Tina Satterwhite doesn’t follow San Bernardino city politics, but she knows Terry Elliott.
Elliott is a local church pastor who has leveraged his service as a police chaplain and public safety commissioner into a coveted endorsement from the San Bernardino Police Officers Association as he campaigns to unseat 2nd Ward City Council incumbent Sandra Ibarra in the June 7 election.
But Satterwhite knows a different Terry Elliott. After he migrated to San Bernardino from a church in Los Angeles, Elliott bilked her of more than $75,000 from the sale of her house in 2004, leaving her broke and homeless, Satterwhite said. At the time, Elliott was serving as pastor at the long-dissolved Mt. Zion Baptist Church and Satterwhite was a parishioner in the midst of a crisis.
Facing mental health issues due to problems at work and the shooting death of her son, Satterwhite was struggling to stay afloat and fell behind on her mortgage payments. The threat of foreclosure loomed, so she sought guidance from Elliott.
Elliott, according to Satterwhite, persuaded her to sell her house to avert foreclosure, then turn the net proceeds from the sale — more than $107,000 — over to him to hold in a trust account for her.
After tithing more than $12,000 to Mt. Zion, Satterwhite agreed to turn the rest of the money over to Elliott as he suggested. But instead of depositing the money into a trust account in Satterwhite’s name, Elliott, according to Satterwhite and court records, deposited the money into an account he had established to raise money to buy a new building for his church. He then began withdrawing her money — more than $75,000 — for personal expenses.
As a result, Satterwhite could not pay her rent, was evicted and left homeless.
“He destroyed me. My spiritual belief in God has wavered. It’s been hell for a long time,” said Satterwhite, a former corrections officer, during a recent interview at the San Bernardino office of her attorney, Michael Scafiddi. “I was depressed, and (Elliott) took advantage of that. I was going through some very troubling things.”
Elliott disputes Satterwhite’s version of events. He denied encouraging her to sell her home or promising to set up a trust. He said he only referred Satterwhite to a Realtor he knew to assist in the sale of her house.
Elliott also claimed in a 2010 deposition that Satterwhite gifted the entire net proceeds from the sale of her house — $107,147 — to the church.
A federal bankruptcy judge sided with Satterwhite, and in June 2014, following a five-day bench trial, slapped Elliott with a $75,166 judgment.
In a 20-page opinion, Judge William V. Altenberger said he found Satterwhite to be the more credible witness during the trial, being “direct, decisive and consistent in her testimony.” In contrast, he found Elliott to be “evasive and uninformed about what had occurred.” Altenberger said the evidence presented by Satterwhite showed that Elliott obtained her money by “false pretense, a false representation or actual fraud.”
Elliott has never attempted to pay on that judgment, which Scafiddi said now amounts to more than $100,000 due to interest.
“The guy’s a complete scammer,” Scafiddi said of Elliott. “We tried several times to locate him. We never could. Then I see an ad on Facebook that he’s running for City Council, and I’m like, ‘This is the guy I’ve been trying to get to pay on this judgment for years.’ “
Denies owing money
Elliott, now the pastor of The Ship of Zion church in San Bernardino, said he does not owe Satterwhite any money because he was dismissed as a defendant in the civil lawsuit she and Scafiddi brought against him in 2007.
“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Elliott said in a recent telephone interview.
Scafiddi said the civil case was stayed when Elliott filed for bankruptcy in 2010, so he “chased Elliott” into bankruptcy court to seek a judgment there.
Altenberger concluded that Elliott’s dismissal as a defendant in the civil case did not exonerate him in the federal case, ruling that the more than $75,000 owed to Satterwhite was not dischargeable in the bankruptcy case.
“No federal action against the debtor involving the same claims has been dismissed,” Altenberger said.
Scafiddi said he subpoenaed Elliott in 2018 to appear in court to answer questions about his finances, but Elliott ducked service.
“He ducked service repeatedly and ultimately we were not able to serve him,” Scafiddi said. The lawyer said he is preparing a motion for another hearing in federal court and plans to subpoena Elliott and his financial records again.
Beyond Elliott’s entanglements with Satterwhite, his past is littered with both criminal prosecutions and civil lawsuits over unpaid debts dating back decades.
Court records show that Elliott was charged on Nov. 1, 1983 — just shy of his 20th birthday — in San Bernardino County with 13 felony counts of forgery for passing more than a dozen bad checks, totaling more than $2,400, in just over a month in the summer of 1983.
The case was transferred to Los Angeles County, where Elliott was convicted of four of the 13 counts and sentenced to three years at the California Institution for Men in Chino. He was released from custody in April 1985 after serving one year, said Dana Simas, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabiliation.
A decade later, Elliott was charged in Los Angeles County Municipal Court in April 1994 with one felony count of grand theft in connection with the theft of funds from Good Samaritan Baptist Church in Los Angeles, the first church where Elliott served as pastor, according to court records filed in the case.
Elliott subsequently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years probation after serving a month in jail, according to court records and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.
In 2003, after Elliott successfully completed the terms of his sentence and probation, his attorney filed a motion with the court to have the grand theft conviction reduced to a misdemeanor, which was granted, court records show.
While Elliott was embroiled in his grand theft case involving Good Samaritan, he already was serving as pastor at Opportunity Baptist Church, also in Los Angeles, where he began his pulpit duty in 1992, Elliott said in the 2010 deposition.
As pastor and president of Opportunity Baptist, Elliott took out a $48,955 business loan through California Bank & Trust in February 1999, then started defaulting on the monthly payments 13 months later, forcing the bank to sue Elliott and the church in June 2000 for breach of contract.
At the time, the lawsuit states, the church still owed more than $43,000 on the loan. Additionally, Elliott and the church defaulted on payments owed to a bank-issued Visa card with a balance of more $3,800.
It was in 2000, around the time Opportunity Baptist was sued by California Bank & Trust, when Elliott was “called to Mt. Zion” in San Bernardino, according to his deposition. Under oath, he told Scafiddi that was the only reason he left Opportunity Baptist.
Elliott’s academic credentials also have been called into question. In his church biography, the 1982 graduate of Cajon High School claimed to have three doctorate degrees in law and letters, philosophy and theology, all of which Scafiddi said is untrue. Scafiddi said Elliott admitted to Altenberger during trial that he had no academic degrees.
On The Ship’s Facebook page, Elliott nevertheless refers to himself as “Dr. T. Elliott.”
In his candidate statement for City Council, Elliott said he is campaigning on a platform of quality of life and public safety, advocating for the hiring of more police officers, creating a more business-friendly climate in the city and moving homeless people off the streets and into effective mental health and addiction treatment programs.
As a volunteer with the Police Department since October 2019, Elliott is frequently called out to assist family members of victims who have experienced a traumatic event, and counsels officers when needed, said Sgt. Equino Thomas, the department’s spokesman.
Tamrin Olden, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino Police Officers Association, defended the union’s endorsement of Eliliott based on his community service.
Olden said Elliott has been a longtime partner with the department and POA, supporting those in need of spiritual and emotional support through the department’s chaplain program and collecting donations for the department and community.
“To make a statement claiming that our endorsement process, specifically our current council endorsements, is dictated by some alternate agenda is simply incorrect and unfair,” Olden said.
In a statement, SBPOA President Jon Plummer said the union “endorses candidates that are committed to elevating the standard of public safety in the city, along with providing our police department with adequate tools and resources to enhance the quality of life for those we serve, our citizens and officers in the City of San Bernardino.”
With just two candidates in the Ward 2 primary, either Elliott or Ibarra can be expected to capture more than 50% of the vote in the primary to win the seat outright and take office before the end of the year.
County supervisor ‘disappointed’
Former Third District San Bernardino County Supervisor Josie Gonzales said she is reconsidering her support for Elliott based on reports of his troubled history.
“Upon learning this information, I find that I’m quite disappointed,” Gonzales said. “I thought we had optimally what we could call a very good candidate.”
She said she feels she has no choice now but to withdraw her support for Elliott. “A questionable background is something that breeds distrust, and we can’t have that,” Gonzales said.
Satterwhite, meanwhile, said she was shocked to learn Elliott was running for City Council.
“If he can’t be honest as a pastor, the people of San Bernardino can’t trust him with their money. He’s going to cheat them as well,” she said. “He abused his power as a pastor, and so now he’s about to do the same thing, just to many other people.”