Never trust a guy named ‘Hayseed’

Israel has no oil, but some people wish it did, for the worst of reasons. This is an amazing story of a con artist and his willing victims…and nothing is better at leading the sheep to slaughter than religion.

When James Cojanis heard the first rumblings of Armageddon, he was sitting in his San Jose home with the radio tuned to a popular Christian show called The Prophecy Club. Featured that day was a charismatic Texas oilman named Harold “Hayseed” Stephens. Speaking in the rousing cadence of a Southern preacher, he told listeners that “the greatest oil field on Earth is under the southwest corner of the Dead Sea”–and that his company, Ness Energy International, was about to tap into it. In doing so, he said, it would drain the oil fields of the Persian Gulf, prompt Arab countries to attack Israel, and at last touch off the great battle that would usher in the end of days.

As soon as the show was over, Cojanis got on the phone to find out how to invest in the venture. Days later the 70-year-old retiree received a form letter addressed, “Dear End Time Servant.” It claimed that the oil reserves at Ness’ planned drilling site ranged “from one billion to 40 billion barrels…putting this prospect in a class of the super giant oil fields of the world.” Without a second thought, Cojanis bought $120,000 worth of stock in Ness. “Faith is a gift God puts in your heart,” he explained when I visited him in October at his cluttered town house, piled with crumpled boxes of prophecy-themed newsletters and cassette tapes of old Christian radio shows. “And I didn’t have any doubt that Ness was a plan of God. He raised up Hayseed Stephens to find Israel’s oil.”

Eight years later, Ness has yet to sink so much as an initial borehole for a Dead Sea well. In fact, for most of its existence it has never even held exploration rights in Israel. Its U.S. headquarters, a barnlike storefront topped with an open Bible sprouting an oil well, was shuttered in 2006. Since then, its stock price has fallen from a high of nearly $5 to a mere 3 cents; Cojanis’ $120,000 investment is now worth $3,000. Not that he’s worried. “I’m glad the stock price is in the tank,” he says. “When they hit oil and the stock goes sky-high, that means Armageddon is around the corner.” At that point, he plans to use his gains to spread the word that the end times are here, preparing as many souls for heaven as possible.

It’s always a shock to see these cheerful people who love, love, love the idea of Armageddon, and want nothing more than for it to come as soon as possible. This isn’t a hard concept to grasp: if your ideal expectation for the near-future is a world-wide catastrophe that has hundreds of millions of people dying in nuclear fireballs, there’s something wrong with you.