Somera Samuels had been the bookkeeper for the 3 Hebrew Boys for about two years when she said she saw something that struck her as funny.
Joseph Brunson, a church pastor also known as Hebrew No. 3, was hunched over a computer taking a training course in foreign currency exchange.
"That's not what he does," Samuels said in court Tuesday. "He wasn't business savvy. He was the ministerial side of it."
The Columbia-based 3 Hebrew Boys are accused of collecting $82 million from more than 7,000 people and promising to pay lifetime annuities or pay off loans by investing in the foreign currency exchange.
Instead, authorities said, little of the money actually was invested, while a portion was spent on a personal jet, cars, condos and stadium luxury boxes.
The accused - Joseph Brunson of Hopkins, Timothy McQueen of Blythewood and Tony Pough of Columbia - are facing sentences of hundreds of years in prison if convicted on 58 counts of mail fraud, check fraud and money laundering.
The 3 Hebrew Boys, who took their name from a story in the Book of Daniel, recruited investors in churches as well as on military bases. Two of the three were ministers.
The business the trio set up had "overtones of a ministry," Assistant U.S. Attorney Winston Holliday told jurors during opening arguments Tuesday.
"It was not an investment program," he said. "It was a Ponzi scheme."
Last year, the 3 Hebrew Boys had promised to pay investors $1.1 billion but had just $17 million in bank accounts, Holliday said.
Defense attorneys told jurors the trio just were trying to help people out of debt.
Even the $23 million in investors' money spent, in part, on condos, homes, limos, land, construction and trucking companies, and dollar discount stores was spent to raise more cash for what the group called its "depositors" or "constituents," defense attorneys said.
"They were acts done in good faith," Parks Small, a federal public defender representing Pough, told jurors.
Samuels, the former bookkeeper, testified she recalled the 3 Hebrew Boys offering investment returns only from foreign currency exchange investments.
Despite having no financial training, the trio offered to pay off $200,000 mortgages and $30,000 car loans with investments of as little as $2,500, Holliday told jurors. Company representatives also offered lifetime annuities of 10 percent a month for investments ranging from $500 to $200,000, prosecutors said.
The organization said it would earn money for depositors by investing in overnight foreign exchange markets that could generate "hundreds of percent" in daily interest, Holliday said.
Investors were told this was the secret way that banks made huge profits but were required to sign confidentiality agreements with a $1 million penalty for violating them, Holliday said.
They banned those with law enforcement ties from attending investment workshops, Samuels testified. And they often used overnight carriers to deliver checks to avoid regular mail that might be monitored by authorities, she said. They used DHL so often they called the company's yellow delivery vans the "cheese trucks," she said.
The trio invested less than $100,000 of the money they raised in the foreign exchange market - and lost all of it, Holliday said.
Defense attorneys said $31 million of the $82 million raised in the nearly three years that 3 Hebrew Boys operated has been returned to investors.
An additional $23 million was spent on "assets," including the companies, land and condos - all meant to raise more money. With the $17 million recovered from bank accounts, investors will benefit from $71 million of what they gave the trio.
Attorney Louis Lang, who is representing McQueen, did not say what happened to the other $11 million.
The men named their group after the Old Testament story in which God protected three Israelites thrown into a furnace after refusing orders to bow before a golden idol.
"These gentlemen have been through a number of trials themselves," Michael Duncan, the attorney appointed to represent Brunson, told jurors. They all had suffered debt and job losses in their lives, defense attorneys said.
Like the other defendants, Brunson had no intent to defraud anyone, Duncan said. "That's what was all in his mind here, to help the downtrodden."
The trial is expected to last about three weeks.