First, he preached the Gospel in South Los Angeles. Then he picked up a badge and gun as an LAPD officer working the Wilshire Division. From there, he moved to the FBI, serving as an undercover agent in Los Angeles, then in Tennessee. His life, he said, was “my American dream.”
But now Darin McAllister is in federal prison in eastern Kentucky, serving a four-year sentence as part of a Justice Department investigation into mortgage fraud. His life today, he says, is “my American nightmare.”
His path from Bible to badge to prison bars is in some part a result of the three-year national housing crisis. When real estate loans went bad, he came under scrutiny from his own employer, the FBI, for lying about his income. But it is also a casualty of McAllister’s unbridled and ultimately unprincipled ambition to repeatedly reinvent himself and rise above his modest upbringing in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill.
His father painted houses. His mother cleaned them. And McAllister was going to change the world by saving souls and arresting sinners. Even in prison, he pictures himself in yet another role ministering in the nation’s capital when he gets out.
“Even being in here,” he said during an interview at the Federal Prison Camp in the old mining hills around Manchester, “this allows me to put my trust in God. And that’s what I can grow from.”
He is 46, 20 years beyond the idealistic youth who arrived in Southern California in 1990 with a divinity degree from Oral Roberts University. He joined the West Angeles Church of God in Christ in South L.A.
He served as an intern, then staff minister, then as aide to Bishop Charles E. Blake. He kept moving up, seemingly unstoppable, teaching the men’s Sunday school and leading the youth choir. His wife, Judith, today a nationally recognized gospel singer, became minister of music.
“He was a fine, upstanding individual,” Blake recalled recently. “He was committed to family and to church and the progress of his community.”
But he wanted more, and a few months before the March 1991, Rodney King beating, he joined the Los Angeles Police Department. Police recruiters were scouring the African American community leadership — the churches, especially — in search of new cadets. McAllister eagerly enlisted, his motivation coming right out of I Corinthians: “Become all things to all men.”
In his squad car, he packed his Bible next to his riot gear. At church, he sometimes wore his revolver. During the 1992 riots, he rode as an escort on firetrucks that were being fired on by rioters. He came home, he said, “smelling like smoke.”
The FBI hired him in 1996 and assigned him to undercover work, primarily gathering street intelligence. “I looked at the bureau as being the premier law enforcement agency,” he said. “I considered them the best.”
In 2003, the bureau transferred him to Nashville. It was far from the action of Southern California but close to the music industry. Judith’s singing career was blooming. They had three children to raise. They also brought with them $236,000 in profit from selling their California home.
With money to invest, he started purchasing duplexes, painting and dry-walling, and renting them out.
“Darin wanted to do this for his family, to help his kids in school and have a little bit of money when he retired,” said his real estate agent, Andy Clough. “If he said that once, he said it a dozen times. I assumed everything was coming along fine.”
But the market buckled, and McAllister lost his tenants. He fell behind in payments. The loans were called in and the banks foreclosed. Examiners noted that in the lending documents McAllister had greatly inflated his income — by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I wasn’t making money,” he said, expressing his frustration. “I tried to sell them, my home too. But nothing went through. I started getting behind on my payments. By 2008, 2009, I couldn’t make the payments. They went into foreclosure and I filed for bankruptcy. I couldn’t rebound from the debt.”
McAllister was notified that the bank had contacted federal law enforcement officials. His supervisor at the Nashville FBI field office told him he was under investigation by the Justice Department’s Inspector General’s Office. In May 2010, he was indicted on 19 counts of wire fraud, false declarations and other felonies.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I was shocked. It was like somebody hit me in the stomach with a sledgehammer.”
At his trial, his Franklin, Tenn., defense attorney, George T. Hawkins, argued that McAllister was simply naive and did not study the documents closely. He also said SunTrust loan officer Wes English inflated McAllister’s assets and profile to win a hefty commission.
“Darin was careless,” Hawkins said. “Once he went into a room and signed 10 different loans. He was just running through and signing them, and he should have caught some of the bad applications.”
English said he never doctored the loan applications.
“The only thing I put in there was what he told me to put in there,” English said in an interview. “He had the opportunity to look at it all. That was up to him.”
He added: “None of this was necessary. There were other ways to get a loan rather than to misrepresent things. He got in over his head.”
McAllister was convicted last December on 15 counts of wire fraud and three counts of bankruptcy fraud. U.S. District Judge John T. Nixon sentenced him to four years and a $675,000 fine. His lawyer is appealing the case.
“I want to clear my name,” he said. “But not just that. This whole thing is bigger than me. A lot of people purchased property and there were appraisers and loan officers who were shoddy and playing tricks. If they could dupe me as an FBI agent, who was safe?”
His hair receding, his beard gone gray and his tall frame broadening around the middle, McAllister still hopes to someday remake himself again. “I will pass this test,” he said. “God will allow me to handle this.”
But for now, he must be content with his current job filling food trays in the cafeteria, making 50 cents a day.