COLUMBIA — A man suspected of swindling money from Columbia churches and businesses was detained this weekend in Jacksonville, Fla., but Columbia investigators are trying to ascertain whether they can arrest him on charges of stealing.
On Sunday, Jacksonville Airport police took Alan Farha, 32, into custody for a 96-hour psychiatric evaluation after he made threatening remarks that were indicative of harm to himself or others, said Columbia police Detective Steve Brown. Authorities contacted Columbia police on Monday morning, Brown said.
Last month, Columbia police requested a warrant for Farha’s arrest on suspicion of stealing after at least one person identified him in a photo line-up as a suspected con artist.
That warrant request is still in the review process because investigators are researching case law to determine if the suspect committed any illegal activity, Brown said.
“Obviously it’s a scheme,” Brown said. “There’s deception going on, but are we seeing something illegal? I’m confident that there is, but we want to be sure.”
In April, a man identifying himself as a journalism student and matching Farha’s description was reportedly visiting Columbia churches and asking members for money and personal information, the Missourian reported.
Farha visited the Missouri United Methodist Church and requested money on three separate occasions over a two-month period, the church’s senior pastor Jim Bryan said.
“He had a good story and a good way of presenting it,” Bryan said. At first, the church gave money to Farha after he told them that he needed it to get to Lebanon for a funeral.
“We are a church that believes in helping people, and we set aside funds to do that,” Bryan said.
But Bryan said he became suspicious when Farha kept coming back with similar stories of woe. Bryan said he started warning his congregation about Farha when he found out the he had been contacting church members at their homes and using Bryan’s name to aid in his solicitations. Later, when Bryan ran into Farha at the Cherry Street Artisan, he told Farha to stay away from his congregation. That was the last contact he had with him, Bryan said.
A few days later a picture of Farha came out in the news and posters with his face were distributed to most Columbia churches.
“Once the picture came out, his life here was pretty much over,” Bryan said.
Bryan said he’s not sure if Farha did anything illegal but that after the church’s experience with him, they will be more careful in validating the requests for aid. But this doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to continue to extend help to those who need it, Bryan said.
So far the church has not been contacted by the police and is not involved in any investigation, Bryan said.
“It’s just unfortunate that he does what he does to people and that he has no way to make an honest living,” Bryan said.
After Farha left the Columbia area, there were reports that he continued to practice his cons on the East Coast, Brown said.
Because of this repeat behavior, Brown said he is confident that Farha will surface again even if he is released before the warrant goes through.
Police ask that anyone with further information should contact the police department at 864-7652.