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

March 21, 1995|NICHOLAS RICCARDI | 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.

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