The Electric Christian Rapture Test
They say all it takes is a little bit of faith, some cash and a signature, and if everything goes as planned, subscribing Christians (and maybe a few trusting infidels) will be free of the evil power companies -- and their power bills -- for life.
Call it the Electric Christian Rapture Test.
"I sold all my stock last year because I would rather put it into this company than the stock market," says Conrad Sorensen, who owns a dealership in Henderson, Nevada called Grassroot Enterprises of Tesla, Inc. "I feel my money's going to be safer here than any stock market."
Sorensen is part of a network of disciples of self-proclaimed anointed one, inventor and Christian evangelist Dennis Lee, who -- though he has actions pending against him by attorneys general and alerts filed by Better Business Bureaus in various states -- has been traveling the country, registering people for free power. The would-be, modern-day miracle-maker says that the Fourth of July will take on an extra special meaning this year. This July 4 will not just be Independence Day for our nation. It will be America's Declaration of Energy Independence Day. The day when their fabulous invention will be unveiled and the faithful will receive the free electricity that Lee's brethren have been promising for years.
You heard it right: Free electricity will shine down on believers, they say, in a 21st-century revelation, distinguishing the shepherds from the flock. The faithful will bask in light, and the nonbelievers will go on selling their souls to the Big Electric Companies.
Sound too good to be true?
With rising electricity costs and an increased focus on alternative energy sources it seems the nation's vulnerable underbelly has been exposed to these folks, whom skeptics consider little more than snake oil salesmen. And they seem to know exactly what population to target -- for example, disgruntled locals who show up at Public Utilities Commission hearings. At events like these, the sales representatives paper cars, sell videotapes and register people for "free electricity machines."
Others have found willing listeners in evangelical Christians looking to discover more of the lord's power, and the elderly, who find fellowship in Lee's following, and have money to invest in expensive dealerships.
Looks like the nation's power companies aren't the only ones hoping to strike it rich.
"Our slogan is it's too good to be ignored," says Sorensen, 46, a former pipe-fitter who bought his dealership from Dennis Lee in November 1999 for $20,000 -- a good deal, considering they reportedly go for about $100,000 today.
Lee, who owns United Community Services of America Inc., Better World Technologies and International Tesla Electric Co., is known to attorneys general across the nation as a threat to consumers, and to followers as a practically divine inventor. Claiming God as his companies' chairman, Lee says he has access to a generator that uses magnets and runs at 500 percent efficiency. He's been peddling his devices since about 1987, having made two national tours appealing to charismatic Christian sensibilities and governmental-corporate paranoia.
While there's no actual proof that these devices exist, Lee insists -- in segments you can view and hear on his various Web sites -- that folks on his team have been killed and that the government and power companies will do anything and everything in their power to squash this new, threatening technology. Attorneys general across the country think otherwise, many filing legal action to keep Lee's companies from selling his wares in their states. Lee declined an interview via email through his assistant, Mike Hall, who didn't like my story angle.
"If you were doing an interview about the project and what we are trying to achieve, that would be one thing," wrote Hall. "But if all you are interested in is getting 'his' side to these accusations, then you can do your article without Dennis' assistance." (Please note: Hall bargained with me when I asked if I could quote him, saying I could do so only if I also wrote that anyone who mentioned this article could get a free videotape at www.power4free.com.)
But critics aside, Sorensen and 1,999 others across the nation, according to Lee, have invested in his rhetoric. They purchase dealerships and then sign people up for free electricity. Different dealers have different requirements. Some may charge a fee for shipping in their materials, others may charge for the videotapes, and some may require membership North American Special Discounts Club (you got it -- NASDAC).
Sorensen makes money off selling $15 videotapes of Lee's presentations and by selling goods from Lee's other companies -- silent jackhammers, oil-eating balls, radioactive waste neutralizers and cars that run on water, among other items. He says that he's signed up about 800 people for free electricity nationwide, many of whom he met during a stop on Lee's 50-state tour last year.
Although he went into hock to buy his dealership, Sorensen believes it to be a solid investment that, in due time, will pay off. He says he was willing to invest in it because he believes in the technology and the conspiracy that Lee claims keeps free electricity out of the public's hands.
"I see how inventors get suppressed all the time," he says. Further, Sorensen says that his involvement with the company has led him to God, and he's not alone.
"I think that most people, when they do get involved with it, they'll see that there really is a God," he says. "To tell you the truth, I wasn't much of a believer, it's just that I know that there's a God now because I've seen so many different things through this organization. We have 500 technologies we literally have on hold right now, waiting to bring out to the world, because we don't have no finances for them, but when we start selling the power, we will."
His goal right now is to recruit what Lee and his followers refer to as "witnesses." That means people who believe in free power. Witness status used to require a one-time investment of $275, but now, at least with Sorensen's clients, all they have to do is purchase the company's videotape and sign a contract.
"We're trying to recruit 1.6 million witnesses to view these generators being demonstrated in 100 homes throughout the country, two per state," Sorensen pitches. "We're sending out invitations to people to come witness on one day, hopefully July 4. We'll give the people who come view this free electricity for the rest of their life. What we sell is a generator that makes 30 kilowatts per hour; the average home only uses two.
"We're going to give you that free power in exchange for us to send that excess power back and sell it. We figure if we can sell 5-cents per kilowatt hour, that makes 12,000 per unit. So the homeowner doesn't have to put up any cost. We just ask for them to buy a video to explain what we're doing. Then we register you in line to have one of these generators put in."
After witnessing the proposed July 4 free electricity show, those who've already signed up to receive the free electricity are expected to proselytize the greatness they've witnessed, and sign up nine people. But since these nine wouldn't take a blind leap of faith, as the first witnesses did, they have to pay $1,500 for their lifetime of electricity.
"We'll give them two months to get nine additional people to us, and after that we can get them on our own," he says. "That was 16 million homes overnight that want this technology. With 116 million homes, that's 100 percent of electricity needs in the U.S., and 40 million voters. Then we can get the proper deregulation in every state."
Baddabing, baddaboom, national domination.
Down to the Wire
Taking a small step outside of the evangelistic community and into the scientific one provides a different perspective on the free energy pickle. Yahia Baghzouz, an electrical and computer engineering professor, looked at some of Lee's Web sites. He wasn't impressed.
"I read everything on various Web sites, and it's just contradictory what they are saying," Baghzouz says. "On some sites they say it's gravity turning the generator, on other sites they say 'Oh, we have supermagnets that are powered by a battery.' If you power something by a battery you are using electric power to turn the thing. In many places they said 'we are not using any input power whatsoever.' That's contradictory."
He's not alone in his opinion. Eric Krieg, an electrical engineer in Pennsylvania, laughs when he hears that Lee has set July 4 as the date for his revelation.
"For 15 years he's assigned a date. He said March in one show, July in another. When I first heard him in '96, he said at the end of that year. That's part of keeping the faithful perked up ... It's about keeping a flux of new suckers in."
Krieg has been following Lee's claims since 1996, when he saw a full-page ad for one of his demonstrations in the Philadelphia Enquirer. His first reaction was laughter. "It was amusing how he had butchered science and manipulated all these redneck people," he says.
But then he discovered that people were buying into it. After seeing too many older people hand over $10,000 to buy dealerships, Krieg decided to put up a Web site (www.phact.org/e/dennis.html) debunking Lee's claims and drawing attention to the troubles he's had throughout the country. He's even offered Lee $50,000 if he can prove that his machine works.
"I believe it's impossible for this kind of thing to work," Krieg says. "You can't get something for nothing, as far as I know. Hundreds of people have been failing for hundreds of years. I have no idea what percentage are con men versus what percentage are deluded somewhere between stupid and insane."
It seems that Lee has learned much after clashing with the law in the past. These days, he words all contracts carefully. For example, when anyone signs up to get information about buying a dealership, they must initial two statements: "I/we affirm that neither UCSA or BWT are making promises about when technologies will be advanced to the market in the future," and "I/we will not be risking the welfare or security of my/our family by purchasing a UCSA dealership from an existing dealer." And when people like Sorensen accept any money, the buyer always gets something in exchange -- like a video. Because Lee's grown accustomed to investigations.
His name brings familiar smirks to people in attorneys general offices across the nation. With a three-decade-long history of arrests and complaints against him for fraud and violation of consumer protection laws, Lee has traveled the country with a show that's described as part crusade, part circus, peddling the wares of his many companies. Here's a look:
- In 1985 he was accused by Washington's attorney general of violating the consumer protection act. Though he agreed to pay $31,000 in fines, he left the state before doing so.
- He pleaded guilty to seven of 47 felony criminal counts filed by the Ventura County, Calif., district attorney in 1988 for violating the state's Seller Assisted Marketing Plan law, and grand theft. Lee served two years in a California state prison.
- The Kentucky's attorney general filed a lawsuit against Lee last month seeking to block him and companies connected to him from promoting their generator and holding seminars promoting the free-electricity device. Attorney General Ben Chandler says that these companies are defrauding customers because they don't disclose that their device doesn't actually exist, and is based on unproven scientific theory.
- Vermont, New Mexico and Tennessee obtained temporary restraining orders barring Lee from conducting his presentations.
- Attorneys general in Idaho and Arkansas have issued warnings to consumers to proceed with caution when dealing with Lee.
- Legal actions against Lee and his companies have been taken in Illinois, Alaska, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, which include, among other things: charging a registration fee for a product that doesn't exist; failing to register to do business within those states; and representing that consumers will soon have technology that has not been scientifically proven to exist.
- Alerts have been filed against his companies by Better Business Bureaus in Arizona, Washington, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
- And in states like Nevada, where no complaints have been filed yet, officials seem to be waiting to pounce. "I'm talking to attorneys general from other states to be ready for when something does come, but I can't take action until I know he's (Lee's) done something," says Deputy Attorney General John McGlamery. "So I'm just sitting here waiting."
Keeping the faith When told of Lee's record, Sorensen is ready with a sympathetic response: "He was literally kidnapped twice because he was trying to demonstrate free electricity," he says of Lee. Sorensen also says he thinks that any problems Lee's had with attorneys general were straightened out after Lee sent videotapes of his demonstrations to them.
Sorensen then blames the media, which he says is controlled by electricity giants General Electric and Westinghouse, for suppressing proof of free electricity. It's in their best interest, he says, to ignore the revolution.
And he's confident that his and Lee's day will come July 4. They will bask in God-given light and be rewarded for their faith and innovative creation. And the nonbelievers?
"I think crows will be very scarce that day," he says. "I think there will be a lot of people eating crow."
Kate Silver writes for the Las Vegas Weekly, where an earlier version of this article originally appeared.