In July of 2006, while Reverend Marion Tucker, of the Central District Turning Point Community Church of God in Christ, was visiting his sick mother in Arkansas, word got back to him that a vacate notice had been put up on the church. Bernice Lee—a former congregant back in Seattle and the majority owner of the building—had posted the notice. Tucker had only one month to move out of the building. "We tried to negotiate... but she wouldn't talk to us," Tucker says. "When I got back from [Arkansas], she told me to talk to her attorney."
Tucker hired his own lawyer, Eric Brunstrom, who filed a complaint to keep Lee from evicting Turning Point from the property. Turning Point was able to stay put, for the time being.
In 2000, Tucker says Lee, 81—a longtime friend—approached him about acquiring a church of his own. Tucker, 64, had been spreading the gospel for nearly 40 years—renting out space in another South Seattle church—and was ready to finally settle down with his flock. "I felt like I'd known her a long time," Tucker says. "She came to me and convinced me we'd get this church together and we'd never have to worry about relocating again."
It seemed Lee had found the perfect place for Tucker to move: an old church, built in 1960, in the heart of the Central District. King County records show that Lee made a $300,000 offer on the church before she contacted Tucker about acquiring the space in 2000.
Lee asked Tucker about moving into the space, and while he didn't have the cash to buy the building outright, Lee paid $90,000 to the property owner while Tucker paid another $10,000. Tucker says the $90,000 was supposed to be a loan and he planned to pay Lee back when he was able and continue making payments on the property. "We bought the church together, but she had the most money into it," Tucker says.
Indeed, Tucker continued making monthly payments on the property, although Lee claims the payments were for rent to her. However, by 2006, it became clear Lee wasn't ready to give up the church, apparently changing the terms of their verbal agreement. That's when Lee tried to evict Turning Point from the property.
Tucker hired a lawyer and stayed put while the two former friends fought things out in court. By the time the case went before King County Superior Court judge Michael Spearman, Tucker had put in over $150,000, all to the original owners of the property, while Lee had put in $120,000.
Because Tucker and Lee had essentially split the cost of the property, Judge Spearman has given Tucker the opportunity to take ownership of the building, as long as he can buy out Lee's half, which is now worth substantially more than the $90,000 she originally paid. Tucker has 45 days to raise as much as an additional $250,000, or both parties will have to sell the property—perhaps to condo developers—and split the proceeds.
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Back in 2000, when Turning Point moved into its new digs at 720 24th Avenue South, the church's 50 members opened a Montessori school to serve neighborhood families, held "hot dog and pop" parties in their parking lot, and began programs to feed the homeless in the area.
But one day in June 2004, Tucker and his parishioners showed up to the church to find a for-sale sign posted in the parking lot. This was obviously a sign of things to come. Tucker questioned Lee about the sale, but he says he was told the parking lot wasn't part of the original deal. Lee sold the parking lot to a developer for $200,000—four times what she paid for it—who threw up town homes, which are now buttressed up against the church.
Dismayed by the loss of the church's parking lot and the sudden tension between the church and Lee, Tucker soldiered on. After years of making monthly payments on the building, Tucker thought he was getting close to paying off the owner of the building. That is until Lee told Tucker that she was no longer interested in selling the property to the church. "She had a change of heart," Tucker says. "She said she'd rent it to us, but she didn't want to [sell] it."
Tucker says Lee left his congregation in March 2005. Since Lee had fronted the money for the church, her name was on the deed and she was still the legal owner of the property.
While Tucker says he and Lee had an oral agreement to purchase the property, nothing was in writing, so the burden was on Tucker to provide proof that he'd intended to purchase the property, rather than rent it from Lee. However, Brunstrom showed the court that Tucker had delivered 51 $1,500 checks to the building's former owners between November 2002 and May 2006, rather than paying rent to Lee, although she claimed the checks were for rental payments. Apparently, the court agreed. Judge Spearman issued an oral opinion, giving Tucker a shot at gaining control of the building.
However, given that Lee still owned 50 percent of the building—Tucker never paid off the $90,000—Judge Spearman gave Lee a 50 percent lien on the property. So, while Tucker has first dibs on the property, if he's not able to buy Lee out—the property is likely to be reassessed at $500,000, so Tucker will owe $250,000—he could be forced to sell the church, putting him right back where he started.
The Stranger was not able to contact Lee, but her attorney, Ron Meltzer, says she had misgivings with the judge's ruling on the church. "Fair is in the eye of the beholder. We presented a different view of the case," he says. "We didn't get everything we wanted." While Lee did get to keep the $200,000 she made selling the parking lot, Meltzer says his client is still deciding whether to appeal ownership of the church.
Turner's flock has dwindled—down to 15 or 20—and if Turning Point isn't able to come up with a payment plan in the next six weeks, the judge can force them to sell it to a third party. As development peaks in the Central District, Tucker says he's worried he may have to sell it to a developer to pay off Lee.
Tucker says he's already been turned down for several loans and he's not sure how he's going to come up with the money. "We figured we'd have to go into our personal savings and come up with the rest," Tucker says, although he's not sure he can foot the bill.
Right now, Tucker isn't looking at moving the church. He says he hasn't looked at relocating, but if he loses the property he may have to. "I pray to God that I don't [lose it]," he says. "But if that happened, I'd have to move on. I believe the lord is going to take us through this."