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Old Lyme - It's Sunday morning, and Michael P. Calo, the founding pastor of Shoreline Church Inc., is launching into his sermon, a 40-minute speech peppered with mid-sentence Hallelujahs and Amens.
To the approximately 45 people in this chapel, Calo is "Pastor Mike." And Pastor Mike preaches a message of redemption. From a welcome on the church's website urging people to "come as you are" to the theme of the day's speech, in which the despised tax collector Zacchaeus is nonetheless worthy of Jesus' time, Calo preaches that everyone is welcome and worthy.
Calo laughs as he jokes about his own past.
"I've gotten myself into some 'webs we weave,' " he says to the audience. "I would've knit a few sweaters."
That theme, of a past sullied by bad decisions, is part of the introduction in Calo's book, "The Voice of God," self-published in 2003. In the book, as in this Sunday's sermon, Calo, 54, does not get specific about his past problems.
A past like Mike Calo's stokes the concerns of two families and the police that Calo could be using his position of spiritual leader to prey on the vulnerable.
"To give them the benefit of the doubt, I hope it's not true," said George Hamberg of Old Lyme, who told police in 2008 he thought his then-wife was being taken advantage of, "but I just get the feeling that they have learned a new way to really make some money."
In 2001 - one year before founding Shoreline Church - Calo was convicted of setting up a false business to defraud a Korean businessman. A year before that, a federal commodity futures agency ordered Calo to stop publishing financial advice newsletters it said he was using to defraud clients.
Calo said in an interview in January that he did not break the law in his dealings with the Korean businessman and that he should have fought the charges.
He also asserted that church members, "my people," are aware of the details of his past. He denied the criminal charge to The Day in a December interview, he said, out of concern that outsiders would take things out of context.
"He's been very open about the fact that he was a completely different person before God got ahold of him," said Denise Cote, an assistant care pastor, adding later, "Mike Calo is not the guy he used to be. I've seen it with my own eyes."
The offer of redemption is Calo's strongest message at the Sunday sermon.
"There is no sin so dark and dirty and disgusting that God can't forgive," Calo says. "I wish man was the same."
In 2001, Calo was convicted of swindling a Korean businessman out of $33,500.
According to a 2000 arrest warrant from the Waterbury Police Department, Calo told In Ho Kim of Maxfit Business Consulting Co., whom he'd met four years earlier, that he was in the venture capital business and could help Kim finance a $2.5 million hotel purchase in Guam.
Calo told police that in 1999 he fabricated a lending company called First Atlantic Investments, a subsidiary of First Financial Group, which claimed to have offices in the Cayman Islands, South America and the United States. First Financial was based at 32 N. Main St. in Waterbury, which belonged to Calo's uncle, Rocco Calo, before he sold it, police said.
Using Yahoo! and AOL e-mail addresses that the U.S. Secret Service later traced back to Michael Calo, Calo posed as a representative named "J. Jeffries" or "J.J. Jeffries."
In letters and e-mails police obtained, Calo also posed as other fictitious employees, including a First Atlantic Investments director called "Roger W. Williams" and a secretary named "Mary." When Kim, the businessman, had trouble reaching Calo, "Mary" e-mailed to let him know that Calo was "in an area of costa rica where communication is poor."
Calo told Kim he needed him to wire $33,500 as proof of funds, then stalled for months on closing the deal.
"I just used the money to live on," Calo said in the statement to police. "I wanted my wife to think I was doing well and I never told her where I got the money from. I didn't spend the money at once, I spent it as I needed it. Once there was no money left in the account People's Bank closed the account because I had overdrawn the account by writing checks that I did not have the money to cover."
Calo was sentenced in April 2001 to a suspended prison sentence and three years probation after pleading no contest to the first-degree larceny charge. The larceny is Calo's only criminal conviction, according to a check of public records.
The year before, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission had ordered Calo to stop publishing "highly misleading" newsletters in which he claimed to offer subscribers up to 373 percent returns.
The Federal Trade Commission pointed to Calo's newsletters as an example of one of the top 10 types of "dot-cons" of the time. Calo avoided a $10,000 fine by proving he could not pay the penalty, according to the National Futures Association.
Calo characterized the incident as a case of government overstepping its boundaries. He said none of his subscribers complained and that it was his then-wife Nadine who went to the feds. Nadine Calo strongly denied the assertion in an interview last week. The couple divorced in 2001.
When initially asked by The Day about the larceny charge in Waterbury, Calo denied it was he and said he has cousins by the same name.
He provided The Day with a fake birth date (Feb. 11, his late father's) and fake birth year and appears to have changed it on his Facebook page as well. A half-dozen people on Facebook wished the pastor a Happy Birthday on his actual birthday of March 8.
In an interview with The Day on Jan. 28, Calo said he wasn't hiding the truth from his congregation but, rather, from a public that wouldn't understand.
"My people know what happened," Calo said, adding that he was, at the time, going through a "very, very difficult divorce."
Calo said the church's members need to know they can worship and not worry about their own past.
"If we look, we all have stuff in our past," said Cote, the assistant care pastor, who said she has known Calo for at least 10 years. "The great thing about God is that you get that second chance. When you give your life to Jesus, the old stuff doesn't count anymore and now you're a new creation, and you can start over."
Of the criminal conviction, Calo said he took a fee for services rendered and that police only looked into it because the transaction was done by wire transfer. He should have fought the charge, he said, but didn't.
"There was nothing wrong with what I did," he said. "We've lived our life from (the founding of the church) and until now as an open book."
Redemption or reinvention?
Hamberg and a couple who also complained to police about Calo dispute the notion that he found redemption when he formed Shoreline Church.
"To me, it's like it's a money-making thing," said Hamberg, who filed a complaint with the Old Saybrook Police Department in 2008, concerned that his then-wife, Della, was donating money she couldn't afford to the church.
The Hambergs were going through a divorce that involved the imminent loss of their home and business in Old Saybrook, Hamberg said, when he learned Della had donated more than $8,000 to the church. Hamberg said he was able to trace $8,000 in donations through checks but said Della gave more in cash.
"George said that Della has told family members she will no longer listen to their legal or financial advice but will only listen to Pastors Mike and Meredith Calo of the Shoreline Church," according to a Jan. 9, 2008, police report obtained through a Connecticut Freedom of Information Act request.
Another couple told police their daughter gave nearly half of her family's $30,000 annual income to the church.
Barry and Natalie Rand of Old Lyme said during an interview at their home last month that the more their daughter, Kelly Mastello, became involved with the church, the more she changed and the more her finances deteriorated.
The married mother of three lost her car, sold her house after pre-foreclosure proceedings had begun and moved into an apartment owned by the pastor's in-laws, paying $1,000 in monthly rent, according to Rand's statement in a police report and records at East Haddam Town Hall.
The Rands believe Calo encouraged their daughter to stop paying her car loans. They learned, with no advance notice, that Mastello was moving her family to Tulsa, Okla., to study at Victory Christian Center, with which Shoreline Church is affiliated.
Calo's second wife and fellow pastor, Meredith S. Calo, 49, also studied there.
"He's a predator," Barry Rand said of Michael Calo, a characterization Hamberg also used. The two men do not know each other. "He preys on weak people."
Rand and Calo had an angry confrontation at the church's former location in the Old Saybrook Business Park in 2007, during which Rand claimed Calo threatened him and Calo claimed Rand had a gun. The incident ended with no arrests.
Calo said during the Jan. 28 interview with The Day that Rand showed up with a gun, but that Calo "buried" it by advising police not to make mention of it in the police report.
Police dispute that claim. "If there was a weapon there, any mention of that would have been included in the report," Old Saybrook police Sgt. Kevin Roche said.
Calo said the dispute was a family matter that had nothing to do with him or the church. Previously calm and cordial during the interview with The Day, Calo turned verbally combative when the subject of Rand came up. He and Meredith Calo threatened legal action if The Day made mention of the issue, and the interview ended.
Now in Middletown, Kelly Mastello said she no longer belongs to Shoreline Church and declined to be interviewed for this story.
Old Saybrook police found the two complaints showed "a pattern of the church receiving unusually large amounts of donations from parishioners." But investigating Officer Larry Smith did not find any evidence of coercion or extortion.
From Waterbury to Old Saybrook
Calo began his career as a firefighter in Waterbury and became self-employed after being dismissed from the department for failing to show up for 18 months, according to his personnel file, obtained by The Day through a Connecticut Freedom of Information Act request.
Since then, he has primarily run his own businesses - in real estate, finance and construction. He is a distributor of the MonaVie açai berry juice.
The Calos said they don't draw a salary from the church, and they pay for personal expenses with a separate income they did not identify.
Calo said he was involved in ministry for 25 years before starting Shoreline Church. He said he studied to become a minister at an Assembly of God in Pennsylvania.
"But really, the call for being a pastor is God," Calo said.
Calo attended Valley Forge Christian College in Pennsylvania but never graduated, according to the college.
Another indication that Calo was headed for a life as a religious leader was his 2003 book.
"The Voice of God" reads like an autobiography but is a work of fiction, according to a disclaimer on the copyright page. In it, Calo describes being focused on material things. He says he hated God for a long time after his father died and made enemies after asking people to invest in a "venture of a lifetime" and failing to follow through.
But there are no details, no dates or names, no locations. The second half of the book comprises selected passages from the Bible.
Michael and Meredith Calo were the only two people at Shoreline Church's first Sunday service in their living room in Old Saybrook. But over time, "the Lord began to bring people by their side," according to the church website.
The fledgling church had 103 members in August 2009 and grew to 126 members by December 2010, Calo said. The church envisions expanding to 5,000 members, according to a welcome package, and Calo says on the book's "About the Author" page that Shoreline is "the first in an apostolic mission to evangelize New England and see the power of God manifested in a manner not seen since the Great Revival."
The church leased space at Old Saybrook Middle School, then in the Old Saybrook Business Park.
Between the building at 287 Shore Road in Old Lyme that Shoreline Church bought last year from Christ the King parish and their own mortgage, the Calos' debt obligations amount to more than $1 million.
The Calos' Old Saybrook home was refinanced several times, most recently for $500,000 in April 2006. Its appraised value was $535,800 in the town's 2008 revaluation.
Additionally, the house has a $53,132.71 judgment lien, filed in September 2007. The lien is the result of a judgment in favor of a creditor, UM Capital LLC, against Meredith Calo and Calo Renovations.
Calo was also listed as a co-debtor in a 2002 Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing for which he was a party to $412,000 of liabilities.
The couple owns seven vehicles between them, including a 2004 Cadillac Escalade, a 1967 Pontiac Firebird and a 2000 Kawasaki motorcycle, plus a van registered to the church.
Shoreline Church Inc. has loans of $715,000: a 2010 mortgage and construction mortgage through Liberty Bank ($630,000) and a separate note from Christ the King Church in Old Lyme ($85,000).
With Calo listed as the contractor, Shoreline Church converted the chapel from seasonal to year-round and added office space and a second floor, bringing the square footage up to about 9,000, by Calo's estimation.
It is unclear how a 100-member church financed the deal. Calo said he and his wife put their house up as collateral but declined to be more specific, saying the church's finances are private.
The Calos also refused to offer any details about the church's organizational structure, including the makeup of its board of trustees and who handles the church's finances.
In its 2003 IRS application for tax-exempt status, the church said its finances would come from "tithes and offerings from church members and individuals." It projected donations would increase to $21,750 by 2005.
Shoreline Church is not required to file a Form 990, the annual financial report that nonprofits file, because churches are exempt.
"They are very, very aware and very astute as to what the laws are, and seem to live just on that other side, just one step over the line of legalities," Hamberg said.
Cote, the assistant care pastor, said she trusts Calo implicitly.
"I've seen the fruit of his life. I've seen how he goes to the extreme to help people," she said. "And even as far as what he's done with starting the church and helping people out, he has used a lot of his own personal finances to do these things. ... They both have such a good heart for people that they've put themselves in a bad position financially to help other people."