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MOORE COUNTY, N.C. — A man who scammed the pastor and congregation of a Galax church out of money with a made-up tale of woe could spend 36 years in prison.
David Oneal Twitty, 46, visited the Assembly of God in Galax, pulling parishoners' heartstrings with his tried-and-true story of personal tragedy.
Police believe Twitty has been running this con for several years.
Witness after witness at Twitty's jury trial last week in North Carolina — on charges of obtaining money under false pretenses from four churches — described how the man entered church services late, took a seat and then asked to speak to the congregation. He would tell of his wife dying in a car crash and having car trouble on his way home that took all his cash.
(Twitty’s wife, from whom he’d been divorced some six years ago, was still living and testified in the trial.)
Twitty never actually asked for money at the numerous churches he scammed, but his woeful tale brought generous gifts from churches, worshippers and preachers alike.
The pastor at Galax gave him $20, and the church committee provided another $50.
Galax Police Chief Rick Clark said the Assembly of God didn't press charges. "The N.C. statute is obviously stronger than ours [in Virginia]. He would have to obtain more than $200 from one person to be prosecuted for a felony."
The Moore County, N.C., jury convicted Twitty on four out of five counts of obtaining money under false pretenses. The jury also determined that Twitty is an habitual felon.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge James M. Webb — assessing Twitty’s numerous convictions, including one in Alamance County, N.C., earlier this year as a convicted felon for the same crimes — sentenced him to 168 to 211 months in the N.C. Department of Corrections on the Moore County convictions.
The judge noted that these habitual felon sentences must, by law, be served consecutively with other sentences, one after another.
“If your prior convictions are upheld on appeal, you will have at least 28-and-a-half years to serve,” Webb said.
The sentence didn’t surprise Twitty, who defended himself. His court-appointed attorney, Jerry D. "Dusty" Rhoades, was reduced to acting as backup counsel after Webb granted Twitty’s motion to defend himself.
Twitty, at times appearing to be well-versed in legal procedure, had many of his motions allowed and many objections upheld by Webb.
The judge and jury got to see him in action when a DVD from the Assembly of God in Galax was played in court. Twitty did not object to the DVD being shown.
While the N.C. trial did not involve the Galax case, prosecutors introduced the DVD evidence to show the pattern of Twitty's actions.
It began with a shot of Twitty sitting in a pew, wearing a yellow hoodie, as he launches into a passionate rendition of “The Old Rugged Cross.” As he sings, people begin to shout amens.
“I want to give honor to God,” Twitty says in the video. “I bring greetings from the Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Wilmington, North Carolina… where everybody is somebody…
“My wife was killed in a car crash two days ago in Roanoke [he chokes, sobs] and on the way home the axle in my car broke. I was able to get it fixed, but it took everything I had, and that was to pay the light bill. They will cut it off tomorrow.
“Pray for my children, Ashley, Travis and Chelsea. I only have about $2.80 in my pocket. I don’t know what made me get off at this exit…”
Twitty never asked for anything but prayer, though he says he needs help.
“God doesn’t mind if I have a hamburger every now and then,” he says in the video. “For those who know the words of prayer, I solicit your prayers.”
Judge Webb had trimmed the original list of charges from 44 counts down to five, to keep from confusing the jury and wasting time.
According to testimony, Twitty received money at Culdee Presbyterian near Eastwood, N.C., and from three other churches. The jury found him not guilty of one charge in which he never entered the sanctuary of one church. A visiting minister was preaching, though a man at the door gave him $20.
Witnesses said he touched their hearts and they wanted to help him.
“I didn’t have any problem helping you,” one witness said. “I just didn’t want to be misled.”
Again and again, conducting cross-examinations, Twitty brought out that he’d never actually asked for money.
Prosecutor David Bjorlin said that did not matter. He pointed out that the law only required the state to prove that Twitty intended to deceive, did deceive and obtained property as a result.
Bjorlin asked jurors, like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” to “look behind the curtain” and see Twitty’s presentations as the performances they really were — fabrications designed to garner sympathy, pity and cash.
“They felt pity for the lies he told them,” Bjorlin said. “That’s why this is a crime and why it’s a felony.”
Chief Clark told The Gazette that the crime is less about the money taken than the fact Twitty preyed on the kindness of the faithful.
"It's a despicable act to take advantage of people who obviously believe [as the Bible says] 'as you have done to the least of these, you have done to me, also.'"
In a statement to the court before being sentenced, Twitty said his trial had been a setup from the beginning.
“I know you are going to throw the kitchen sink at me,” he told Webb. “This is my life, and I don’t believe I was tried fairly. I believe with all of my being this trial was tainted.”
Twitty filed notice of appeal, as he did in the Alamance case. Webb asked if he wanted to move to be released pending that appeal.
“Yeah,” Twitty said.
“Denied,” Webb replied.
The bailiff led him away.
Parts of this story are reprinted with permission from The Pilot Newspaper in Southern Pines, N.C. Gazette staff writer Brian Funk contributed to this article.