The FBI announced Wednesday the arrests of seven people, including four in San Diego County, allegedly involved in scams that used religious and philanthropic claims to bilk investors out of some $30 million.
Federal agents took the suspects into custody Tuesday as part of an ongoing investigation dubbed "Operation Good Samaritan," FBI Special Agent Jan Caldwell said.
In March 2003, authorities jailed eight people -- among them the alleged mastermind of the scam, John Franklin Harrell -- during an initial phase of the probe.
Arrested locally this week were George Eastman, 43, of El Cajon; his 37- year-old wife, Angela; Gregg Alan Stavros, 46, of San Diego; and John Joseph Zane, 73, of Rancho Mirage.
Three suspects were taken into custody outside San Diego County, and three others -- including 63-year-old Daniel Anderson of San Diego and John Fletcher, 51, of Santa Barbara -- remain at large, Caldwell said.
Prosecutors contend that Harrell and his associates used religion and philanthropic claims to swindle investors over a period of years.
Harrell allegedly claimed to be in charge of a $1.6 trillion trust created by the descendants of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith.
The fund supposedly consisted of "flight capital" and was held offshore.
"All he had to do was raise enough cash to start an insurance company," Caldwell said. "At that point, the (entire trust) would be available to him to ostensibly repay investors."
The alleged criminal undertaking was "chameleon-like, changing with each scenario," and is believed to have netted tens of millions of dollars, she said.
"For people involved in church activities, there was a biblical theme park (supposedly) in the works," Caldwell said. "For the philanthropic, there were social development centers to fund. And for the ill, there were miraculous cures for various diseases."
Harrell allegedly would string victims along with empty claims that their investment deals were about to "close," according to federal investigators.
"Among other promises, Harrell guaranteed some investors 100 percent annual return on their money for 99 years," Caldwell said. "Harrell's victims ranged from Florida to Oregon, and the individual investments spread from $2,000 to millions."
At any given time, Harrell had more than 20 people working to further the illicit operation, Caldwell alleged. Those subordinates included investment solicitors and money launderers, she said.