The monks seemed to come out of nowhere.
They arrived from Cleveland last fall — Archbishop Timothy and Father Anthony and the cleric in charge, Metropolitan Stephen. In their billowing black robes, they were looking for a new base for the Syro Russian Orthodox Catholic Church.
It was Archbishop Timothy who first drove past the Canfield Colonial Motel Condotel, a crime-ridden, no-tell motel on a desolate road dominated by hay bales and barns with sunken roofs.
"My first thought was: This would make an excellent monastery," says the archbishop, whose earthly name is Timothy Kjera. "The rooms in front are the perfect size for a monk's cell."
This would be a religious retreat center where "people can eat with the monks, pray with the monks," Kjera explains, shutting off his cell phone and its ringtone of Darth Vader's "Imperial March."
Folks in Canfield were delighted when they heard that the holy men wanted to take over a motel long frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers. There was a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the Chamber of Commerce, and a cross was staked out front, above a reception desk redolent of cigar smoke.
This was no small thing. The little, dirty white building with the threadbare rooms was now the official headquarters for a church and seminary that have thousands of followers around the globe — or so the monks claim.
But these monks have credibility issues.
They have left a curious trail across the middle of the country — from Colorado, where their seminary was shut down for handing out mail-order diplomas, to Minnesota, where the church was accused of luring young Africans to the U.S. on the false promise of a religious education. The name of their church has changed numerous times along the way.
"They are hiding behind the guise of the church," says Sgt. Tad Jazdzewski of Duluth, Minn., who spent more than a year investigating them.
The clerics insist they have done nothing wrong. Here, they say, they spend most of their days praying, fixing up the re-christened Monastery Inn and manning the monastery gift shop.
"Do you think the Roman Catholic church writes down a list of all the things they've done wrong and hands it out to people?" Kjera says when confronted by allegations about the past. "I don't believe they do that. If anybody ever asks me directly about our past, I've always been forthcoming."
The Syro Russian Orthodox Catholic Church was born in 1978 when a Greek Orthodox priest who never attended a seminary broke off to start his own parish in Portage, Ind. That was Stephen Thomas — now Metropolitan Stephen, a man who has been in charge from the very beginning though he prefers to stay out of the spotlight.
He was defrocked by the Orthodox church in 1994. By that time, he was already running Notre Dame de Lafayette University in Aurora, Colo., a religious school offering degrees in subjects like "homeotherapeutics" and "psycho-visual therapy."
"I don't know how he got ordained," says Bishop Demetrios Kantzavelos, chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago, who has a thick file on Thomas and his many churches. "I think he just fell through the cracks."
The history of those early years is spotty. The church would surface and disappear again, making its way across Indiana to the Rocky Mountains, then on to Minnesota and Ohio.
The names were elaborate:
The Mercy and Right Greek Catholic Church. St. Michael's Greek Orthodox Church. St. Mary the Theotokos Orthodox Catholic Church. The Mercian Orthodox Catholic Church. Saints Peter and Paul Anglican Catholic Church. The Michael American Orthodox Catholic Church.
None of them were recognized by any credible religious authority.
"I could go out tomorrow and declare myself archbishop of Manhattan, and dress up and rent out a space," says the Rev. Mark Arey of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America in New York City. "Would I be legitimate? No."
Notre Dame de Lafayette was repeatedly warned by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education that it could not award degrees in subjects other than religion. Instead, school officials told students that their "master of arts in peace and justice" and "bachelor of science in nutrimedicine" would be recognized by such venerable universities as Yale and Harvard, says John Karakoulakis, director of legislative affairs at the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
Of course, this was a school that once awarded a degree in "Christian counseling" to a golden retriever named Samantha who was enrolled in the school by its owner, a television news reporter.
"On paper it looked rather impressive," says Tony Dyl, Colorado's senior assistant attorney general. "At one point, they were purporting to award degrees from a college in the Philippines."
In 1994, the state revoked the school's authority to operate in Colorado, and Thomas transferred the university's assets to the Mercian Orthodox Catholic Church, Dyl says.
As they were closing down and moving to Minnesota, Thomas ordered several thousand dollars' worth of computer equipment and skipped town without paying for it, Dyl says.
Criminal records show Thomas pleaded no contest to larceny and conspiracy to commit larceny and was placed on four years' probation. By that time, the school had already moved on to Long Prairie, Minn., where Colorado officials say its former students were directed to send their money to a handful of U.S. post office boxes.
"I've seen them over the years change name, change location," says Kantzavelos. "They keep slipping."
In 1996, Thomas brought a new follower on board: a homeless man named Timothy Kjera, eventually known as Archbishop Timothy, a former Lutheran from the woods of northern Minnesota.
"He showed me that there was a better way to live," Kjera says.
Jazdzewski met the duo in 2001, when they were running yet another seminary, in Duluth, Minn. At that point, they identified themselves as priests, not monks. A woman had contacted police claiming she was duped out of $15,000 for a diploma from the school that turned out to be worthless.
"They would print the diplomas and the so-called coursework they had people doing," says the detective, who confiscated fake diplomas from the downtown church building. "But then when they were done, basically all they had was a worthless piece of paper."
During the investigation, Jazdzewski documented more than $40,000 in fraud alleged by five students. He made the rounds presenting his evidence to the Minnesota attorney general, the FBI, the city prosecutor.
"No one would really touch it because it was a church," he says.
And the church was tax exempt — has been since 1988, when the Internal Revenue Service approved the tax exemption of what was then called the Romano Byzantine Synod of the Orthodox Catholic Church. In 2007, the IRS updated its records to show the church is now known as the Syro Russian Orthodox Catholic Synod of Bishops. The paperwork claims it is a "religious charity," which means it is completely tax-exempt.
The IRS would not comment about the Syro Russian church or how it vets religious groups, but its website lists about a dozen factors used to define whether a church is legitimate, including whether it has religious leaders and if its members meet regularly for worship.
If fraud is suspected, the IRS can launch an audit. But that rarely happens.
"You could literally make up a religion this afternoon," says Marcus Owens, an attorney and former director of the exempt organizations division of the Internal Revenue Service. "As long as you believed it, and that was your system of beliefs, you would stand a good chance of getting tax-exempt status for your church."
In most states, including Ohio and Minnesota, religious groups do not have to file financial reports at all, says Helen Ng, a spokeswoman for the Charities Review Council, a nonprofit watchdog group.
"It's been a common tax scam for many years for a family, for example, to claim 'we're a church,'" says Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, an associate professor of law at the University of Notre Dame. "The church category, unfortunately, is one that can be abused."
In Minnesota, the monks established the Romano Byzantine College. And it was at this institution of higher learning that Joseph Kimotho says he spent three isolated months, living like a caged animal in a dimly lit basement.
Kimotho says he was fed a paltry diet of beans and rice and slept on the floor. The water was often shut off because nobody paid the utility bill. His days were spent sorting mail and printing scores of diplomas off a machine.
For this, he had left Nairobi.
"There was nothing," Kimotho remembers, his voice shaking. "You go to a school, you find administration, offices, everything. But this one, there was nothing."
He had discovered the college online and paid $2,000 for an application. Thinking he would return home with a theology degree, Kimotho applied for a religious worker visa and boarded a plane to Duluth.
Kjera met him at the airport and drove him to a small white church downtown. Then, Kimotho recalls, Kjera took possession of his passport and led him down to the basement, where another man had been living for nearly two years: Kwame Mwaga of Tanzania, who had also emigrated to the U.S. to earn an education.
The two men were tasked with handling the large volume of mail being ferried in and out of the house.
"They just print things, but they are fake," Kimotho says. "They print them day and night. It shows you how people can be bad and take other people's money for no reason."
Nearly four months after he arrived, Kimotho fled the church and sought help from a local Christian group, who helped him and Mwaga obtain an immigration lawyer in Minneapolis, Kimberly Hunter.
They were in deeper trouble than they realized: Kjera had called immigration officials to report that they had violated the terms of their visa. But after cooperating with authorities, both men successfully obtained a special U category visa, which protects people who have been victims of a crime.
Now 39 and living in Minneapolis, Kimotho recently graduated from the United Theological Seminary — officially accredited by The Association of Theological Schools in the U.S. and Canada — and plans to return to Kenya to teach.
He does not like to speak about that dark time in Minnesota.
"I would not want anyone to go through that," he says. "I thought I was going to die."
Kjera disputes Kimotho's version of events, and says the Kenyan was never told that he would be attending a school — it was more like an apprenticeship. Sure, he slept in the basement, but that was all part of his religious training, Kjera explains.
"It saddens me to think that he would say the things he did," Kjera says.
Minnesota police also investigated claims from Ittefaq Bhatti, another student from Pakistan. Bhatti fled the church and returned escorted by police officers in June 2007 to demand that the priests hand over his passport.
Less than a year later, Thomas and Kjera packed up their belongings and headed for Ohio.
In Cleveland, the monks' former monastery is an empty beige duplex in a dangerous neighborhood. Their landlord, Alex Badea, says he served the monks three days' notice when they failed to pay their rent in October. They finally paid, then stayed for two weeks and moved out without paying their final month's rent, he says.
After they had gone, Badea discovered the house had been stripped of copper wiring and the hot water tank was gone.
And so they landed at the Canfield Colonial Motel Condotel.
Shortly after the monks took over, a man and woman who rented a room for the night were arrested on charges of drug trafficking and prostitution. The Mahoning County sheriff's office says the monks have cooperated with efforts to keep crime out of the motel, even providing a list of guests' names.
But anonymous e-mails sent to city leaders have raised red flags. Disturbing rumors were flying around town about their past. Sheriff's Commander Lenny Sliwinski ran a background check on all three men and printed out a file that's 3 inches thick. He's still going through it.
And that's not the only investigation that is under way.
St. Mark Seminary and College, the school housed at the Monastery Inn, currently has about 10 students. But none of them study at the motel; Kjera said the college is really an "online correspondence" school. For $6,800, students can earn an undergraduate degree. For $9,000, they can earn a "Master of Divinity and Doctorates."
The person in charge, Kjera said, was a priest living in Hawaii. A few weeks later, he denied that the school was headquartered at the motel and claimed it was based in Alexandria, Va., registered with the "Commission on Education of the Commonwealth of Virginia." He did not provide an address.
But there is no such organization in Virginia, where state officials have never heard of the school. St. Mark is not accredited by the state, says Kirsten Nelson, spokeswoman for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.
When contacted by The Associated Press, the Ohio Board of Regents — which oversees higher education in the state — said it, too, had never heard of the school. After reviewing the school's website, spokesman Rob Evans said the agency was forwarding that information to the Ohio Attorney General's office for investigation.
Kjera maintains that the church has been unfairly targeted by the media and has done nothing wrong. He has explanations for everything: Thomas shut down the school in Colorado voluntarily. They left Minnesota because of the economic recession, not because they were under scrutiny by law enforcement.
He is frustrated. He doesn't understand why people have to keep dredging up things that happened in the past. The only evil still lingering at the motel is its reputation, he says.
"Let's just say, for example, that I am a criminal," he says. "And I did something horrible in our past and I served many years in prison. But I have reformed."
There's a pleading note in his voice now.
"Does that mean, for the rest of my life, I should be treated like a criminal?"