Former Chiefs describe falling for car scheme

? Two former Kansas City Chiefs players said they were duped out of more than half a million dollars through a scheme that offered vehicles at discounted rates to reward people for their religious faith.

Neil Smith and Ricky Siglar eventually got most of the money back, they testified Wednesday in the third day of a trial in U.S. District Court in Kansas City.

But many weren’t so lucky.

Two California men, Robert Gomez and James Nichols, are accused of getting thousands of people nationwide to spend nearly $20 million for vehicles that didn’t exist. About $7 million was refunded, the government said.

Starting in 1998, the defendants allegedly claimed they represented the estate of John Bowers, purported to be the owner of the engineering division of Mission Foods of Irvine, Texas. The three defendants allegedly told victims Bowers wanted to reward people of religious faith with bargain vehicles.

Gomez, a professional gambler, allegedly claimed to be the adopted son of John Bowers and sole heir to the estate, while Nichols allegedly claimed to be the executor of the estate.

Attorneys for Nichols contend he was deceived into participating. Attorneys for Gomez maintained his name was not on any accounts.

Two women also were charged but pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Corinne Conway of Higginsville, Mo., and Gwendolyn Baker of Bartlett, Tenn., have told federal prosecutors they helped find people to buy the cars.

Wednesday, Smith and his wife, Sheri, said they learned about the cars from a friend. The Smiths said they were skeptical at first but later decided to participate and encouraged others to chip in.

“At the time, we wanted to distribute cars to friends and family and give them to people at our church in Kansas City and a church in Neil’s hometown of New Orleans,” Sheri Smith said.

The Blue Springs couple bought cars and 18-wheelers between March and July 2000. In all, the couple and friends invested about $500,000, Neil Smith said.

He said that he grew increasingly concerned when he couldn’t get specific information about the cars, such as vehicle identification numbers and delivery dates.

“I did ask to see the cars,” he testified, “but I was told that there was no way I could see them because they were being held.”

The couple eventually asked for refunds and received all but an unspecified amount in finder’s fees.

Siglar and his wife, Janice, said they invested about $180,000.

Janice Siglar testified that she had learned of the cars through a friend in church, who later referred her to one of the “finders.” The Overland Park, Kan., couple wanted to buy cars for friends and hoped to start a dealership.

The Siglars also requested refunds and received all of their money, minus the finder’s fees.

The trial is expected to last up to six weeks.