Valley Interview : Minkow Says His Conversion to Christianity Is No Scam

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Described by law enforcement officials as one of the most notorious white-collar criminals ever, Barry Minkow says he is now eager to make restitution for his crimes.

Minkow swindled investors out of more than $26 million by falsely claiming his company ZZZZ Best--which he started as a teen-ager out of his parents' Reseda garage--could cheaply restore damaged office buildings. During his trial he contended he had been manipulated by organized crime figures.

But at his sentencing in 1989, he declared: "Today is a great day for this country. The system works. . . . They got the right guy."

Minkow, Jewish by birth, had converted to Christianity on the eve of his sentencing. In prison, he earned two correspondence degrees and made a videotape to help accountants uncover corporate fraud. He wrote an autobiography--his second--called "Clean Sweep," and says any profits will be paid to his victims.

Minkow, 28, is an inmate at Gateway Correctional Institute, an Echo Park Halfway House, and will be released in April. He is working at the Encino law firm of one of his defense attorneys, and already has an apartment in Tarzana.

Question: You put a lot of energy when you were younger into ZZZZ Best. Where's all that energy going now?

Answer: I would say that it's going toward--well, I make no apologies for it--bringing as many men, women and children to heaven with me as possible. My degrees are in theology. I have a bachelor's and a master's degree, and I'm working toward my doctorate degree at the University of South Africa. I enjoy preaching. I enjoy teaching. I'm actively involved in my church. I'm going to be teaching Bible study. I taught in prison for years.

Everybody said you're born-again until you're out-again, and I've got one question: What do they say now? Oh, now it's a new excuse. Now it must be a scam or something. There's always an objection, but authenticity of anything is confirmed by consistency. Consistency confirms authenticity every time, so all I can do is live the life.

Q: In prison, what changed things for you?

A: Seven years in prison changed me. It taught me humility. I did my first almost five years in custody in maximum- or medium-security facilities. FCI Inglewood--they call it gladiator school. When I went into those higher-level security prisons, many of the people there were in for murder and violent crimes. I was humbled. I learned the other side of life. I was able to finally, for the first time in my life, be honest with myself.

There was something about spending Christmas in the hole, in Terminal Island, and spending Thanksgiving in the hole in Terminal Island, when you're in a maximum-security prison, in a five-by-seven cell. You get fed through a door. I got Thanksgiving dinner through a trap in my door, and I looked around that Thanksgiving in 1988, and I said you know what, I'm doing something wrong, there must be something wrong with me, because here I am spending Thanksgiving in a five-by-seven cell.

Q: In your book, you had mentioned how, when you were younger, when you were a boy, you felt insecure because your classmates at junior high were rolling up in Mercedeses.

A: At Ridgewood. And I thought that was it. That was what brought you happiness. At least it brought you prestige there.

Q: Do you still have an interest in making money?

A: I have an interest in making money for one reason; to pay back my victims. You know why?

No one can ever really understand this point. I love the guys I spent time with in prison. I really do. One of my biggest struggles is missing my friends in prison. Can you believe that? I mean, I really miss my friends in prison. And I hurt for them. I spent seven years Christmases with them.

You know what they want me to do? They want me to get out and pay back my victims, and many of them are rooting for me, because if I do it, then when they come and say, 'I want to pay back my victims,' they're more inclined to get that chance to do so. They might believe them if they have somebody that's done it first. It's the biggest motivation in the world for me, to go out there and do well. I want to earn money not just to pay the victims, but because the guys in prison are rooting for me to do it.

Q: I've noticed that a lot of con artists who have been caught and served time in prison turn to Christianity. Why do you think this is?

A: You can't con a con. Either Christianity is the biggest con ever or it's here. And the repercussions for it being true are very serious. As a con man, I can see right through a fraud, but when I look at Christianity I can see it's logically consistent, empirically adequate, and experientially real.

And I also think there's more of a pragmatic reason.

When I was in prison I had this Bible like this, (mimics holding book) and I was standing to go to dinner. A guy saw a Bible in my hand and he said to me "Hey, Barry, you weren't carrying around a Bible while you were ripping off Wall Street for all those millions were you?" And everybody laughed. They laughed and laughed and laughed. They laughed until I almost cried. And I was sitting there, and everybody was staring at me, and waiting for me to say something.

What do you say?

It's like answering the question: Were you lying then or are you lying now? And I said "Let me ask you a business question," and everybody shut up. I guess they thought I was going to teach them how to scam money or something, so they all listened.

I said to the guy: "If you had a clothing store, two of them, and you were making big, big money, and you decided to open a third. But then something went wrong. The third started to lose money, big money. So you switched managers; it still lost money. You change marketing plans; it still lost money. What would you do? Keep it open until you went out of business--because that's what would happen--or cut your losses, make a change, admit you made a mistake, and make millions off the two stores?"

He says: "That's the stupidest question I've ever heard in my life! Admit I made a mistake, cut my losses and make a change."

I picked up my Bible and pointed to it and said, "Hey, I just cut my losses, admitted I made a mistake, and made a change. It's just good business." And no one ever bothered me again about my conversion. And I think that's another reason why people who--like a Chuck Colson, with his lawyer, analytical mind--come to Christ. He came based on the evidence. People have this misconception that it takes some blind leap of faith to become a Christian. I think it's faith based on good reason.

Q: If you were someone who lost his life's savings in ZZZZ Best, and the person who did that emerged from prison 87 months later, called and said "I'm going to pay you back," what would your reaction be?

A: I'd be interested to know what's motivating it, what's behind it. Why? What's he doing this for? What's up his sleeve?

One of the victims told me somebody said, "I think Barry's trying to pay his way into heaven by paying back all his victims." She told them: "No, that's not what he's trying to do. What he's trying to do is--he's already got that heaven base covered when he became a Christian--he's motivated out of the example he sees in the Bible to pay back the people.

There's one thing prison did to me, and it may be bad, and it may be good. It took away any fear. Playing football with no pads in prison with South-Central Los Angeles men who were twice as fast and twice as strong took all the fear out of my heart.

I faced opposition. Two people threatened to kill me in prison, one who was in for murder and one who's doing 99 years. I've been through some very traumatic experiences in prison, and all that's prepared me to take on somebody who says, "I think you're a con man."

Fine. Bring on the opposition. I've faced much worse in prison. They don't scare me, and they're not going to deter me from my goals.

Bring it on. I don't care what you think. It ain't going to stop me.

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