outsider and lost touch with her son -- who remains an active member of the church.
They haven't spoken in six years.
"If you're not conforming to them … you're going against them," Jordan said.
Rick Alan Ross, the executive director of the Cult Education Institute and author of the book "Cults Inside Out: How People Get In and Can Get Out," said he is familiar with the House of Prayer and has heard of complaints from former members before.
"When we see somebody who is a member of a destructive cult or a destructive authoritarian group like House of Prayer, we don't really understand how isolated they are," he said.
Ross also said the group's selected recruitment of military service members and veterans is akin to affinity fraud, where a certain group is targeted, similar to how Bernie Madoff preyed on the Jewish community to pull off the largest Ponzi scheme in history.
"The leader indoctrinates the members to have unreasonable fears of the outside world," Ross said. "You have to understand that, once people have become involved in a group like this, that becomes their social environment. So, that's where their friends are. That's where their family may be and, if they leave, they will be cut off."
When Jane Doe arrived at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in 2003 she heavily relied on the House of Prayer not far from base.
Doe's identity is being withheld because Military.com does not disclose the names of victims of sexual assault without their consent.
But she quickly learned that the church worked hard to control many aspects of parishioners' lives. She described being a part of church recruiting efforts on base in which members had full access to an installation because they were soldiers themselves and would drive up to other troops in vans and knock on barracks doors, encouraging them to join by promising salvation.
"They helped me out, were there for everything I needed such as a ride to Walmart," she said. "They were always there, so I didn't need my unit."
Multiple men showed up unannounced at her barracks at least twice, pressuring her to start attending the church more frequently. Doe described the meetings as relatively friendly. Violence was never threatened, but she thought they were meant to be intimidating. They wanted her to leave the barracks and move into the church.
"They would warn women the barracks are bad," she said. "They paint them as unsafe for women so they spend more time in the church."
She stood her ground initially, but shortly after the pressure campaign to convince her to move, she was sexually assaulted by a male soldier.
No longer feeling safe, Doe managed to leave the barracks despite Army rules forbidding unmarried junior enlisted soldiers from living elsewhere. She moved into the church, which had a setup similar to Army barracks for men and women, including cheap furniture, bunk beds and cots. Those who lived in the church were expected to perform hours of chores every day. Women were often tasked with cooking and cleaning.
During a Sunday service, with dozens in attendance, Denis decided to make an example out of her, Doe said, with her sexual assault described as punishment for falling out of lockstep with the church.
"I was blamed publicly at the church, saying how could I expect God's protection when I went outside his will," she said. "The pastor said in front of the entire church that, had I been in church, this wouldn't have happened."
-- Allison Allsop, a journalist in Louisiana, contributed to this report.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.
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