Judge dismisses $50M lawsuit against House of David group
Pontiac — A man who argues his former church is being looted by its director of more than $50 million has no legal standing to bring a lawsuit in the matter, an Oakland County Circuit judge ruled Wednesday in dismissing the complaint.
In March, Charles W. Ferrel sued the Israelite House of David, a Christian Benton Harbor-based voluntary religious association, alleging “interlopers” had taken over the century-old church and conspired to excommunicate him and his partner and evict them from a church-owned property in Hawaii.
The church’s attorney, Kenneth Neuman, described the lawsuit during the hearing as a “shakedown” and “attempted money grab.”
Ferrel and Gregory Furstenwerth, both church members for nearly four years, obtained a $2.4 million settlement, two vehicles and property from the church after they were excommunicated in 2014. Each man and their attorney, David Black, received separate $800,000 shares.
“He (Ferrel) doesn’t have (legal) standing,” said Judge Shalina Kumar, noting how Ferrel had signed a confidential settlement agreement in 2014 with a clause he relinquished his church membership and position and any future legal claims with the House of David.
Ferrel was a former trustee and director at the church who moved to Hawaii on instructions from a previous director, now deceased.
The lawsuit alleged money had been diverted from the communal colony’s original purpose, endangered its favored federal tax status as a nonprofit and exposed it to potential tax liabilities.
The lawsuit named House of David Director Gregory Eversole of Bridgewater and Brian Ziebart of St. Joseph as part of the alleged conspiracy. Ziebert, 55, is believed to have been brought into the House of David by Eversole, 66, a retired St. Joseph accountant, but he describes himself as an “employee of the House of David.”
Both Eversole and Ziebert were in court Wednesday but did not speak during or after the hearing.
Ferrel attorney David Black argued Wednesday that the original lawsuit concerned changes and circumstances in the church — now with “all the earmarks of a corporation” — which did not exist at the time of the settlement, so the clause was not applicable.
He described Eversole as a “Johnny Come Lately” who worked his way into the church and diverted money donated by members over the years to 10 limited liability companies. Black argued Everole turned the church into nothing more than a “holding company” destined to be sold off.
Black had asked Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette's office to look into the House of David. If his client were not reinstated to the church, Black said he hoped the state would attach all assets of the church for the taxpayers of Michigan.
Without any explanation, Schuette's office declined to get involved in the case.
The church’s members, which once numbered in the hundreds and who lived together in a communal setting, are celibate and have all nearly died off, Ferrel said. The church has allegedly stopped taking new members, holding any meetings or conducting church services.
Ferrel did not appear at Wednesday’s hearing but outside the courtroom Black expressed disappointment at Kumar’s ruling.
“We thought we had a made a good argument,” said Black, who said they have not decided whether they will appeal.
“My client and I are pleased at the ruling by Judge Kumar,” Neuman said after the hearing. “This dismisses the complaint.”
Neuman also requested Kumarto order arbitration for $10,000 in penalties and violations of the agreement he argues he and his client are due, including more than $20,000 in legal fees.
The House of David was started in southwestern Michigan in 1903. According to historical records, it owned about 1,000 acres where members harvested fruit and grain. By 1916 the church had around 1,000 members who practiced vegetarianism and abstained from tobacco and alcohol.
The group built more than 100 structures on church property, including a 102-room mansion. It also operated several commercial ventures, including an amusement park and zoo, and fielded a travelling baseball team.
The group envisioned a colony in Australia where members would gather as the world collapsed as predicted in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation. After the “ingather,” the members would return to Benton Harbor and repopulate the world.
It is believed the funds, especially from Australian real estate deals, amounted to a fortune.