SANTA ANA — An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday that an evangelical preacher had conned an heiress out of nearly $500,000 and ordered him to repay the money plus $250,000 in punitive damages.
Mel Tari, 48, of Dana Point, an evangelist and author of several Christian books, must repay Christine Kline, 41, of Denver for the small fortune she signed over to him.
Kline, who had inherited Capital Printing Co. stock from her grandmother, led a different life before she became a Christian, once touring for several years with the Rolling Stones, according to her lawyer, Paul Roper of Orange.
She then became a trusted friend of Tari, who also is an executive vice president of All Seasons Resorts, a Costa-Mesa based company that owns resort campgrounds in several states.
Judge Byron K. McMillan found that Tari conned Kline out of $475,000 by offering to put her inheritance in a trust that he promised to manage. Instead, Tari invested the money in All Seasons Resorts, the judge found.
During the three-day trial, Kline talked about her life before she met Tari.
She was student at University of Virginia and had taken only a few courses--in tennis, diving, voice and piano--when she attended a Rolling Stones concert in 1972, she said.
Immediately after the concert, she joined members of the rock 'n' roll group in their private aircraft and soon became the girlfriend of Alan Dunn, the Stones' tour director, according to her lawyer and her testimony.
The woman said her experiments with drugs and alcohol brought her to "emotional ruin" and twice resulted in her confinement in a mental hospital.
But later in her life, Kline said, she found religion. She became a missionary in the South Pacific.
Kline first met the Indonesian-born Tari in Honolulu in 1983, she said in court papers. He was introduced to her missionary group as an evangelist with impressive credentials; he had appeared on numerous radio and television programs and his book, "Like a Mighty Wind," was a religious bestseller.
In the book, about a religious revival in Indonesia, Tari claims he turned water into wine; drank poison but suffered no effect; exercised powers over crocodiles, tigers and snakes, and brought dead people to life.
Two years after their first meeting, Kline met Tari again in Tonga, she said. She was a guest of the princess of Tonga and Tari, who was on an evangelical mission, was staying in the king's palace, according to his deposition taken for the trial.
In another book, "The Kingdom," Tari later wrote that he had been reluctant to evangelize in Tonga because, "I knew that going into those countries would never produce a single penny."
When he met Kline there, she "didn't look like she owned a penny to her name," he wrote. "She really didn't have money, only some stocks that were given to her by her parents.
"She said to me, 'Mel, I don't know if this stock is worth anything, but I want to give it to you to invest in the Lord's work if it is worth anything,' " Tari wrote.
But Kline denied giving the money to Tari. She said he promised to place her inheritance in a trust to support her and her missionary work.
And when Tari refused to return the money, she hired Roper, an Orange County lawyer and self-appointed watchdog of religious institutions. Roper gained national prominence when he negotiated a $265,000 settlement for Jessica Hahn over her one-time sexual encounter with television evangelist Jim Bakker.
For the civil trial, Roper subpoenaed witnesses from Hawaii and New Zealand to testify that Tari had admitted investing Kline's money in the campground company.
Roper also showed financial records from All Seasons Resorts and the Mel Tari Evangelistic Assn. showing that the evangelist was worth at least $2.7 million.
The judge was visibly upset that Tari had declined to produce his financial records even though he had specifically ordered him to do so.
"You're playing games," McMillan said, before ordering Tari to pay $250,000 punitive damages.
As Tari left the courtroom Wednesday afternoon, he said he did not understand the ruling and declined to comment.
Roper praised the judge's "wise decision. This ruling sends a message to other people who use their religious and spiritual power to abuse other people."