JOHN SUPPA once a Buffalo teleshark -- is now Minister John Suppa.
Suppa, 39, of Buffalo is a former executive with two local telemarketing fraud companies.
But now he also is a minister at the Greater Refuge Temple of Christ on Jefferson Avenue.
Suppa says he is deeply committed to the teachings of Jesus Christ and is devoting his life to helping others find contentment.
But federal agents wonder if his new involvement with religion is sincere, or just another scam designed to get him a light sentence.
Several officials of the Greater Refuge Temple, including the senior pastor, have written letters to a judge, seeking the shortest-possible prison term for Suppa.
"I was saved on Aug. 18, 1995," Suppa said in an interview at Federal Court on Wednesday, holding a prayer book as he stood outside the courtroom of U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny. "I'm just thankful to God for showing me the way . . . I'm a minister now."
"I'm not going to express an opinion one way or another on Mr. Suppa's religious beliefs, but the crimes he admitted to were fraud," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony M. Bruce. "Speaking generally, I don't think someone's religion should be an issue at sentencing. Oftentimes, we see someone get more and more involved with religion as their sentencing date draws near."
Suppa is a former salesman with Western New York's biggest telemarketing fraud company, RFG Group, run by Rocco F. Guadagna. Suppa also founded and operated Logik Enterprises, another notorious telemarketing firm that closed last year. While running Logik in 1993, Suppa drove a Mercedes Benz whose license plate read "BADRISK."
"In terms of dollar amounts, John Suppa in his heyday was one of the three or four most successful telemarketers in Buffalo," Bruce said.
While working for Guadagna in 1991, Suppa was caught on tape telling one telemarketing customer that he was doing sales work to help support two crippled children.
"I promise you . . . I swear on my five children . . . it's a done deal," Suppa told his victim, according to the FBI's transcript of the recorded sales pitch. "I have five children, two of 'em are crippled."
Agents said they later learned that Suppa had no children.
In March, Suppa took a guilty plea to a felony count of conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud. He admitted his cheating tactics could have cost victims more than $800,000; Skretny could order him to pay up to $858,000 in restitution.
Suppa is expected to get a prison term of at least four years when he appears before Skretny for sentencing next month.
Bruce, however, is asking the judge to impose a longer prison term. He said Wednesday that Suppa, who has been running a long-distance phone call distributorship in recent months, has tried to conceal his income from the phone call business during meetings with his federal probation officer.
Bishop Robert L. Sanders, senior pastor of Greater Refuge Temple, said Suppa's life "has been transformed by the power of God."
"He is a member of the brotherhood department, a student at the Refuge Temple Bible Institute, he assists in our noonday prayer services . . . and he is part of the ministerial staff. John is a well-balanced individual and has expressed a desire to go into full-time ministry," Bishop Sanders wrote to the judge.