Coronavirus suspected in death of Harlem 'cult’ leader whose church required 20% tithes

APR 09, 2020 | 6:03 PM

Jermaine Grant, 44, who was sentenced in January to 18 months in federal prison after he admitted to using church funds to personally enrich himself, died April 1 after a brief illness.(Courtesy of the Vicale Corp)

The leader of a Harlem separatist group whose church used 20% tithes to bilk members out of millions of dollars has died, according to his lawyer and followers.

Jermaine Grant, 44, who was sentenced in January to 18 months in federal prison after he admitted to using church funds to personally enrich himself, died April 1 after a brief illness. His prison term was scheduled to begin later this month.

His lawyer, Gerald Lefcourt, said it was unclear if Grant’s death was related to the coronavirus pandemic, although church leaders revealed on social media that Grant died from COVID-19.

“It is a tremendous loss — no question — and unfortunately due to the current restrictions put in place due to the coronavirus, we are prevented from coming together to comfort each other and say goodbye as we so desperately desire to do,” church leaders said in a letter to the congregation.

Female members line up outside of the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ on Madison Avenue in Manhattan on Saturday, April 27, 2019. (Theodore Parisienne/for New York Daily News)

Prosecutors said Grant and a co-conspirator, church treasurer Lincoln Warrington, used money from the Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ on Madison Ave. in Harlem to buy property, vehicles, trips and private-school tuition for his kids, according to court papers.

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Prosecutors said Grant, who lived in New Jersey, had his children driven to school every day in a chauffeured Mercedes-Benz paid for with funds from a church bank account.

“Sadly, Mr. Grant did pass away last week,” Lefcourt said in a statement. “We cannot confirm whether his death was COVID-19 related.”

The Israelite Church of God in Jesus Christ World Headquarters on Madison Avenue.(Richard Harbus/for New York Daily News)

Although Lefcourt, in the statement, praised the former church leader as a “devoted and committed father and spiritual leader and religious leader,” former Israelite members still hurt by Grant’s schemes said his death revealed a certain amount of karma.

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“I only wanted him to repent, admit his lies, but you can’t mess with God like this for too long,” one former follower said on Facebook. “Better to be humble always than perpetuate lies in the name of God.”

Prosecutors said that for nine years Grant and Warrington diverted more than $2 million from the group’s coffers.

Authorities said they failed to report more than $5 million in income to the IRS.

When the FBI raided the church in 2018, agents came out with crates of money — the product, church members said, of mandatory monthly 20% tithes, double the biblical requirement.

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Insiders said the crates were stacked from floor to ceiling, guarded by a 24-hour protection detail that operated inside and outside the church every day.

Church membership requires a verified referral — and a monthly payment plan backed by biblical brainwashing, insiders said. Attendees surrender their cell phones at the door, and swear devotion to a man who called himself the “God-sent Comforter.”(Alec Tabak for New York Daily News)

Insiders said the church remains active, even as the coronavirus lockdown continues, and Grant continued to run operations until his death.

“I feel bad for those affected by his death," said former congregation member Barry Pugh, a whistleblower who was prepared to testify for prosecutors before Grant cut a deal with the feds.

“But he didn’t repent. He lied to the congregation. Everything he did afterward was to lie and deceive the congregation.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, has classified the Israelite Church as a black nationalist hate group for preaching that a black Jesus will return to earth to enslave and kill white people.

The church was also once the worship home of David Anderson and Francine Graham, the killers behind the deadly anti-Semitic shooting spree in Jersey City in December during which they gunned down a Jersey City detective and shot up a kosher market, killing three, before shooting it out with cops. Anderson and Graham were later found dead inside the store.

In 2013, the church ordered action figures cast in Grant’s image — but sued the toy manufacturer because the dolls weren’t black enough.