Texas Pastor and Wife Indicted for Felonies and Sued for Selling Church Property Out from Under Congregation
Pastor Randy Free and his wife Michelle have been indicted and enjoined by a state district court in Texas from engaging in any financial transactions related to the property or assets of Cedar Cross Country Church in Alvarado, as first reported by the Cleburne Times-Review.
The injunction, issued on August 23, was in response to a lawsuit filed by members of the church’s board of elders, Byron Rayburne and John Hagan, against the Frees on July 20 in the 413th District Court in Johnson County, Texas.
Additionally, a criminal indictment was issued on September 21 against both Charles Randall Free and Michelle Cecilia Free for six first degree felonies, including property theft greater than $300,000, money laundering, and theft of property against a non-profit corporation. They were also charged with second degree felonies of money laundering between $150,000 and $300,000, and a third degree felony of tampering with or fabricating physical evidence.
A $100,000 bond was set, and the Frees were released on bond September 25.
Cedar Cross Country Church is in Alvarado, a small town 39 miles southwest of Dallas. According to the Texas Comptroller’s webpage, the church first registered with the state in 2007 as a Texas non-profit religious corporation.
In June, according to the plaintiffs’ petition, Randy Free began taking control of the church’s assets by making himself the president and registered agent for the Cedar Cross Country Church. The Frees then set up a separate non-profit corporation, Team Heritage International, in order to move the church’s assets and sell the church property, the petition claims.
The plaintiffs assert that on July 2, the Frees sold the church property for somewhere between $1 million and $1.5 million to MYR Real Estate Holdings and used about $500,000 of the proceeds to purchase a house for themselves in nearby Godley.
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The Frees told the congregation about the sale July 11, excusing the delay by saying they didn’t want the congregation to be disappointed if it fell through. Church members were shocked, the petition asserts, adding that Free wouldn’t tell the congregation what had been done with the sale proceeds.
Rayburne, one of the elders, confirmed with the mortgage company that the mortgage had been paid off. He also confirmed with the church’s bank that no funds had been deposited in the church’s account after the sale.
Church members were also able to track a series of deposits and transfers related to the transaction: a check made out to the church had been cashed at a different bank, First National Bank of Burleson. Later, over $1 million in funds were moved to Prosperity Bank in Granbury and were accessible only by the Free family or under the newly formed Team Heritage International, according to the plaintiffs.
The plaintiffs claim causes of action against the Frees for conversion, theft, and breach of fiduciary duty. The petition also asks the court to declare that the Frees are no longer elders in the church and to verify a new group of elders elected by the congregation.
Further, it asks the court to establish a trust and transfer title of the property in Godley, which the plaintiffs claim was purchased with proceeds from the sale of the church.
Because the plaintiffs believe the funds from the property sale are held at First National Bank of Burleson and Prosperity Bank in Granbury, they asked the court to order these institutions to turn over the funds to the church and to freeze any further activity in the accounts.
In order for a court to issue a temporary injunction, the petitioner must show a likelihood of success and that irreparable harm will occur if the injunction is not issued.
The judge agreed to order the injunction “in order to maintain the status quo pending final, non-appealable judgment.”
In addition to prohibiting further financial transactions by the Frees, the injunction also ordered the banks to release any funds to the court-appointed receiver, a remedy allowed under Texas law.