An Unholy War : Mail-Order Ministers, With Bucket Brigades of Collectors, Battle for Turf
Three years ago on a street corner in downtown Los Angeles, two mail-order ministers fresh from Texas made a discovery: They found that a few men wearing clerical collars and tendering brightly colored buckets could rake in a respectable fortune.
The Rev. Billy Joe Moy and the Rev. Herbert Clifton were greenhorns in California--Moy an ex-convict, Clifton a former door-to-door salesman, both in need of capital. They bought two plastic salad bowls and stood outside Grand Central Market, politely addressing passers-by.
“A little something for the church today?” they inquired.
At day’s end, they had $400, Moy recalls--enough to rent a storefront for a church on which to spend the little somethings. The rest went to rent a truck to collect donated food, Moy says. And from those humble beginnings, an extraordinary empire was born.
Later came squadrons of “solicitors"--street people given a shave, a bucket and a set of “black clericals.” Dispatched to airports, zoos and other public places, they would say they were collecting for food programs, orphanages and shelters for the homeless.
But infighting sundered the Clifton-Moy alliance, and there was a short-lived attempt to carve Southern California into territories. One renegade apprentice, in charge of San Diego, struck out on his own. Clifton withdrew his best troops to El Paso. Moy vanished into Mexico.
Now the battle of the bucket brigades has resurfaced in San Diego, which for three years has been the almost exclusive territory of the Rev. Herman Travioli’s San Diego Christian Missionaries. Moy is back, with a mission of his own. It’s Travioli’s red buckets versus Moy’s blues.
In recent weeks, Travioli appeared to be losing--his missionary forces depleted and his North Park headquarters shut down. Earlier this month he was taken into custody after a citizen’s arrest by a former aide de camp , a defector to the forces of Moy.
“It was a power play, a squeeze play,” growled Travioli, a diminutive, silver-haired man in a tidy black suit, white collar and gold watch. “It’s between Billy Joe Moy and myself. He plays dirty. I don’t.”
Moy flatly denies Travioli’s charges. Instead, he predicts Travioli will “hang himself.”
“Travioli says he’s going to El Paso,” Moy mused with relish in the Martin Luther King Jr. Way headquarters of his City of Angels Mission. “Travioli goes to El Paso, Clifton will eat him up alive. Travioli never had an original thought in his mind. . . . He stole every idea from Clifton and I.”
By their own accounting, these men control hundreds of thousands of dollars a year--loose change tossed by tourists, travelers and shoppers into solicitors’ buckets. Each claims he alone is honest, and that his group’s money goes to the charities he says.
Similarly, each one accuses the others of being crooks. They, in turn, deny each other’s charges. They have been slinging their hyperbole now for several years, since shortly after the three met up.
“He’s no good, truthfully and honestly,” Travioli said of Moy. “He’s a user of people and he don’t care.”
“He’s losing his men,” Moy said of Travioli. “They’re finding out he’s taking the money and sticking it in his pocket.”
Clifton on Travioli: “Well, I don’t believe that the man is honest.”
Clifton on Moy: “He admitted to me one time that he is a social psychopath.”
Clifton on Clifton: “Ma’am, I know you’re speaking to a stranger, but I happen to be one that does live by the Bible. Because I do run real programs and I do help real people and I don’t have a mansion and all my cars are old.”
Because they are chartered as religious organizations, Travioli’s and Moy’s groups have been granted nonprofit status by the state Franchise Tax Board and the federal Internal Revenue Service. Though there is no further registration required by the state, the groups are expected to abide by the provisions in the state Business and Professions code governing charitable solicitations.
Among other things, that code requires that their literature say what percentage of each contribution goes to charity. Travioli’s literature has not complied with that provision, but he has never been charged with a violation.
According to Moy, 33% of his mission’s $56,200 budget for June through December, 1985, went to food, clothing and shelter for the poor. And indeed, street people line up outside the mission for hot breakfast and dinner daily. He says he served 60,000 meals in six months.
According to Travioli, only 7.6% of his $126,000 in donations last year went to a Mexican orphanage, emergency aid to families in San Diego and the proposed women’s mission his group purports to support. Forty-one percent went to the missionaries, 26% to administration, and 9% to fund-raising. Fourteen percent went to the house on University Avenue where at one time as many as a dozen solicitors lived, with as many as four men to a room.
Casa Merced, the Mexican orphanage to which Travioli was sending some money, is a small house in Tijuana’s Zona Norte, the sleazy den of the city’s demimonde. The house is barely furnished, save some cots donated by another charitable group. The floors are covered in dirty brown shag carpet.
In the front room, a woman named Margarita Villa Garcia works as a seamstress, said Cristina Villa Morales, her 18-year-old daughter. Cristina said three of the 10 children there were Margarita’s. Margarita’s son Jesus, 15, said nine of the 10 were hers.
Cristina recalled a string of missionaries who had worked as orphanage director; a small room in the house contains piles of yellowing San Diego Christian Missionaries literature. But she said they had received no money from Travioli since December, 1985.
Nevertheless, as late as March, solicitors were citing Casa Merced as the group’s principal charity. Only after a series of television reports in April on Channel 39, featuring visits to Casa Merced, did the solicitors stop promoting the orphanage.
Travioli now says he pulled out of Casa Merced after the Mexican government demanded money and when he learned that Mrs. Villa Garcia’s children were routing the orphans. He says he gave her two months’ notice in February, and now saves contributions toward a long-planned women’s shelter.
But the proposed women’s shelter has appeared prominently in his sparse literature for years. Yet it has never opened. Travioli explained recently, “My problem there is finding a proper building. Until I find that proper building, I’m not going to get involved.”
Finally, Travioli said in an interview that San Diego Christian Missionaries is primarily a self-help organization for street people--a claim that was never made in his literature or on the placards attached to his solicitors’ red buckets.
“My by-laws are set up to help the people from the street, to give them an opportunity to stabilize themselves, to work, to earn their keep,” Travioli said. ". . . At least I give them the opportunity to get themselves off the street. . . . The No. 1 charity is the missionaries.”
Randy Templin was just such a man when he was introduced to Herman Travioli in the summer of 1983. A 25-year-old former forest ranger from Reading, Pa., Templin says he had been jilted by a fiancee in Los Angeles and found himself down and out in San Diego.
He says he had turned to the Travelers Aid Society for help and had been told they would help arrange for a bus ride home if he would chip in $50. He was wondering how to get the money when he ran into a man downtown holding a bucket.
Templin says Travioli kitted him out--"clericals” from a religious supply store on El Cajon Boulevard, black trousers from JC Penney, black shoes from Payless. He also got a red bucket, literature, an ID tag and “a little black bag to put your coins in.”
There was also a laminated ID and a diploma from the Church of Gospel Ministry, a mail-order house in Chula Vista that advertises in National Enquirer. San Diego Christian Missionaries was an affiliate of the Church at that time, and together, they sent money to an orphanage south of Tijuana.
“It’s beg-o-matic,” Templin laughed in a recent interview. “You grab your bucket, hold it by your side, and look at people. ‘Care to help the children today?’ That’s the general pitch. . . . For the longest time, it worked fantastic.”
Templin started out at Sea World. Later, he moved to the airport, where he says he “bucketed” an average of $80 a day. Though Templin says he agreed to be paid only “grace and favors,” he says in practice Travioli gave him 40% of Templin’s daily take.
Some days he would go downtown to recruit outside now-closed Walker Scott department store or Carl’s Jr. restaurant on Broadway. “A lot of street people would come up and say, ‘Excuse me, Father, but I’m looking for a job’,” he recalls. “Then you’d call Herman and tell him what you think of them.”
What to look for included “if they’re a good talker, if they have a good appearance, how much is it going to cost him in haircuts,” Templin said. In tight times, he said, he might also consider whether the prospect had his own black shoes.
Gradually, the solicitor corps expanded to 15 or 20 men, most of them living together in an apartment in Chula Vista and later on University Avenue. Templin estimates he has seen several hundred men come and go, and interviews with solicitors attest to the turnover.
“You’ve got to realize the population of San Diego street people,” said Templin. “You’re talking 30% of them in need of mental health care.” One missionary, described by a friend as having a nervous disorder that required institutionalization, left the group during the past year after a hidden television camera caught him blessing a driver’s license.
Travioli acknowledges that few of his missionaries have made much of the experience.
“I think it will probably break down to 1 out of 30 that really took advantage of it and really wanted to help themselves,” he said. “The rest, I think, are just wanderers. I gave them the opportunity and that’s what I feel good about.”
Travioli cut his teeth in the business in Los Angeles in 1983, working for Clifton and Moy under the umbrella of the Church of Gospel Ministry. In mid-1983 he was sent to San Diego to open a new branch. Shortly afterward, Clifton and Moy split up.
Each now accuses the other of having misused money, and Moy claims Clifton reneged on a deal to divvy up the state into territories. San Diego became a battleground of Clifton’s silver buckets and Travioli’s reds, they say. Clifton eventually retreated to Texas.
Meanwhile, Travioli broke with the Church of Gospel Ministry and incorporated as an independent, nonprofit religious organization in 1984. Once again, he says the issue was use of money. Bishop Charles Finn says simply they parted ways “by mutual agreement.”
Travioli then opened Casa Merced, “in an endeavor to prevent (children) from falling into the hands of purveyors of perversion which abounds in this border town,” his literature claimed.
He also opened an adult mission in Tijuana called Mission Buen Samaritano, “to instill the word of God while assisting them to save enough for their transportation to their home states in the south of the Republic.” Travioli says he closed the mission in February, 1985, when he learned Latinos were using it as a way station for crossing the border. Yet as late as March, 1986, his men continued to hand out his traditional literature featuring the mission and the orphanage.
Late last year, Travioli expanded northward, dispatching Templin and four others to open a Los Angeles branch. They took two rooms in a downtown hotel and began soliciting at the airport. Nearing Christmas, each man was taking in from $50 to $120 a day, according to tally sheets Templin says he took with him when he left the group.
Templin was growing disaffected. Shortly after New Year’s Day, he left, for reasons that remain in dispute. He insists that his conscience finally got to him after nearly three years. But Travioli says he fired him for stealing. Templin denies the allegation, saying the parting was by mutual agreement.
Whatever happened, Templin began eating and sleeping courtesy of Moy, who says he knew Templin as a good worker back in the early days in 1983. Templin began talking to reporters. He began turning up in law-enforcement and regulatory offices around town.
“Far as I know, he got fired,” said Truman Brown, who knew the missionaries from the Winchell’s Donut House shop he managed next to their house. ". . . All of a sudden he was out in the cold. He’s been trying to get Herman in trouble ever since.”
Suddenly, Travioli’s men were defecting to Moy, whose blue-bucketed solicitors (without collars) had moved in on Travioli’s turf. Travioli accuses Moy and his men of harassing his solicitors and offering higher pay, and of spreading rumors that he was under investigation.
Then Channel 39 ran a series of exposes, based largely on interviews with Templin. Cameras trailed the red buckets to Los Angeles International Airport and filmed one solicitor fleeing, tearing off his collar and complaining that his “rights of intrusion” were being violated.
Contributions dwindled. Then Travioli shut down his headquarters, unable to pay what he says was the $1,600 monthly rent. One morning recently, a dumpster out back was filled with abandoned red buckets and packets of unused Christian Missionaries identification cards.
Finally on June 3, Templin cornered Travioli outside the Zoo and staged a citizen’s arrest on charges of conspiring to defraud the people of the United States and Mexico. San Diego police arrived, handcuffed Travioli and took him into custody, all in view of the TV cameras Templin had invited to attend.
At police headquarters, investigators learned of an outstanding warrant for Travioli’s arrest on a 1981 misdemeanor theft charge in Ventura County. Travioli was jailed and then transferred to Ventura County, where court officials say he was released on his recognizance pending a trial scheduled to begin June 30.
Back in San Diego, ensconced in the shadowy front room of the former furniture warehouse he uses as his City of Angels mission headquarters, Moy maintains he has had nothing to do with Travioli’s difficulties.
“Actually, I have never really attacked anyone, because I’m a firm believer if you give someone enough rope, they’ll hang themselves,” he said. He suggested Travioli brought his problems upon himself: “Maybe he got greedy.”
“Herman considers himself as a con man,” theorized Moy. “But a con man can be good. Let me tell you why: You can be a con man when you’re helping yourself, or you can be a con man helping others. . . . What about Jerry Lewis? He’s the biggest con man in the country!”
If bucket-brigade history holds true, there will be a rematch. In Texas, the Rev. Herbert Clifton is heading west. In an interview, he said he recently expanded to Tucson and Las Cruces, N.M., and has plans to press on into Phoenix.
Even San Diego Christian Missionaries could rise from the flames.
“The bad publicity wouldn’t hurt Travioli after June,” mused Moy, the voice of experience. “Because tourists don’t read local papers.”