FENTON • At a recent service at Southwest Christian Church, Senior Pastor Loren Copp spoke of honor and respect.
To make his point, he shared an anecdote about the time he accidentally walked out of a store without paying for a drink in his hand. He drove all the way back because, he said, "my integrity is worth more than that $1 soda."
Since he was hired as pastor four years ago, Copp, 42, has doubled the size of the nondenominational church at 1694 Smizer Station Road, to about 120 people. Church members trust Copp as the kind of leader who has opened up possibilities for a growing flock.
The centerpiece of that growth is a new, $1.4 million Christian school financed by the congregants.
Copp boldly promises to open the school this fall, despite the failure of similar projects in this corner of St. Louis County. He said the project will succeed where others have failed because the new school will be run like a business.
His past, however, is marked with bankruptcy, unpaid bills and allegations of deception and poor management.
Illinois records show he owes nearly $10,000 in child support. When he moved to St. Louis in 2003, lawsuits and unpaid bills from Ohio, Indiana and Illinois followed, nipping at his ankles. Most stemmed from construction projects Copp started and never finished.
Problems continued here at Stocker Construction, which fired him from a residential construction manager position in 2006 for severe losses on projects Copp oversaw, said a representative of the now-defunct company.
A year earlier, a judge approved a negotiated settlement of $203,400 to satisfy a suit brought against Copp by the Illinois attorney general. The sum was said to be a portion of what nine customers were owed.
Copp filed for bankruptcy in St. Louis around that time and has repaid just a token amount.
"If he is so conscientious about a soda, how does he feel about our house and other people's houses that he walked out on with hefty sums of money?" said Ofelia Nikolova, 54, a party in the lawsuit and a former assistant professor in French at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale. "Tell him to come back and pay me. I'll take $50,000."
Nikolova, like many from Copp's past, say they were shocked to learn he had worked himself into a position of faith and trust — especially one that involves a high-dollar construction project. Yet the Christian faith is defined by followers who strive to redeem themselves.
"Some people have a conversion, but I sure would be wary of him," said Dale Otten, a meatcutter from Millstadt, who was included in the settlement.
Little to none of Copp's history was known to church leaders in Fenton when they selected him as senior pastor. Nor had it come to light as members of the church began pitching in money toward the $1.4 million school.
"I don't care what he's done in the past," said Eric Snyder, treasurer of the church. "I believe his heart is right with God today. I'll stand by that."
Copp grew up in Kokomo, Ind., and attended Johnson Bible College in Knoxville, Tenn. He left after his freshman year and later earned a certificate in biblical studies from Summit Theological Seminary, an unaccredited correspondence school in Peru, Ind.
He started out as a youth minister but didn't seem to stay anywhere long. He left churches in Ohio, Mississippi and Southern Illinois where, at Friendship Church of Christ in rural Tamaroa, elders and members voted him out in 1995.
Copp once said in a court hearing that he had a "conflict of personalities" with the treasurer at Friendship Church. Mala Jones, still treasurer there, said Copp wanted to know what each member donated. "He wanted to get control of things, and I wouldn't let him do it," she said.
Copp and his wife, Malissa Sapp, separated after that, and a muddy divorce and custody case ensued over their son, Daniel. He'll be a senior in high school and hasn't seen his father in three years. According to state child support records, Copp was delinquent by $9,733 in June, an amount he disputes.
Asked how many times he has been divorced, he dodged the question, saying, "Divorce is divorce."
After Copp left Friendship Church, and he and Malissa separated, he moved to Indiana and married again.
Crystal Copp, now 34, said her ex-husband took a break from ministry during that time and worked at a construction business with his family. That ended poorly, she said, and he went out on his own as a builder. She said he had bad credit, so he used her name to buy things and didn't pay the bills, including some of his workers.
Eventually, she said, Copp left Indiana, leaving many belongings behind. He moved back to Southern Illinois, close to his son. Instead of preaching, he returned to construction and became involved in more disputes.
SUITS AND RESTITUTION
Copp said the legal troubles in Illinois stemmed from mix-ups at a lumberyard that affected a bank's willingness to grant withdrawals. He said the situation snowballed as investors balked and there wasn't enough money to finish the work.
"It really became a cash flow situation," he said.
But Dan Reid, who hired Copp to build the shell of a $250,000 home in Marion, Ill., accused Copp of writing "paid" on tickets for materials that he never paid for and then pocketing money meant for the house.
"If he is trying to raise any money, trying to get anybody in any business ventures, that is such a scary concept because he is such a likable, believable person," Reid said. "He'd look you square in the eye."
Copp signed the $203,400 court judgment against him, but he didn't admit guilt. He made a few payments on the judgment totaling about $4,000, officials said, but because Copp filed for bankruptcy, the payments are voluntary.
"We continue to monitor Copp and his finances with the ultimate goal of enforcing our judgment and providing restitution owed to Illinois consumers," Attorney General Lisa Madigan said in a prepared statement.
In another lawsuit from Benton, Ill., Dennis McGuire and David Cypin sued Copp in 2005, alleging breach of contract and fraud. They had hired him to build homes in a new subdivision and ultimately accused him of improperly using construction loan money, among a host of other allegations such as failing to pay construction workers and subcontractors for work and delivered materials. The plaintiffs ended up dropping the case because, McGuire said, "we were putting good money after bad."
Copp denied their allegations, saying, "The reason why they dropped that was because they couldn't win."
After Copp moved to St. Louis, he was involved with another subdivision called Hagemann Pointe on Tesson Ferry Road. Working on behalf of Stocker Construction, he was the lead residential builder. Lucy Roubal, 69, a real estate broker in Los Angeles, invested in the development. She said her son had met Copp on a mission trip.
"We just kept pumping money into it until we had no money left," she said, adding that the project was hampered by cost overruns.
Rather than fight it, she said she licked her wounds and moved on.
McGuire and Cypin, of Southern Illinois, said they had sought to warn others in St. Louis, but it didn't seem to sink in. Regardless, McGuire said he's put the "mess" behind him and forgiven Copp. They had worshipped together in the past.
"If you can't forgive somebody, then they continue to win," McGuire said.
Others have been less forgiving, including carpenter Steven Giroux, who called Copp in 2007 and demanded payment for work done in Illinois. "You owe me money," Giroux said, according to a report Copp filed with St. Louis County police. "I'm in the area. If you don't settle up with me, I'm going to kill you when your back is turned."
Giroux said he pleaded guilty of making the harassing call and was ordered not to contact Copp.
In April, Copp summoned police again. This time he reported that somebody broke into his truck and stole his briefcase, containing a Ruger pistol and blank checks from his karate club.
PUSH INTO SCHOOLS
Apart from being pastor of Southwest Christian in Fenton, Copp is president of Ma-Ji Ryu Christian Karate Association, which teaches martial arts.
In an unusual chain of events, that karate organization has become the governing organization of the schools that Southwest Christian is supporting.
Copp was teaching karate at St. Luke's Evangelical Lutheran Church and school, 3415 Taft Avenue. In January 2010, after nearly a century in operation, the Lutherans handed it over to Copp, allowing his karate ministry to run the school, now known as Living Faith Christian Academy.
"They have some resources that we didn't have," said St. Luke's pastor, David Dittmar.
As the school switched hands, some of the original students remained, while others have been recruited from the diverse neighborhood. Managers expect the small pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school to be a feeder to the new high school being added to Southwest Christian's building in Fenton. Church members bought nearly $1.4 million in bonds to finance the project. Tuition is $6,500 a year.
Copp has a direct leadership role over both the south city elementary school and new high school, which are incorporated under his karate association. Other church leaders say Copp is not personally handling the construction, though he has fulfilled functions such as drafting plans.
The school projects are being launched at a time when Christian startup schools nearby have struggled. Faith Community Christian High School closed in May because it didn't have enough funding, said a former school board president there. GreenPark Christian Academy, which also opened in 2007, closed a year ago amid infighting and foreclosure.
Brian Will, another bankrupt contractor-turned preacher, had a vision for GreenPark shortly after starting a small church. "When I felt the call to do this, I never hesitated," he told the Post-Dispatch before the school opened.
Copp applauded Will's church for trying to open a Christian school. It reminded him of a story in Matthew's gospel about Jesus asking Peter to step out of a boat, in faith, and walk on water toward him.
"I'd rather have one step in the water than be in the boat," Copp said. "That's where I am at. Because the next step is holding on to Jesus."
STANDING BY THEIR MAN
Duane Boyd, elder emeritus at Southwest Christian, was part of the committee that hired Copp to be senior pastor. He's satisfied with the ministry that Copp provides and has invested in both schools. He didn't read the lawsuits filed against Copp. "We felt led by the Lord to consider Loren, and then we felt comfortable with what we determined from the research that we did," said Boyd, a retired information technology director at Allied Healthcare.
Others such as Boyd say they are thrilled by the growth that has occurred since Copp came on board.
"This is either pure insanity or it is God," said Lawrence Trokey, who will be principal of the new high school. "We are just thinking it's God because he keeps opening these doors for us."
As for Copp, he admitted that he has failings, he's a sinner. Hard lessons learned have made him a better, more humble, preacher, he said. But he said he never deceived anyone. Rather than self-destruct, he decided to move forward. To step out of the boat with Jesus.
"There is a point in time when you can't get angry for losing your son, you can't get angry about losing a lot of things," he said. "You just have to have a come-to-Jesus moment, to where you sit back and say this is what I have to do.
"That's where I am at today."