PLANT CITY — Every Sunday morning, members of the New Testament Outreach Holiness Church #2 gather for services in a strip shopping center on the outskirts of town. They sit in neat rows, facing a raised dais and a pulpit bedecked with flowers.
It looks like a church, but it is not a real church building, the kind that Pastors Minnie and Sam Wright have long dreamed of having in order to spread their ministry and help more of the needy.
So three years ago, when the Wrights met a man named Victor Thomas, they were thrilled to learn that he worked with a New York lending company. And not only did Thomas offer to help them get a $650,000 loan to build their church, he would handle all the details, from buying the land to arranging environmental testing to finding an architect and contractor.
Just as importantly, he seemed like a good Christian. As Minnie Wright puts it:
"When you said, 'praise the Lord,' he'd say, 'praise the Lord.' When you said, Amen,' he'd say, 'Amen.'"
Over time, the Wrights began to have their doubts about Thomas. But it was only after he took more than $16,000 with nothing to show for it that they discovered who he really was — Victor Thomas Clavizzao, a repeat felon still on probation after serving a five-year federal prison sentence for mortgage fraud.
"We got ourselves in a mess," Wright says.
She contacted the Tampa Bay Times after reading a story in early May about Clavizzao, who had returned to the loan business less than a year after getting out of prison. The story told how the 54-year-old Clavizzao had begun using the name Victor Thomas and had listed an unsuspecting Tampa physician as vice president of his St. Petersburg-based loan company.
Clavizzao, who lives near Daytona Beach, did not return numerous calls seeking comment. In an interview for the May story, he said his loan business was legitimate and that he told potential clients of his criminal history.
As the demand for mortgages soared during the housing boom of the early to mid 2000s, Clavizzao was among the thousands of loan originators hired by mortgage companies to sell loans. Originators — many of whom had criminal records like Clavizzao — did the same job as mortgage brokers but were not bound by the same rules. That inevitably led to trouble in a frenzied environment where even borrowers with poor credit and no proof of employment or income could get mortgages.
Then the market crashed and borrowers defaulted in droves. The federal government tightened lending standards and Florida passed a law that required the licensing of loan originators, defined in part as:
An individual who, directly or indirectly, solicits or offers to solicit a mortgage loan, accepts or offers to accept an application for a mortgage loan… on behalf of a borrower or lender.
Loan originators in Florida now must complete a 20-hour course, pass a national exam and undergo criminal background checks. Violating the law can be a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Applicants with existing felonies for fraud and other money-related crimes are permanently barred from licensing.
Clavizzao couldn't qualify for a license because of his criminal record, but the lack of one didn't stop him when he met the Wrights.
Minnie Wright, 65, is a stylish woman with silver- flecked hair who owns a business that trains students to be certified nursing assistants. Her husband is a heavy equipment operator for Mosaic, the big fertilizer company. They live in a neat but modest house; their priority is providing a fine, permanent home for the church they started in 2004.
After years in rented space, the Wrights were so passionate about building a church that Minnie sketched a design in pencil, then took it to Staples to have it digitally redrawn and printed out in full color.
"Dear Jesus, this is the vision that shall come to pass," she wrote. "It's your kingdom building."
The couple already had picked out a site for the church in 2014 when Clavizzao contacted an insurance company where Wright's brother, Carlton Brunson, is a manager. Clavizzao — then using the name Victor Thomas — wanted to buy a life insurance policy so Brunson went to see him.
Clavizzao had an office in downtown St. Petersburg but said he worked with a lender in New York. "I asked if he did church loans and he said, 'Absolutely,'" Brunson said. He invited Clavizzao to meet his sister, who found him polite and charming. He told her that she looked exactly like his mother.
Accompanied by a lawyer, Clavizzao then met with the New Testament congregation.
"He (was) all cool and calm and collected,"Wright said. "It sounded really good. It's like, okay, this guy is what we need."
After that meeting, the Wrights gave him $2,200 — which they understood to be a fee that Clavizzao and the lawyer would split — and another $9,100 that was supposed to go for appraisals and other costs.
The Wrights also filled out paperwork, including a form on which they put down their Social Security numbers and gave Key Capital Commercial Funding of New York City permission to obtain their credit reports. Another form, which Sam signed, authorized his bank to "provide information concerning my finances and assets."
On July 29, 2014, Clavizzao presented them with Key Capital's "Proposal Letter for Guaranteed Business Purchase Loan." It outlined the terms of a 15-year, $650,000 loan at 5.1 percent interest.
The Wrights didn't realize then that there was no Key Capital Commercial Funding in New York City, or anywhere else. Nor did they notice other peculiarities, including "lien" misspelled as ''lean."
Still, things seems to move along.
Clavizzao contacted a Tampa environmental company to test the vacant lot the Wrights wanted to buy for the church. He introduced them to a friend of his that he said was a contractor.
Shortly after Christmas 2014, Clavizzao said he needed to give the seller's lawyer a down payment for the land. Minnie Wright wrote a check for $5,000.
It was after a Tallahassee architect drew up plans for the church that the Wrights began to get a whiff of trouble. At a meeting with Clavizzao and church members, the architect asked for $3,800 as a down payment for his services. That surprised the Wrights, who assumed Clavizzao had paid it out of the $9,100. But Clavizzao didn't have the money.
After the architect left the room, "Victor was trying to put him down," Wright said. "He was saying that he wasn't right and that we needed to check him out and all the time it was Victor that wasn't right."
Clavizzao became harder to contact. Among the excuses, Wright said, was that his wife had cancer or that he had to pick up his kids from school. When she demanded receipts, he replied: "You sound like something's wrong."
"It is," she recalled telling Clavizzao. "I said, 'We've been working over a year and nothing has happened.' I called him back. No answer. I kept calling; no answer. And then, I knew we were in trouble with this guy."
The Wrights discovered that the seller's lawyer never got the $5,000. They learned that Clavizzao had cancelled the environmental testing. The architect still didn't have his $3,800, so the church had to work out a payment plan.
That wasn't all. Minnie Wright's cousin, Cherry Hallback, said Clavizzao told her he could help her get a loan to expand her assisted living business. She paid him $500, ostensibly for an appraisal and survey, but he disappeared without doing anything, she said.
Asked whether Clavizzao's dealings with the Wrights could be construed as loan origination, a spokesperson for the office emailed this reply:
"(Florida law) prohibits charging an advance fee for the promise of a loan. The Florida Office of Financial Regulation is committed to protecting Floridians from financial fraud… Please ask the couple in Plant City to reach out to us so that we can learn more about the transaction."
Minnie Wright plans to do exactly that.
As a businesswoman, she is perturbed at herself for not getting receipts or checking out Clavizzao more thoroughly. But the thought of finally getting a permanent home for the church clouded her good sense, she says.
"I wanted this so bad, and he'd tell you what you wanted to hear."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8642.