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What Happens When the Amish Get Rich


What Happens When the Amish Get Rich

Photograph by William Zbaren

Every Monday, before 8 a.m., the parking lot of the New Holland horse auction in Lancaster County, Pa., begins to fill with gray, box-like buggies. Soon, Amish men—the bearded married ones and cleanshaven singles—are standing in clumps discussing land prices while children, dressed like mini-adults in polyester breech-front trousers and black aprons, scoot back and forth chasing each other. Adolescent boys preview the horses; mothers jiggle babies and catch up in murmured Pennsylvania Dutch. If you are Amish, you go to the auction even if you’re not in the market for a horse. Occasionally, “English,” or non-Amish, people show up.

About five years ago an English businessman named Tim Moffitt began parking a cargo trailer at the auction. Moffitt, now 59, was known to many in Lancaster County as the former owner of Super Fruit, a produce business in nearby Chambersburg, which had employed Amish workers over the years. As he passed out free bags of fruit and jugs of orange juice from his trailer, Moffitt told visitors that he had sold Super Fruit for a considerable sum. Now he was looking to embark on his next great venture: a luxury mobile-home park outside Bushnell, Fla., about an hour north of Orlando.

Moffitt explained that this new RV park would attract retirees and snowbirds. It would have a community center, shuffleboard courts, and a Cracker Barrel-style restaurant. Small dwellings—casitas—could be built on trailer slabs for owners to use or rent. According to people who visited Moffitt’s trailer, he cited an appraisal claiming that the completed park would be worth $26 million and said it could eventually double in value. He also offered a monthly rate of return of around 9 percent. The project—known variously as the Southern Motor Coach Resort, the Southern Villas Motorcoach, and the Southern Hometown Village project—was quickly dubbed by the Amish, “the Florida Thing.”

Moffitt was one of those people who treated new acquaintances like old friends, say the Amish who met him at the auction. He would find out whom they knew in common, ask after someone’s health, give them an extra bag of oranges, and show deep gratitude to everyone who came by for a chat. He said he had spent five years researching other RV parks in Florida, so he could describe what others had done wrong. He also made sure that the Amish, who are devout Christians, understood that his own trust in God guided him.

Five Amish investors pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars each toward the Florida Thing. Those investors quickly began pitching relatives and neighbors on the deal, joining Moffitt in holding free chicken barbecues every Friday night at a small warehouse near Intercourse, Pa., that was christened “the Clubhouse.” As a nod to the future RV park, shuffleboard courts were painted onto the warehouse floor, and poster-size photos showed other RV parks beneath the Florida sun. An Amish assistant followed Moffitt, notebook in hand, writing down new commitments. “What really got it going was the names of some of the first investors,” says the son of one backer who, like most Amish interviewed for this story, insisted on anonymity because the Amish community looks darkly on sharing private information with the English press. “They were prosperous, and people felt that if those people got involved, the deal must be solid.”

The Florida Thing quickly became a frequent topic at wedding suppers, baseball games, and breakfast spots like the Best Western in Intercourse. To some, Moffitt’s promised rate of return looked too good to be true. Others enthusiastically signed up. One investor, who had a gazebo-manufacturing business, saw a potential pool of customers. Makers of fences, mailboxes, and storage sheds also sensed opportunity.

In 2009 and 2010, according to Florida records, Moffitt purchased 127 acres of land in Sumter County, near Bushnell, with a projected 385 RV lots to be developed for sale. The Florida Department of Transportation co-funded a new turn lane fronting the property in anticipation of the increased traffic. Within a few years, around 80 Amish families had put in $15 million to $20 million, according to investors and Pennsylvania filings. Investors received consistent interest payments, and an occasional newsletter in which Moffitt reported—with liberal praise and thanks to the Lord—on the park’s progress.

After a while, though, some in Lancaster County started to grow suspicious of the Florida Thing. According to conversations with noninvestors in the Amish community, people who refused to write checks at the Clubhouse were being visited by Moffitt or other investors, who could be aggressive. One grandfather told me he was so browbeaten into attending the chicken barbecues that he had to explain, mustering all the politeness required of the Amish, that he didn’t like chicken. Some also found it peculiar that, besides Moffitt, there were virtually no non-Amish investors. And no one seemed to know what, exactly, was happening in Florida.
 
 
Arriving from in and around Switzerland in the early 1700s, the Amish long ago decided that the way to maintain their faith was to live apart from society. They adopted curbs on their lives—rules directed by the church and known as the Ordnung—that today include prohibitions against being attached to the electrical grid, driving cars, and attending school after eighth grade. In recent years, though, they’ve increasingly embraced modern sensibilities.

The Amish would never own a pool, but a drive around the back roads of towns in Lancaster County such as Gap, Bird-in-Hand, and Paradise reveal man-made, lined swimming ponds complete with diving boards. The Amish are not supposed to have a home phone, but cell phones—even iPhones—are everywhere. Browsing the Internet remains, for the most part, off-limits, but it’s no longer shocking to see an Amish family enjoying dinner at a sushi joint. Many now pay non-Amish drivers to shuttle them in cars and vans to work every day. They go on shopping trips, too. High-end buggies in the horse auction’s parking lot feature plush upholstery and cup holders.

With the Amish farming heritage, it’s no surprise that land is their preferred investmentPhotograph by Jeff Swensen/Getty ImagesWith the Amish farming heritage, it’s no surprise that land is their preferred investment

These days, you can go to an Amish trade show in a well-lit, air-conditioned convention center, and e-mail directly with an Amish businessman. They’re not only getting modern, though: Many are getting rich. An ethic of simplicity is not the same as a vow of poverty. The restrictions in the Ordnung are carefully considered and meant to keep Amish humble, family-oriented, and in service to God. There are even dictates about the maximum size a business should be. But no curbs exist on the accumulation of wealth. “Entrepreneurial spirit cultivated on the farm is going into full bloom in American capitalism,” says Donald Kraybill, a sociology professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa., who has written 12 books on the Amish. “At heart, they are capitalist.”

Over the past decade rising land prices in Lancaster County have helped fuel a kind of Amish diaspora—there are now communities in 30 states, plus Canada—and, more significantly, led many Amish to walk away from the fields altogether. Some have gone into contracting, roofing, furniture making, and general woodworking; others have branched out into niche businesses, such as concrete flooring, plumbing and heating, landscaping, and metal fabrication. By 2009, according to Kraybill, more than half of all Amish households made their primary income outside of agriculture. “The phrase ‘Amish millionaire’ is no longer an oxymoron,” he says. In larger Amish communities, he estimates that hundreds of Amish households have assets exceeding $1 million. This new wealth has led many Amish businessmen to hunt for investment opportunities that fit their values. Stocks and bonds are generally viewed as too close to gambling, but the Amish use savings to stake one another in business ventures, putting their money to work in the community with higher returns than they might get from a bank. With the Amish farming heritage, it’s no surprise that land is their preferred investment. And that’s what Moffitt was offering.
 
 
Dave Crill, 56, is a private investigator who has lived almost all his life among the Lancaster County Amish. After a stint as a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch, Crill decided he needed a career that was better suited to what he calls his “do-gooder” gene. He got his PI’s license, and when it came time to name his business, Crill—who has the top-heavy bulk of a cop but the quiet, probing voice of a math tutor—went with Archangel Investigations. “I’m trying to help fight for people who can’t fight for themselves,” he says. Also, he adds, “the domain name was available.”

In his decade as a private investigator, Crill has worked primarily on criminal inquiries, including 12 death-penalty cases, where he’s helped defense lawyers look for mitigating circumstances that can get death off the table, as they say. He serves papers on behalf of attorneys and takes the occasional domestic job, cataloging infidelities. He owns a gun but usually leaves it in a camera bag in his van. He uses the van for stakeouts—sometimes sitting in it for hours, other times setting up a camera on a robotic arm and operating it remotely from his laptop at home.

In 2012, Crill met an Amish minister and, during a conversation in the minister’s barn, learned about the Florida Thing. The minister was concerned for the investors he knew and suggested Crill might discreetly, informally, look into things. Crill was happy to oblige. He threw himself into the case and soon was paying for an assistant to make phone calls, employing a Florida PI named Jim Maley to gather information in Bushnell, knocking on doors to talk to investors, and spending late hours on the computer to ferret out any paperwork connected to the deal.

Right away, Crill learned that Moffitt was selling securities without having registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission. So he set up a meeting with Moffitt and Paul Smucker, one of the main Amish investors, at Smucker’s house in Lancaster. There, Crill was transfixed by the sight of Moffitt eating a giant tomato as though it were an apple, the juice dripping down his arm and onto Smucker’s floor. According to Crill, things got a little heated as Moffitt and Smucker grilled him about who was paying him to look into the whole deal and why. When, as Crill tells it, he explained that he was trying to help the community and was working for free, the two seemed incredulous. When he tried to leave, they were so agitated, they briefly blocked his van in the driveway, standing in his way.

Crill contacted the Pennsylvania Department of Banking and Securities, which directed Moffitt to either register with the SEC or file for the proper, legal exemption. During one phone call with the state regulator, Crill says, a lawyer told him the agency wanted to send an undercover investigator, dressed as an Amish man, to one of the Moffitt barbecues. Crill asked whether anyone in the office spoke Pennsylvania Dutch. When the attorney responded that, regrettably, they did not, Crill groaned, imagining some guy wearing the lower half of a Santa beard trying to pass himself off as Amish. According to Crill, the idea was scrapped. The agency does not discuss investigations.

Soon after Moffitt broke ground on the Florida Thing, Crill learned, he would regularly drive Amish from Pennsylvania to Pinecraft, Fla., and back, with side trips to Bushnell, about 40 minutes from the ocean. As it turns out, Pinecraft, a small enclave just outside the eastern boundary of Sarasota, is the vacation spot of choice for the modern Amish family. In the winter, when work is slow, Amish make the overnight drive in chartered buses to take in the sun and play shuffleboard, filling rental cottages, which are widely regarded as great investments for those who got in on the market early. The use of electricity and even the occasional tipple are overlooked in Florida. Amish vacationers like to joke, “What happens in Pinecraft stays in Pinecraft.”

According to investors Crill spoke with, at the future site of the park in Bushnell, Moffitt would proudly conjure the image of the casitas, which would range in price from $20,000 to $200,000. He would point out the spot where a sales office would stand, complete with lines of retirees waiting to buy lots. But three years into the deal, as Crill’s Florida PI told him, the Southern Motor Coach Resort was little more than some scrubland ringed by trees, a stub of unpaved driveway, some storage sheds, and two gazebos, gifts from Amish investors.

Prompted by the Pennsylvania Banking and Securities Department, Moffitt filed the paperwork for an exemption to SEC registration. The Pennsylvania regulators also put a halt to Moffitt’s barbecues and horse auction visits, which amounted to selling securities on an open market. They directed more than one company involved to send a rescission offer to all the investors—a multipage document telling them they could choose to immediately recoup their money, with 6 percent interest, if they pulled out. The rescission offer revealed a dire fiscal situation. According to the balance sheets of one company, Mofco Group, $1.2 million had been spent on “site construction” and $3.3 million on “other development costs,” and yet the site in Bushnell lay essentially empty. More important, there was only $65,541 cash on hand; most of the $15 million-plus that Moffitt had raised was gone.

In the rescission offer and county documents are signs of some unusual business choices. At the time of the offer, the project was due more than $2.3 million from the Moffitt Group and related companies controlled by his relatives. It looked very much as though a Moffitt-controlled company had loaned money to another Moffitt-controlled company. County documents show Moffitt spent, on average, $43,000 per acre for the RV park land in 2009 and 2010 near the depths of the real estate crash; current land prices in that ZIP code hover around $8,500 per acre.

“If there ever was a community that needed someone to fight for them whether they like it or not, this is the community”Photograph by Bob Krist/Corbis“If there ever was a community that needed someone to fight for them whether they like it or not, this is the community”

County records also show that Moffitt bought one of the project’s largest parcels of land, for $2.3 million, from 674 Property, a corporation operated by his brother, Philip Thomas Moffitt. The records indicate that his brother’s company purchased the land four years earlier, for around $1.5 million. In other words, it seems as though the Moffitt family made a profit just when the rest of the country was watching real estate investments go down the drain. Tim Moffitt has declined requests to explain these and other aspects of the Florida RV park’s finances. However, he says he has always acted under the direction of Amish investors.

Given the information coming to light, Crill assumed his job was almost complete, but he didn’t know as much about the Amish as he thought.
 
 
This was not the first time Crill had investigated investments sold to the Amish. Six years ago a friend asked him to help an Amish neighbor named Leroy Fisher, who had invested $70,000 with a Mennonite, John Sensenig. Sensenig had started by soliciting funds to build and lease log cabins under the name Conestoga Log Cabin Leasing. Over time he had paid an increasing number of investors as much as 9 percent interest from a ballooning grab bag of businesses, including a high-end campground. When Crill got the call, interest payments had stopped and Sensenig wasn’t returning any principal. Crill contacted the SEC and worked with a lawyer to recover Fisher’s money. He later learned that beyond the interest they collected, none of the hundreds of other investors—most of them Amish—had recouped a penny of their initial investment. Total losses amounted to $65 million. (The SEC filed a complaint against Sensenig and fined him, but he was never criminally charged and contends the business collapsed because of unaffordable fees connected to SEC registration and adherence to the Sarbanes-Oxley rule.)

The Sensenig deal wasn’t an isolated event. In the early 2000s, Arlan Galbraith, the self-proclaimed Pigeon King, managed to convince many Amish investors that there was an untapped market for pigeons as meat and pets. In 2008 the scheme came crashing down, with losses of about $20 million. (Galbraith, who was recently sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted of fraud in his native Canada, claimed during his trial that he was guilty only of being “an entrepreneur, a risk-taker, and a visionary.”) Around the same time, a California computer instructor and convicted sex offender named Gregory Bradley, now dead, followed a similar template to build his B&B Worm Farms empire. That business lost investors an estimated $12 million. Crill believes the Amish are particularly susceptible to so-called affinity schemes, which rely on word of mouth within a tight community. With Bernie Madoff, it was other wealthy Jews active on the charity circuit. Frauds have reached Mormons, Koreans, Lebanese, and almost every other group.

In pursuing the Moffitt deal, Crill had underestimated one of the most important aspects of how the Amish do business: the principle that a man’s word is as good as a contract. “Honesty and trust are everything for the Amish,” says Kraybill, and many deals are sealed by handshake. And since the rescission document stated that withdrawn funds could “adversely affect” the project, rather than turn on Moffitt, many Amish questioned Crill’s motives. One major Amish businessman says many worried that Crill’s investigation could scuttle the development. In addition, the Amish have a deep aversion to government intervention. For investors, it was none of the government’s business—or, by extension, Crill’s—whether Moffitt had registered with the SEC. As a rule, they do not “go to the law.”

When one Amish man asked his father to recoup his $100,000 investment in Moffitt’s project, the father insisted he would not be the heel who lost faith in the project, says the son. Two investors say they have not seen the rescission offer, but it wouldn’t matter anyway. “Tim had our word,” one of them says. None of the 82 investors pulled out.

Crill wasn’t giving up that easily. “I get really torqued at the idea that these people may lose their savings to a bad deal,” he says, though he is not ready to accuse Moffitt of fraud. Crill says he feels uneasy about some of the financial products he sold in his days as a stockbroker, including a number of securities he never quite understood. He also acknowledges he thrives off the feeling he gets from helping the Amish, who benefit from his ability to ask the questions (and do the Googling) they cannot. After working on the Sensenig case, Crill commissioned a writer, Christiaan A. Hart Nibbrig, to compile a short book, A Thief in the Church, which Crill sells by mail order and through Amish bookstores to warn the Amish away from similar deals. The book, along with a column he has written for the Plain Communities Business Exchange, a monthly business journal for Amish and Mennonites, has made him a bit of a celebrity in Dutch country. At an Amish auction held at the Gap firehouse to raise money for charity, Crill was as close as you can come in that world to a rock star. Men sizing up pneumatic power tools nudged each other and gestured his way. They asked his advice about investments they had heard of but weren’t sure were legitimate.

“If there ever was a community that needed someone to fight for them whether they like it or not,” says Crill, “this is the community.”

Last year, Crill got in his van to visit as many investors as he could to find out the latest on the Florida Thing and to see whether Moffitt was raising new money. He stopped at the home of a chicken farmer and asked if the farmer knew whether there was any construction on the RV park (he didn’t) and whether he had seen a business plan (he hadn’t). The man revealed to Crill that, at present, no one was even getting interest payments anymore. When asked why he chose to put money in the Florida Thing to begin with, the man replied, “Oh, friends, I guess.”

At another stop, an elderly woman wearing black stockings and black sneakers, her hair tidily pulled back beneath her head covering, stood holding the screen door. “Why do people keep talking about it?” she asked Crill. “Why do they run it down?” Back in his van, Crill said to himself, “I’m the bad guy?”

He pulled into the driveway of another investor, a horse dealer. In front of a barn, a boy and girl, about 4 and 5 years old, stood expertly brushing a pair of miniature ponies. On a previous visit, the man had told Crill he felt confident in the investment and had given him the names of a few other people he might speak to. This time the man, busy shoeing a horse, ignored him. Crill just wanted an update, he said. The man finished his work and, still clutching his mallet, told Crill that, yes, there was an update: Crill should get off his land immediately.

As Crill walked back to the van, befuddled and unsettled, the man called out an apology. He was, after all, Amish.
 
 
In September, I traveled to Bushnell and met up with Jim Maley, the investigator Crill had hired in Florida. Maley is a former New York State police officer, but his deep tan and business-casual shorts peg him as someone at home in his adopted state. He drove us 4 miles outside Bushnell, where U.S. Route 301 bumps into county road 673. It’s a landscape of live oaks draped in Spanish moss, with skinny cattle nosing around small ranches. At the site of the Florida Thing, a car pulled off the road and the driver leaned over to ask us what was going on with the land: Was it something he could invest in? It looked so promising, he said. Maley scrunched his brow. It was impossible to say for certain, but he and I agreed the man seemed like a plant.

At the site, workmen were grading the driveway, which ended at a big patch of sand. Off to the side, a man wearing a baseball cap and plaid work shirt sat in the seat of a bulldozer. It was Moffitt, who’d caught word of my trip from a county official. He climbed down to speak with us, standing amid gangs of dragonflies and vaulting grasshoppers on a shady smear of dirt—the future site of the restaurant. He wore nice calfskin loafers, which was odd for a guy running a bulldozer.

Moffitt is barrel-chested, and more than 6 feet tall. He’s a charismatic speaker, but his words come out in a quick drawl, and his sentences have a habit of rear-ending each other. “I know who sent you,” Moffitt said. “I know Dave Crill is sending people down here and he won’t say who’s paying him, but I know who.” Moffitt fiddled with his baseball cap, revealing a sun-scoured head as he lifted and lowered it. He said that when he learned about the demise of the Sensenig deal, he knew people would wonder about his own project. “But I know what I got,” he added, looking out at the empty football field-size sand lot and trees beyond. “And I tell you, it’s going to be something great.”

When I pointed out to Moffitt the discrepancy between the state of the development and money spent, he explained that all expenditures are public record and I could learn more if I decided to invest myself. (No details about the project’s finances are available beyond the rescission offer.) He hoped I’d come down again for a look when the park was done, though he didn’t specify when that would be. “If you’re in this, you need to go the whole way,” Moffitt said he told investors. “You can’t cross a river halfway and quit.” Faith and the Lord will help see the project to its completion, he explained. “I say to the Amish all the time, ‘As long as I have life and breath and you stay with me, I’ll stay in this fight.’ ”

In the summer of 2013 investors were told that a block of lots at the park, dubbed Phase 1, would be completed and ready for sale early this year. According to Karl Holley, a Sumter County official, Moffitt is no closer to meaningful work on the site than before, as the project does not have development permits and no one has submitted requisite documents, such as a complete engineering plan, to obtain them. To provide sewer and water to the RV park, the project must install 4 miles of pipe to reach and tap into the Bushnell system.

Even if the development moves forward, it’s hard to see how it could possibly recoup money for its investors. Just to break even, each of the 385 lots will have to sell for more than $51,000. That’s not impossible for a high-end motor coach resort, but the clubhouse, gym, pool, and restaurant—not to mention sewer and water facilities—that warrant that kind of price tag would cost additional millions to build. Bill Gioia, who owns a house next to the Southern Motor Coach Resort property, says that apart from repair to an outbuilding that had been damaged during a storm, there have been no signs of work there since October.

An Amish friend unconnected to the Florida Thing once said to me, “You think your life is complicated and ours is simple, but it’s the opposite. You just take everything as it comes. We’re constantly having to figure out what to do with new things.” As an Amish man told Donald Kraybill, “The Amish survived persecution in Europe, but I’m not sure they’ll be able to survive prosperity.”

Banbury is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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