Minister jailed for defrauding flock seeking early release

Altman wants placement at Beaver pre-release center

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/December 11, 2004
By Steve Levin

W. Michael Altman, the former pastor of Grace Christian Ministries convicted in 2002 of defrauding dozens of church members and others of nearly a half million dollars, is seeking early parole.

Currently an inmate at the State Regional Correctional Facility-Mercer, Altman, 54, has applied for a Community Corrections Center placement in Beaver County. Such live-in, pre-release centers, which include 24-hour supervision and counseling, are used to help inmates integrate back into society.

Some of Altman's former victims, however, aren't happy about the possibility. "Needless to say, I'm upset," said Richard Rhoades. "The man hurt too many people."

Rhoades and his wife lost about $30,000 in Altman's investment scheme, which promised high rates of returns for security investments. The couple was among three dozen people given their money back -- with interest -- following the sale of the West Mifflin church building and property in January 2003.

Altman pled no contest to more than 100 charges of defrauding church members, stealing church property and violating numerous state securities law.

He was sentenced to four to eight years in state prison, given 20 years' probation and enjoined from holding a fiduciary position with any organization.

Altman has been "misconduct free" since starting his sentence Sept. 9, 2003, according to a Nov. 18 letter from Mercer Superintendent Joseph F. Desuta to the Allegheny County district attorney's office, the Rhoadeses and other Altman victims.

"He currently receives above average housing unit reports from the regularly assigned officers in his living quarters," the letter reads. "They state, 'He is mature, steady and is no problem on any shift.' His work supervisor states, 'He does an excellent job and is a constant help.' "

The letter says Altman has completed several programs during his incarceration, including ones on citizenship and victim's awareness. He is on the waiting list for an accounting class.

A prison committee recommended Altman be placed in the early parole program. He would be eligible in May at the earliest.

Placement would not obviate any part of his sentence. He would be on parole at least until May 2006 and then be on probation for 20 years, when he will be 76.

State law allows crime victims to submit comments in writing before parole is granted. A spokesman for the district attorney's office said it would not take a position.

However, the spokesman, Mike Manko, said the office would inform the corrections department of the severity of Altman's actions, of the emotional and financial trauma inflicted on the victims and remind them that he is not allowed to handle money in any official capacity.

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