Ripped-off church tries for normalcy

RIPON -- Two years after discovering its former pastor had secretly sold the church and parsonage, then pocketed the money, First Congregational Church of Ripon is gradually getting back to normal: It has its sanctuary back; former pastor Randall Radic pleaded guilty to stealing; and two new pastors are at the helm.

But the church is still missing something it once had -- a place for ministers to live.

The modest parsonage at 137 N. Elm St. is at the center of a legal tug of war. A court case over who owns it broils in San Joaquin County Superior Court between an investor who bought it from Radic and the church. They are set to go to trial Oct. 22.

Other than that ...

"Things are pretty much back to normal," pastor Judy Edwards said. "We're beginning to grow and reach out into the community and get new members. I don't think people really realize this is still going on for us, because it's kind of dropped from the news. But it is not over."

The legal quagmire counts a bizarre cast of characters.

Former Mayor Dan Prince notarized a deed for Radic in 2002 even though a second representative from the church wasn't present. Prince said he trusted Radic and a thumbprint and signature Radic presented for church official David Parsons, who handled church business.

After Prince notarized the deed, Radic used it, according to authorities, to take out $236,000 in loans against the parsonage and then sell the remaining equity to Waterford investor Lonni Ashlock.

In a twist not related to the Radic case, Ashlock is awaiting trial in Stanislaus County on suspicion of fraud and grand theft by swindling houses from vulnerable owners. He has pleaded not guilty.

"Mr. Radic forged the deed and gave bad title to the residence; and on the face of it, it looked good to Mr. Ashlock, who relied upon it and got ripped off," said Modesto attorney Gordon Hollingsworth, who represents First Congregational.

Ashlock offered to settle with the church Tuesday. The deal requires the church to pay him $30,000 to $40,000, Hollingsworth said. The church rejected the offer on the grounds the sale was never legal to begin with because it relied on forged documents, so the church shouldn't have to pay anything.

"The law is you can't get good title from a thief, so Mr. Ashlock never received title, and our position is he can go after Mr. Radic for the money," Hollingsworth said.

He acknowledged it might be difficult to collect from Radic. The former pastor pleaded guilty to felony grand theft by embezzlement, which, Hollingsworth noted, diminishes his opportunities for employment.

He served six months in jail and was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay restitution. He originally faced a 16-month sentence, but while awaiting his case in the San Joaquin County Jail, he met suspected killer Roy Gerald Smith and struck a deal with prosecutors to testify against Smith.

Smith later pleaded guilty to murdering 46-year-old Mary Morino-Starkey.

Radic couldn't be reached for comment.

Pastors still in a mobile home

At his February sentencing, his attorney, Michael Babitzke, said Radic was "trying to get employed and become a productive member of the community." At the time, he had a book deal with Ephemera Bound Publishing, a company its co-owner, Derek Dahlsad, described as specializing in books "on the edge of mainstream."

"We just want our residence back," Hollingsworth said. "That's where the minister of the church lives. It is a very small church of limited means, and one of the ways churches have to support the people who come to work for them is by giving them a place to live. It is a big part of the compensation."

The church bought the house in 1956 and it was paid off.

Edwards and husband and co-pastor John Edwards live in a motor home, as they have since joining the congregation a year ago.

Ashlock, meanwhile, is renting out the parsonage, Hollingsworth said.

Ashlock's attorney could not be reached for comment.

Hollingsworth said he believes the church ultimately will prevail on the parsonage, but winning legal fees will be another matter. To that end, the church's lawsuit seeks reimbursement from Prince.

"It's a sad situation," said Bart Barringer, Prince's Modesto attorney. "Dan was a victim just like the church people were; they trusted Mr. Radic and he betrayed their trust. And Dan trusted Mr. Radic, and Mr. Radic betrayed Dan's trust, as well, and caused a real problem. It's just not a good situation at all."

Thousands of dollars in legal bills have been a drain on the church, Edwards said. That has left it unable to do some of the programs and outreach it would like.

But after a year of getting its bearings with full-time pastors again, "I just get a sense of feeling we're becoming a family of people who worship together, and what we are looking toward now is reaching out into the community," she said.

The church is working on a program to draw people in with hugs. That doesn't take any money, Edwards noted. And church members know what it is to need a hug.

Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at imiller@modbee.com or 599-8760.