On a warm summer evening in 2010, a young man with kind eyes and a faint mustache took his position on the 50-yard line of a football field in Palm Beach. Sporting a baggy black shirt, jeans, and a Bible, however, Eric Readon wasn't there to play. He was there to preach.
"I want to talk tonight about how prayer changes things," Readon told the crowd of about 100 and began reading a parable from Acts 16 about Paul and Silas shaking off their bonds. "If you haven't had any time to pray, all you need is a little hell in your life that would humble you."
The pastor was no stranger to hell, he explained. Like Paul and Silas, he too had spent time in shackles, only to be redeemed by the power of God. "I don't know how I made it," he said near the end of a fiery sermon, "but I made it because somebody prayed for me."
Four years later, Readon's prayers continue to be answered. His congregation is growing. His church is expanding. He and his company own at least nine houses. And his black Gucci sneakers match his gleaming ebony Mercedes.
Much of this success has to do with Readon's story of redemption: the prodigal son who narrowly escaped prison to save souls alongside his father. In Miami Gardens, a community terrorized by gang violence, Readon's message of forgiveness is desperately received.
But his redemption tale is suspect. Since his 2010 sermon, the pastor has been criminally charged twice and sued more than a half-dozen times. He has been accused of stealing checks, forging signatures, and scamming employees. According to one of his alleged victims, Readon even stole $55,000 she received from cops after they killed her son's father.
"He abused my trust and confidence," Ladonna Florence says. "How can you be a pastor in church every Sunday in front of your congregation and you're making money through illegal means?"
Readon denies defrauding Florence and points to her own felonious past. He also denies slipping back into sin, claiming the suits against him are all business misunderstandings.
Readon was practically predestined to be a pastor. His father, Rev. Irvin Readon, pounded the pulpit for half a century. The elder Readon founded the Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in 1985 close to the future site of Sun Life Stadium. A decade later, he opened the New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church nearby.
Eric grew up in a house behind the church, soaking up his dad's sermons as most sons inherit their father's favorite sports team: the singing, the swooning, the scripture. Above all, he adopted his father's persuasiveness. Eric's brother became a pastor too. But by the time Eric was a teenager, he had drifted away from his father's teachings.
"I was a drug dealer," he says. "I ran with some notorious guys."
Readon says he might have strayed even further from God if it weren't for two wake-up calls when he was 20 years old. He had already been busted for breaking into a car as a teenager when, in 1996, he was arrested for cocaine trafficking in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. He received probation but quickly returned to the drug game, he says.
A few months later, however, he survived a near-fatal car accident and became convinced it was "a sign from above." According to Readon, the two incidents scared him straight. "I turned my life around."
But records reviewed by New Times suggest otherwise. It would be another decade before Readon would begin preaching, and those ten years were spent doing something very unchristian: stealing from people.
Many of the crimes appear inept. On August 31, 1997, for example, Readon drove to his neighbors' house. The couple was selling an ATV, and Readon said he was interested in buying it but first wanted a test drive. Instead of turning around at the end of the block, however, he kept going and never went back. Readon left his car at the crime scene, and his neighbors called the cops.
Five months later, Readon met a man at Miami-Dade Community College and asked to test-drive his four-wheeler. Then he drove off again. The only difference this time: Readon was smart enough to bring friends to drive away in his car. He later pleaded no contest to the two thefts and received three years of probation.
He was barely off probation when, in March 2002, he stole once again. This time he promised to pay Alejandro Rado for some rims and a stereo in his truck. But as Readon's friend loaded the gear into his car, the preacher's son suddenly pushed Rado aside and sped off. Readon once again escaped prison time by pleading no contest. He received three more years of probation.
In 2003, the bank foreclosed on his father's church. "My dad was getting old and had just divorced," Readon remembers. "Young people were leaving the church, and old people were dying."
Readon helped his father move his church to a rundown house on the corner of NW 22nd Avenue and 155th Street. Readon removed trash, replaced tile, and applied fresh coats of paint. Then he began trying his hand at preaching like his old man.
His criminal past "wasn't well accepted" at first, he admits, but it also "sets [him] apart." Readon felt he could relate to kids tempted by vice.
Soon he had saved enough to build a proper chapel. After his father died in 2011, Readon turned the old half of the building into a community center. He also began building and renting affordable housing under the county's Infill Housing Program, he says.
As violence in Miami Gardens spiraled out of control -- the neighborhood suffered 23 murders and more than 1,000 arrests in 2012 -- Readon also began trying to serve as a bridge between the community and police. When a car-wash owner and a corrections officer were killed within hours of each other in late 2012, Readon organized a sit-down among victims' families, fellow preachers, and police commanders.
The young pastor proudly told reporters he was fighting the taboo against talking to police.
"We need to change our methods to get to these kids," he told the Miami Herald.
Yet even as cops were sitting down in his church, court records suggest Readon was already headed back in the wrong direction. Twice in the two years leading up to his TV appearances, he had been charged with writing worthless checks.
Readon says the spats were simple misunderstandings stemming from a frozen bank account. Neither case was prosecuted. "We paid and got the whole thing taken care of," he says.
But Readon has also faced no less than nine civil suits filed against him in as many years. In March 2012 -- just a few months before he appeared with police on TV -- he was accused of stealing his cousin's checkbook, forging the 62-year-old's signature, and cutting his church a $9,000 check. Readon denies the allegation -- "It was nothing," he says -- but a court recently ordered the pastor to pay back the money plus interest. "We're in the process of appealing that right now," he offers.
Last year, Readon was sued twice. First, the check-cashing company Bay Cash Advance sued the pastor after 22 of his checks bounced. In a hand-written settlement agreement, Readon promised to pay the company $35,000.
In a second lawsuit from 2013, a local Land Rover dealership sued Readon after his $15,000 deposit on a Range Rover bounced. The dealership demanded twice that amount. Again, Readon agreed to settle.
The Land Rover lawsuit sheds light on accusations that the pastor runs an illegal exotic-car-leasing operation. Evans St. Fort says he knows all about Readon's car rentals. St. Fort met the pastor while visiting churches to promote his funeral parlor.
"He said... he had some investments and wanted me to get into it with him," St. Fort says. "I said to myself, If anyone is going to be honest, it's gonna be a pastor."
The preacher offered to take over payments on a car belonging to St. Fort's brother, but his brother decided against the idea. "I guess my brother was smarter than me," St. Fort says. Instead, he agreed to loan Readon $5,500 -- supposedly to buy appliances for one of the affordable houses he was renovating. The pastor even gave him a tour of the home.
"He was supposed to pay me back with interest if he was late," St. Fort says.
He was. But when St. Fort called Readon, the preacher always had an excuse. When St. Fort finally sued, he says, Readon suddenly began sending nasty texts. "He said some not nice stuff to me," St. Fort claims, "things that I would never expect to come from a pastor."
It wasn't until then that St. Fort investigated the pastor. "When I looked him up, I found out I was like number ten on the list waiting for money," he says. Just ahead of him on that list was landscaper Luis Villares. He had sued Readon two months earlier for refusing to pay for $2,500 worth of work on a house Readon was selling.
"Him being a pastor gave us more confidence in him," says Cristina Villares, Luis' daughter-in-law. "More than a year later we've gone to court three times, but he still hasn't paid us a cent! He's the worst person we've ever done business with."
(At first, Readon denied knowing Villares. Then he said he paid him for the work. "If he sued me," he said, "I didn't see it.")
Neither one of those ordeals compares to the nightmare that Ladonna Florence says she suffered, however. In the summer of 2010, Miami-Dade Police killed the father of Florence's oldest son in a deadly sting operation (described in the 2012 New Times investigative story "Death Trap"). Florence's son, AJ, received a settlement from the county for his father's wrongful death.
This past summer, Florence says, she went to Readon for help. She wanted to rent one of his homes and was also looking to buy cars for her son and herself.
Florence says she gave Readon roughly $55,000 of AJ's settlement for rent and the two cars. Instead, the pastor secretly kept AJ off the titles, she claims. A couple of weeks later, the cars were repossessed after Readon reported them stolen.
"I'm not naive to the streets, but he's a pastor!" she says. "Now my son's money is gone... That's not right. That's not of God."
Readon shrugs off the allegations. He says he was doing Florence and AJ a favor, but they damaged the cars and fell behind on the payments. "I gave them the option to fix the cars or pay them off," he says. "They defaulted." Readon points to Florence's own record -- which includes multiple felony convictions for fraud, forgery, and grand theft -- as proof that she's lying. And despite the dispute over cars, he denies leasing out exotic automobiles.
He is also in the process of shrugging off his debts. In June, the pastor filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy and has already tried to get out of several settlement agreements. (On legal forms, he does not list his house or any of his company's eight properties. He claims to make only $50,000 a year and apparently pays no taxes because of nonprofit status.)
As he leads a reporter on a tour of his church, however, Readon doesn't mention any of his recent legal or financial trouble. While an employee gives the parking lot a fresh coat of paint and organ music emanates from within, Readon reflects on how his life has changed.
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"We started right here in a tent with 47 people," he says. Now he has a real chapel and a congregation that grows every week. Next year will be even bigger, when the pastor expects to add a gym to the church and a dozen houses to his portfolio.
"I wouldn't call it success," he says. "I would just say the hand of God is on me."