Accused 'Ninja Robber' says he was in mafia, on death row

Local 6 investigation raises questions about Pastor Frank Bower's past

ORLANDO, Fla. - When Orange County deputies arrested Frank Bower last month for allegedly trying to break into a mansion, investigators say the 54-year-old immediately admitted to taking part in a violent Windermere home invasion days earlier.

[VIDEO: Local 6's first report]

Confessing sins is nothing new to Bower, who became a pastor and founded a religious-based organization after he says he spent years working for the mafia, a job Bower claims once landed him on Florida's death row.

Although supporters say the pastor has helped hundreds of people through his ministry, a Local 6 investigation has found that many of the colorful stories Bower has shared about his life are not true.

"I grew up in the Gambino family," Bower told the congregation of the NewLife Church in Sullivan, Illinois while visiting as a guest speaker there in 2010. "I was 18 years old, graduated high school, and went to work for the mob."

Bower claimed he was smuggling cigars from Cuba in 1979 when some men ambushed him.

"I came into the Everglades and they tried to stop us there and rob us and I shot two guys. Killed one of them. He was an off-duty cop," said Bower.

Bower was sentenced to death for that murder, the pastor told the church congregation.

"I was 19 years old and headed for death row. It's exactly where I ended up. Florida State Penitentiary death row," said Bower. "If you've ever heard of (serial killer) Ted Bundy, he was a roommate."

Bower explained that he was released from prison in 1982 after an appeals court overturned his murder conviction.

But Local 6 has confirmed Bower's story is pure fantasy.

"He was never on death row," said Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jessica Cary.

State records show Bower has never been arrested for murder. In October 1981, while Bower claims he was locked up in prison, records show police in Citrus County stopped him for reckless driving.

In a recent book written about Bower's life, "The Incredible Journey of a Mafia Soldier", the pastor claims he was sent to prison in 1987 for shooting someone else.

"Two would-be tough guys tried to rob me and my crew of about $50,000 worth of anabolic steroids I was carrying," Bower claims in the book. "And they paid for it with their lives."

Court records confirm Pinellas County deputies arrested Bower in November 1987 for possessing and selling steroids while carrying a firearm, but he was not charged with shooting anyone. Department of Corrections records show Bower spent just three months incarcerated in a minimum security facility and a work release center.

Bower was released from custody on May 12, 1988. He would not be arrested again for another 26 years to the day, when Orange County deputies say he and three accomplices attempted to break into the Dr. Phillips area home of former N'Sync boy band member Joey Fatone.

Bower, Henry Contreras, Johnathan Contreras, and Andres Perez are also accused of taking part in a robbery at the mansion of Windermere businessman Bill Kitchen less than two weeks earlier. Surveillance photos Kitchen posted on Facebook show him and his female companion tied up as men wearing ninja masks rob his home.

After damaging phones and computers which the couple could have used to call for help, the robbers stole more than $26,000 in cash and jewelry before driving off with Kitchen's car, according to investigators. The vehicle was recovered a few miles away.

Once Bower got out of prison in 1988, he claims he went to work for mob boss John Gotti.

"I became John's personal bodyguard," Bower told the church congregation in 2010. "I loved John. He was like a dad to me." Bower also bragged about his relationship with mobster Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, who Bower described as his "best friend."

"The power and fame that came with that is crazy," said Bower. "The money was incredible."

Local 6 has been unable to verify whether or not Bower really worked for the mafia.

In a 2001 St. Petersburg Times article, Bower never mentioned having ties to organized crime. Instead, Bower told the newspaper he was working a general manager for a Homosassa car dealership during the late '80s.

"Selling cars was a good and legitimate cover for all his underworld activities with the mob," author Bill Keith wrote in his book about Bower.

In the St. Pete Times article, Bower accurately describes his imprisonment on drug charges. He does not make the claim he shot someone.

In 1994, Bower and his wife Tina purchased a home in the Citrus County town of Hernando. That's where Bower claims his wife gave him an ultimatum: leave the mafia or she and their three children would leave him. According to his book, the fear of losing his family prompted Bower to become a Christian.

Five years later, Frank and Tina Bower opened up a religious ministry in their home called "Jesus Is! II", a spinoff of a similarly-named ministry in nearby Inglis where Bower claims he received spiritual counseling. The current pastor of Jesus Is! Ministries, Jeff Adams, told Local 6 he had not spoken with Bower in nearly a decade and did not feel it was appropriate for someone in his position to comment about Bower's past involvement in the program.

The Bowers later changed the name of their ministry to the Family Prayer Center.

According to records, the couple invited people into their home who were struggling with drug and alcohol addictions. When the ministry outgrew their house, the Bowers relocated it to a old motel in nearby Crystal River.

In 2002, Bower moved his family and their Family Prayer Center ministry hundreds of miles away to a small town in East Texas. According to the ministry's original website, which has since been taken down, "FPC Rehab is committed to extending it's hand in love to reach those in need."

Jack Murphy, an ex-convict who later began his own prison ministry program in the 1980's, was once a guest speaker at the Family Prayer Center. He told Local 6 that Bower was an outstanding religious leader whose rehab program has helped many people.

"I was shocked to hear about Frank's recent arrest," said Murphy.

Murphy confirmed that Bower also volunteered for a well-known prison ministry, Bill Glass Champions For Life, founded by the former pro football player. Neither Glass nor his organization's president responded to emails seeking comment.

A fire destroyed the Bower's Texas home in 2009, according to a fundraising website set up by Fina Perez. Seven months later, Perez and Bower filed papers with the State of Florida to incorporate a branch of the Family Prayer Center in Seminole County. The ministry is based out a home in Oviedo owned by Perez and her ex-husband.

At some point over the past five years, Frank Bower moved into Perez's home, according to neighbors. The two also opened up the F.P.C. Thrift Store on Central Avenue in Downtown Oviedo.

The thrift store's website indicates Bower and Perez are now married and features a photo of the couple together.

"Frank Bower and his wife have seen the best and the worst life can throw at you," reads the website. "It was pure fate that God would have their paths cross and become one."

Perez Bower told Local 6 the pastor recently divorced his former wife Tina, who continues to operates the Family Prayer Center in Henderson, Texas. A reporter for CBS affiliate KYTX-TV dropped by that rehab facility on May 29 and spoke with Tina Bower, who claimed she was still married to the pastor. Tina Bower did not want to comment about Frank Bower's arrest, according to the Texas television station.

According to Perez Bower, proceeds from the sale of used books, clothes, and furniture at the F.P.C. Thrift Store in Oviedo help support the Texas rehab center.

Perez Bower said her husband would frequently visit local jails to pray with inmates. She indicated that when Bower was booked into the Orange County jail last month on kidnapping and burglary charges, he was quickly recognized by several fellow inmates who had heard him speak there.

An Orange County Corrections spokeswoman was unable to confirm Bower had recently volunteered at the jail.

Perez Bower told Local 6 she and her husband are trying to find land in Seminole County to build a women's home. According to their website, the facility, which would be called "Casa Madre", would be a place where women and their children could live free of charge for up to a year to receive vocational and educational training.

As for her husband's arrest, Perez Bower said, "He made a big mistake." She insists her husband had nothing to do with several other home invasion robberies in which the thieves wore ninja-style masks.

Authorities in Collier County are trying to determine whether Bower or his co-defendants are responsible for at least five other robberies near Naples between February and April. The men are also being investigated for two additional home invasions in East Texas that occurred not far from Bower's Family Prayer Center ministry.

Bower's ministry appears to have loose ties to a small church in Southwest Florida called the Family Prayer Center of Immokalee.  The church's website includes a link to the now-defunct website of Bower's Texas rehab center.  The pastor of that church, Bronc Flint, did not return messages left on the church's voicemail.

Bower's co-defendant in the Windermere robbery, Henry Contreras, was listed as secretary of the Family Prayer Center of Immokalee in 2003.  Contreras was also an associate pastor at that church, according to Bower's wife.

Contreras, 48, has been arrested several times for domestic assault, marijuana possession, and driving under the influence.

In 2009, the Collier County Sheriff's Office arrested Contreras and his son Johnathan, 27, for trespassing.  Five years later, the father and son would both be arrested again for allegedly taking part in the two Orange County home break-ins. 

Orange County deputies took Johnathan Contreras into custody on the night they say he and the others attempted to enter the former boy band member's home.  Authorities arrested his dad the following week in Immokalee.  Investigators believe Henry Contreras drove the getaway car during the Windermere home invasion.

Six months earlier, Henry Contreras and the fourth accused robber, Andres Perez, appeared together in a photograph that was published in a Southwest Florida newspaper.  The October 24, 2013 edition of the Immokalee Bulletin shows Perez and Contreras being recognized for their work with the football program at the high school where both attended in the 80's.  A caption under the photo describes Perez and Contreras as "fine gentlemen".

Perez, 44, has an extensive criminal history that includes arrests for  burglary, grand theft, and hiring a prostitute.  Records show he worked as a handyman and equipment operator.

Bower told detectives that Perez was the "leader of the group."  When investigators questioned Perez, he claimed he had never been to Windermere.  Perez said he joined the other suspects at the attempted break-in of the home in Dr. Phillips because one of the men owed money to the others.  Perez would not say who was owed the money, how much, or why, according to his arrest report.

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