Inside his makeshift church in Brooklyn, seated in a chair that looked more like a throne and dressed in a slim-cut, banana-yellow suit by Gucci, Bishop Lamor Whitehead prepared to deliver the sermon his followers had been waiting a long week to hear.
It had been seven days since the obscure little congregation, Leaders of Tomorrow International Ministries, was robbed by three armed and masked men during a service on July 24th, the heist caught on a livestream video. The robbers relieved Whitehead and his wife of many chains, rings, watches and other jewellery – the total value of which is in dispute but is estimated to be as high as $1 million – and escaped outside on Remsen Avenue.
Whitehead rose. “The devil didn’t want me back in this pulpit,” he said solemnly. “God said, ‘You can’t take his life. You can touch his material things. But you can’t touch his soul.’”
Then he re-enacted the robbery. Twice.
In the wake of the brazen heist, attention has focused on Whitehead, a friend of New York mayor Eric Adams with a felony identity theft conviction in his past. Why, some wondered, would a preacher with a tiny congregation have a small fortune in jewellery on his person? And his immediate reaction during the robbery, as if practised, has led to questions about whether he knew the robbers were coming – a suggestion he dismissed as ludicrous.
“It’s being said because people can’t believe that this happened,” he said. Asked about whether the jewellery was insured, he dismissed the question as “legal”.
The robbery was just the beginning of a very bad week for Whitehead. When two pastors from Atlanta, speaking on the livestream talk show Larry Reid Live, laughed at his church’s slapdash design, he joined the show as it was in progress and flew into a rage, mocking a female pastor’s weight and using an anti-gay slur.
At the same time, troubles from his past were coming to the surface, including the time he spent in prison and the lawsuits he faced in New York accusing him of walking off with large amounts of money from people he knew. Court records from New Jersey show that Whitehead owes more than $400,000 (€392,772) in judgments to a construction company that built his house and the credit union that financed his Mercedes-Benz and Range Rover – revelations that he has dismissed as victim-shaming, even racist.
“I’m a miracle. I’m not supposed to be here today,” he said from the altar last Sunday week. “Everybody wants to talk about what the tabloids are talking about and forget about the miracle.”
In interviews, Whitehead simultaneously declined to discuss his past legal troubles and invited renewed scrutiny. “The reason people can’t figure me out is because they’re trying to figure me out the wrong way,” he said. “What you see is what you’ll get.”
In Brooklyn, Whitehead’s roots run deep.
On the night of June 14th, 1978, police officers stopped a motorist for having a suspended licence. He protested; a table of fruit was overturned; and as more officers arrived, a big man with a gun on his hip approached. His name was Arthur Miller, the driver’s brother and a respected business owner in the neighbourhood, leading job fairs and founding community groups.
Miller had been trying to defuse the situation, but the officers zeroed in on the gun – legally owned and licensed. One put Miller in a chokehold. He collapsed, according to news accounts at the time, foaming at the mouth when officers loaded him into a squad car. His legs were sticking out a window when it pulled away, and he was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. His death led to protests and a march to City Hall.
Miller left several children. The youngest, with his mother’s last name, was a baby: Lamor Miller Whitehead.
“Growing up as a young man on the mean streets of Brooklyn was not easy,” the bishop would write on his church’s website years later. “Being raised in a single-parent home, without a father, and expected to survive in a world that was designed for him to fail in.”
He did not fail. He attended Eastern New Mexico University, where he studied accounting and videography, and returned to Brooklyn, where he went to work as a mortgage broker in Manhattan.
But soon after, Whitehead would set his life on a much different course.
In 2005, a woman called the Suffolk County Police Department and said someone had bought a motorcycle in Brooklyn in her name, using all her personal information.
A few days later, an officer pulled over a man driving the same motorcycle at a traffic stop. The driver was 27-year-old Whitehead.
What followed was a lengthy investigation that uncovered what the police described as a sprawling identity theft and fraud operation set up and run by one person – Whitehead, whose girlfriend had access to customers’ credit reports through her job at a Long Island car dealership.
Using personal data he pulled from her computer – she kept her login information on a piece of paper at home – Whitehead stole the identities of at least a dozen people. He took out loans in their names and bought cars and motorcycles, according to his indictment in Suffolk County in 2006.
“He was living the high life,” a Suffolk County detective said at the time.
Preparation for a trial took months. In the interim, rather than lay low and work on his case, Whitehead pulled off more frauds, court records indicate.
He was still working as a mortgage broker out of an office in the Empire State Building about 2005 when a symphony conductor named Maximo Bragado-Darman and his son, Julio Bragado-Young, entered his office and hired him to help them close on a brownstone in Harlem. The deal was completed.
Later, Whitehead reached out to the elder client privately with a business proposal. “If you loan me $200,000,” Whitehead explained, “I can pay you back in a month, along with an extra $25,000,” according to a lawsuit that followed.
The conductor, trusting the young man who had smoothly executed the Harlem deal, took out a line of credit on his home, gave him the money and kept it a secret from his family, planning on surprising them with good news when the windfall came in, his son said.
Instead, he was forced to share bad news: Whitehead was not going to pay him back.
“It was almost guaranteed he was going to make money on this,” Bragado-Young said, referring to his father. Of Whitehead, he said, “He’s a disgusting human being. You can quote me on that.”
For Whitehead, a steady four-year run of fraud came crashing down. He filed for bankruptcy in 2006, citing as income the $10,000 a month he was earning as a mortgage broker.
The real hammer came down in 2008. Whitehead’s trial date had finally arrived for the identity theft charges. Prosecutors spent several days laying out their case, linking Whitehead to the crimes through phone records and the evidence found in his house and car. He was convicted of 17 counts, mostly identity theft, and sentenced to 10-30 years in prison.
When a lawsuit brought by the symphony conductor was filed that autumn, Whitehead was served his copy in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. The lawsuit led to a judgment for the conductor of $306,000.
Five years later, in July 2013, Whitehead was released with a glowing behavioural record. And as soon as weeks later, the Leaders of Tomorrow Ministries was born, “with the support of 43 people who believed and met in his home for Bible study”, according to his biography online. “I have a calling, and I had to do what I had to do,” he said in an interview last week. “As soon as I came home, it was on.”
Whitehead became a bishop, and he has proved himself to be a gripping orator with what appears to be a deep knowledge of his worn Bible and an ability to summon chapter and verse with ease. He can place his audience in a state of rapt silence one moment and loud singing and clapping the next.
“The bishop’s very relatable,” said Chantelle Vickers (38), a member of the church and a pastor-elect. “He’s from the streets of Brooklyn. He’s not like other pastors.”
She heard the widespread criticism of all the jewellery the “bling bishop” was wearing when he was robbed. “Rappers, singers, the way they attract people, that’s what he’s doing,” she said. “People want to know how you got all that. Once you get here, you see he is teaching God.”
This philosophy, broadly known as the prosperity gospel, arose within African American religious traditions and emphasised the material benefits of maintaining a relationship with God, said the Rev Dr David Latimore, director of the Betsey Stockton Center for Black Church Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary.
It is natural that someone preaching that God provides material wealth would himself bear evidence of that, he said. And yet, to him, Whitehead’s abundance seemed excessive. “While this is not the only example of displays of affluence within churches as a part of this approach to preaching, I want to argue that this is an extreme example,” he said.
At the end of his lengthy sermons, Whitehead picks up a stack of empty envelopes and invites worshippers to “sow” with donations, starting at $1,000 or $500. When there are no takers, the suggested amounts decline. At a recent service, the first envelopes left his hand when he arrived at $150. It is unclear, of course, how much a person actually places in the envelope.
With only 25 or so people at services on Sunday week last, attendance was lower than normal – understandable a week after an armed robbery. But even with a crowd twice that size, it seems unlikely that donations would be high enough to pay for a fraction of the jewellery that was stolen.
He has said he does not make money in his role as bishop, and it is unclear how he earns a living. But court filings suggest it does not seem to be working very well.
In 2019, Whitehead stopped making his monthly payments on a Mercedes-Benz and a Range Rover in New Jersey, according to a lawsuit that ended with a $68,000 judgment against him.
That same year, he wrote a $164,000 cheque to the company that built his home in Paramus, New Jersey. It bounced, according to a lawsuit.
In 2020, when a woman who had recently visited the church was recovering from surgery, Whitehead offered to help her buy a new home. The woman, Pauline Anderson, sent him $90,000 that she had withdrawn from her retirement account, according to a lawsuit.
“I am a man of integrity and you will not lose,” he texted her. She asked for her money back, but he said it was too late; it had already been invested.
At the same time, according to the lawsuit, Whitehead was in contract to buy a palatial $4.4 million house in Saddle River, New Jersey, with a pool, a gym and a wine cellar.
In church last Sunday week, Whitehead dismissed Anderson from the pulpit as a liar: “That’s what the enemy wants you to believe.” Later, when asked about his income streams in an interview, Whitehead was vague. “I’m in real estate investment and a pastor,” he said. “I don’t like digging into all that other stuff.
“Everybody sues people, from here on out. It is what it is,” he said. “My church was robbed. I was robbed. I’m the victim.”
His lawyer, Brenden Kombol, said he met Whitehead a few months ago and only learned of the ongoing litigation in the press last week.
He offered one nugget of information regarding the stolen jewellery: “I’ve been told that they were at least partially insured,” he said.
Adams, the mayor, has long called the bishop a friend. “The bishop lost his dad – Arthur Miller was his name – during a police incident,” he said recently. “I have always maintained relationships with people who have gone through traumatic experiences.” At the same time, he rejected the bishop’s call that preachers be armed in church.
The robbery remains under investigation. Whatever its outcome, one thing is certain, as Whitehead told his flock that Sunday morning.
“Now the world knows our name,” he said. “It don’t get no bigger than that.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.