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Pastor pleads no contest to bilking fellow Christian out of $150,000
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Pastor pleads no contest to bilking fellow Christian out of $150,000

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James "Jeb" Bryant

Bryant

A pastor who helped bilk a fellow Christian out of $150,000 has until Dec. 18 to repay his portion of restitution, or face a 10-year commitment to the Montana Department of Corrections, with five years suspended.

James “Jeb” Bryant, 57, pleaded no contest Tuesday to three felony charges in connection with a 2008 securities scam that involved a fake structural panel business in Mexico.

Bryant’s partner, Harris Himes, who was pastor of the Big Sky Christian Center in Hamilton, was convicted in 2013 on felony securities fraud charges for his role in the case. Himes served 90 days in jail as part of a 10-year-suspended sentence and was ordered to repay his congregant, Geoff Serata.

Bryant testified under qualified immunity at Himes’ trial and then immediately returned to Mexico. At the time, Bryant faced felony charges of theft, failure to register as a salesperson, failure to register a security, fraudulent practices, conspiracy to commit theft and conspiracy to commit fraudulent practices.

He was arrested by Mexican authorities in Oaxaca, Mexico, in December and extradited to Ravalli County after county and state authorities requested assistance from the FBI. Bryant remained in the Ravalli County jail until Tuesday.

Townsend ordered Bryant released on his own recognizance following Tuesday’s hearing in Missoula. Bryant was required to give up his passport, wear a GPS tracking device, and remain in either Ravalli or Missoula counties while awaiting sentencing.

Bryant is required to pay $20,000 by July 27 and rest of the restitution balance, estimated at about $65,000, before his sentencing date of Dec. 18.

Charges against the two men were filed in 2011 after a church member complained to authorities that he had given the men $150,000 of an inheritance in 2008 to invest in a structural panel business in Mexico.

When Geoff Serata traveled to Mexico to see the business for himself, he found the factory was nothing more than a shed filled with fertilizer and seed in a farmer’s field outside a small town.

On Wednesday, Serata said he was thankful for state and county officials’ “hard work and the taxpayers’ resources that were spent to investigate this crime and bring it to a conclusion. It was full of challenges for the legal system, with Mr. Himes testing it at every level.”

Serata said he and his wife paid a heavy price as a result of the case.

They were forced to move to another state due to the hostility they experienced in Ravalli County during the time leading up to the trial.

“For five years, as the state prepared to bring the case to trial, the hostility in the community increased dramatically toward us,” Serata said. “Our house and our property was vandalized. We lived in rural setting. People would come in at night. It destroyed our sense of security and our sense of happiness.

“We loved the Bitterroot Valley,” he said. “My wife grew up there. It was my home, but my reputation was smeared and much suspicion generated toward my character.”

The couple ended up selling their property at a $20,000 loss.

“When we left, we didn’t have a destination,” Serata said. “We had a lot of prayer. We left to get out harm’s way. … We left a dry climate with alkaline soils and settled in a humid and rainy environment with acidic soil. We are learning how to do things again. We just try to stay focused on what we have to be thankful for.”

Serata said he doesn’t hold any hatred for Himes or Bryant.

“I think it might be hard to find another case where the perpetrators of these kinds of crimes would come away with such light sentencing,” Serata said. “My hope is the grace shown to Mr. Himes and Mr. Bryant would stir their hearts for more compassionate treatment of others.”

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