WINDER, Ga. -
A gem-spitting preacher investigated last month by the FOX 5 I-Team actually claimed an even bigger miracle, one typically thought to be exclusive to the man whose birth we celebrate this month.
Water that turned into wine.
Our undercover investigation into Fred Williams Ministries recorded the South Carolina ex-con as he coughed up a gemstone he claimed came from heaven. The gem landed in the hands of our undercover producer while she stood with others in a Winder home. Two jewelry experts told us the gemstone was actually manmade cubic zirconia and directed us to websites where Chinese manufacturers sold them for as little as 78 cents each.
Williams dazzled his followers with other supposed miracles: gold dust that seemed to appear on his skin, feathers that seemed to fall from heaven.
But he also passed around communion glasses filled with a liquid that he insisted started out as water but miraculously turned overnight into wine.
"This water was in a beehive container," he confided to the crowd. "And it changed from water into wine."
We pointed out to Williams later that his heaven-sent wine sure tasted a lot like grape juice.
"It doesn't taste like grapes," he disagreed. "It tastes like the fruit of heaven, amen?"
"So you're not secretly moving some grape juice around to make it look like the wine came from water?"
"Well, whatever people want to believe they can believe but that's just not happening."
One of the many people who once believed was Hiawassee resident Logan Rogers. In 2012, he wrote a flattering paperback Out of His Mouth about Williams. At the time, Rogers believed everything he saw.
"Perhaps... I was duped," Rogers told us. "I don't know."
"Did you actually see water transform itself into wine?"
"So who told you that it became wine?"
"Um, well it was Fred."
Over the last three years William's ministry reported $239,429 in donations.
"He wasn't getting that kind of contribution when I was walking with him," remembered Rogers. "That it's at that level right now is amazing to me."
How did a traveling evangelist get more and more people to believe things that were simply unbelievable? Rogers said Williams quickly became one of his closest friends, helpful and fun to be around. When the "miracles" started happening, he trusted that Williams was telling him the truth.
The two had a falling out shortly after Williams presided over Rogers' wedding. The two haven't spoken in more than three years.
"I'm not libeling him today by saying he's a fraud," stressed Rogers. "I'm saying I don't know. Would I write the book today and endorse him? No."
Williams served time in South Carolina back in the late 90s for forgery and receiving stolen property. His ministry attracted a variety of people over the years, including a famous nu metal guitarist.
"Do they know about your criminal record Fred?" I asked Williams last month.
"I believe they do since nothing is hidden," Williams insisted. "I'm as transparent as I can be about my record and everything else."
Not everything else. It turned out at the time we talked to Williams, he was out on bond on a shoplifting charge. He was arrested in September, accused of stealing 35 dollars worth of garden supplies at a South Carolina Wal-Mart in April. The case is pending.
"Wow," Rogers reacted. "It's not a good story."
The story line is clearly defined: no doubt inside that Winder living room, but plenty of doubt for those who choose not to come back.
"If this is slight of hand, and this is a con, he needs to give it up!" warned Rogers. "Because if he doesn't, he's going to find something at the end of the rainbow that's not going to be pleasant."
If convicted, Williams faces a $2125 fine. He's already been told not to return to that Wal-Mart in his hometown of Barnwell, S.C.