The Resurrection of Robert Tilton
Sitting in Ross Perot's favorite booth at a fancy Dallas restaurant, Leigh Valentine eats half her low-fat redfish and then explains about her husband's "disguise kit." The kit contained several fake mustaches and a $1200 custom-made wig. Robert Tilton, the Texas televangelist, carried it everywhere, and during their first year of marriage wore disguises "50 percent of the time," Valentine says.
It's a tale she's told before, under oath in divorce court -- the disguise kit, and the nights aboard a yacht in Fort Lauderdale or in various mansions where Tilton would throw her down stairs, slam her against walls, or hurl cordless telephones at her head; how Tilton would drink himself into blind rages and declare he was the Pope or wake up in the night screaming that "rats were eating his brain."
Valentine, a former Miss Tallahassee, further explains why Tilton felt compelled to use disguises in 1995 but probably doesn't anymore; and why, despite having spent $6,000 on private detectives in Texas and Florida, she has no idea where her husband is right now.
"We would go to restaurants here in Dallas and people would give us the finger," she says. "People would scream at us on the street. It was incredible. Bob hated Dallas, and the more he hated Dallas the more he loved Florida. He said Fort Lauderdale was like his cloak of invisibility. Nobody would ever find him there. No one recognized him. He could wear shorts and Hawaiian shirts all day and do whatever he wanted."
Apropos of nothing Valentine announces she's "doing a book-and-movie deal" (working title: "The Dark Side of the Cross"). Later over coffee she says she hopes any story resulting from tonight's interview will ignore her drunk-driving arrest last month, which occurred after she broadsided another motorist at a Dallas intersection.
It would be nice if she were described as 39 years of age instead of 41, she notes. "And call me Leigh Valentine, not Leigh Valentine Tilton," she says. "I don't know how I got myself into this mess. I mean, I'm the daughter of a surgeon! I wish I'd never heard the name Tilton."
Parting words: "Find Bob. I want photos of him. Him and whatever girlfriend he's with. He keeps telling the judge he's broke. He keeps pretending he's changed. Bob Tilton will never change, and he'll definitely never be broke."
If you saw him on TV during the late Eighties or early Nineties, you will not have forgotten Robert Tilton. Not the Howdy-Doody dimples, nor the frosted, frizzy hair. Not the bizarre facial contortions, nor the Babylonian babbling that passed for speaking in tongues. Nor the antics: Tilton climbing aboard his desk to wallow in a pile of viewers' prayer requests; Tilton explaining why he had gone for plastic surgery (ink from those same prayer requests had seeped into his bloodstream and created bags under his eyes); Tilton telling his TV audience that those who messed with him were "messin' with the apple of God's eye."
Robert Tilton ruled the broadcast vacuum left by fallen televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. And if Swaggart and Bakker seemed like caricatures, Tilton was a veritable cartoon character, a self-parody of television evangelism itself. While skeptics dismissed him as a low-rent Southern cultural phenomenon, Tilton was hee-hawing all the way to the bank. At his peak he purchased 5000 hours of airtime per month and appeared in all 235 U.S. television markets. His daily Success-N-Life show reached virtually every TV set in North America.
Tilton's mass-market ministry pulled in $80 million per year, and his Dallas church drew as many as 5000 worshippers to Sunday service. Tilton trotted the globe, wore $2000 custom-made Italian suits, and drove, depending on his mood, a Mercedes-Benz or a Jaguar. He occupied multimillion-dollar residences near San Diego and Dallas and a waterfront vacation home in Fort Lauderdale. Of course the facts of his gaudy personal lifestyle and the astonishing size of his business enterprise remained largely hidden until after his eclipse began.
Tilton learned from the scandals that brought down Swaggart and Bakker. While claiming to support various orphanages and overseas missions, he was careful not to link viewers' contributions to any particular project. (Bakker went to prison because he raised money for a Christian theme park in South Carolina and then spent the money on other things.) And while Tilton called himself the prophet of a generation, he avoided harping on moral issues. By doing so, he avoided setting himself up for charges of hypocrisy. (Swaggart's demise began when he was videotaped with a prostitute. He had previously preached to millions on the sins of lust and adultery.)
One issue Tilton did dwell on was worldly wealth. Day after day he pitched a narrow, well-oiled version of the Pentecostal "prosperity gospel." In exchange for $1000 "vows" from followers, Tilton promised to lobby God for miraculous improvements in their health and finances. "If Jesus Christ were alive today and walking around, he wouldn't want his people driving Volkswagens and living in apartments," he explained.
Then came November 21, 1991. On that evening, ABC's PrimeTime Live aired the findings of a six-month investigation into the ministries of Tilton and two other TV preachers, W.V. Grant and Larry Lea.
The segment on Tilton was by far the most damning. At its heart was the accusation that Tilton never saw the vast majority of prayer requests and personal correspondence sent to him by faithful viewers. On the air Tilton promised to pray over each individual miracle plea. But on the ground ABC said it found thousands of those requests dumped in garbage bins in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Checks, money orders, and in some cases cash, food stamps, and even wedding rings sent by followers had been removed for deposit at a nearby bank.
Tilton and his lawyer claimed the Dumpster documents had been stolen by enemies of the church and then planted in the trash.
Within weeks the first of a dozen lawsuits had been filed by outraged followers. One of the plaintiffs, Mary Turk, said she had avoided seeking medical treatment for colon cancer because she believed doing so would indicate a breach of faith in God. Meanwhile, reporters from a local TV station in Oklahoma claimed to have discovered thousands more Tilton prayer requests at a recycling plant. The requests were promptly impounded by the U.S. attorney's office. Tilton repeated his claim that the trashed prayer pleas were part of a plot against the church.
Texas attorney general Dan Morales launched a fraud investigation of Tilton's ministry, and the FBI and U.S. Postal Service subpoenaed the church's records the day after the ABC broadcast. Over the ensuing months, Tilton called Morales "a flea." Morales countered that Tilton was "raping the most vulnerable segments of our society -- the poor, the infirm, the ignorant ... who believe his garbage."
Eighteen months later the screen went dark. By the time Tilton announced the cancellation of Success-N-Life, the show had lost as much as 85 percent of its audience. Contributions to the ministry had dropped from $7 million per month to $2 million, according to Tilton's attorney, J.C. Joyce. "It is a matter of the media," Joyce said, addressing reporters. "You are responsible for what has happened to this church." Tilton himself referred to reporters as "devils."
The publisher of The Door, a religious humor magazine, also had some thoughts on the uses of broadcast media. "If there's a lesson televangelists have learned in the past decade, it's that those who live by media manipulation may die by the same," wrote Ole Anthony, whose Dallas-based Trinity Foundation assisted ABC in its expose. Tilton, Anthony noted, had simply been brought to the sharp realization that "technology could be a two-edged sword."
Instead of dying the story broadened. In recent years it has included libel suits filed by Tilton against ABC and the Trinity Foundation. (Tilton lost the former and dropped the latter.) Meanwhile the Dallas press corps chronicled Tilton's two rancorous, high-profile divorces, and the accelerating decline of his local congregation.
These days the trip to Tilton's Word of Faith Family Church is an unsettling one. The structure squats near the confluence of two interstates in Farmers Branch, a suburb of Dallas long bereft of farmers. High on the facade, careful observers will note where the prairie wind whistles through a broken pane of stained glass. Bob Wright, a caretaker pastor put in place by Tilton last spring, parks his white Jaguar a few yards from a disused satellite dish the size of a sharecropper's shack.
Inside this high-tech tabernacle, thick curtains seal off empty balconies that once held thousands. Tilton's appointee preaches to a combination of poor blacks and elderly whites that numbers about 130. The service is a desolate mix of hymns followed by Wright's wandering exhortations and, finally, a tepid dose of faith healing during which parishioners move to the front, receive the laying-on of hands, and slump to the carpet for a few moments.
There's a money plea to wind things up, but no mention of the absentee landlord. A few months ago, according to one attendee, the congregation took up a collection for Tilton's lost scuba gear.
"Not even the church staff seems to know when Tilton will appear," wrote the Rev. George Exoo, a Harvard Divinity School graduate and magazine columnist who visited the church in September. "About once a month he touches down in Dallas, the rest of the time leaving Pastor Bob Wright to rebuild the crowds. It's not working.
"The donations probably did not cover the light bill for the night, let alone the restoration of the beleaguered church," Exoo noted. "My guess is that the Big Executive has already canceled the show."
Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth. To judge the health of Tilton's mass-market ministry on the basis of church attendance in Dallas belies a fundamental misapprehension of how his operation actually works.
It also fails to recognize the context of Tilton's troubles. Lost in the chronicle of his battles with the media, the Texas state attorney general, and various civil plaintiffs, lies the fact that Tilton has all but won the war.
Last summer a $900,000 jury award against Tilton was overturned on appeal. Eleven other lawsuits have been dismissed, dropped, or settled out of court. Investigations of fraud in Tilton's ministry by state and federal authorities ultimately have failed to produce any conviction. And Tilton is close to ridding himself of the second of two wives whose allegations of physical abuse and drunken debauchery made for colorful headlines but in the end were never proven in court.
"After all the headlines and all the investigations and all the audits, they couldn't find one damn thing that this man or this ministry had done wrong," says attorney J.C. Joyce. "There never was any dirt on Robert Tilton. In the end it was all a pack of lies. But there hasn't been any story about that, has there?"
While church members in Dallas may believe that Tilton has vanished from the face of the Earth or is busy doing God's work in some Third World backwater, he is in fact alive and well and living in the world's capital of second chances, South Florida.
As recently as last summer, Tilton stated that church revenues totaled an astonishing $750,000 to $800,000 per month, court transcripts show. This at a time when Tilton had been off the air for nearly two years. Only a small portion of church revenues ($20,000 per month) come from leases on church-owned property, Tilton said.
Anthony, the Trinity Foundation leader and Tilton nemesis, claims the physical church in Farmers Branch is little more than a money-losing prop designed to repel IRS scrutiny of Tilton's tax-exempt status, a charge Tilton's lawyer vehemently denies. At any rate, 130 hardscrabble parishioners don't generate $750,000 to $850,000 per month. So where does the money come from?
The answer is Tilton's mailing list, which once contained 880,000 names and addresses. Just as national political campaigns depend on mailing lists of potential contributors, they are the crucial, invisible keys to American televangelism.
According to former Word of Faith church members, Tilton once employed hundreds of minimum-wage "prayer warriors" to answer his toll-free hot line. When viewers called in, their names and addresses were entered in computer banks. The master list was then used, as it is today, to generate mass mailings to the faithful -- and more pleas for money -- over and over again.
"Do you need more money?" reads an envelope received by a California resident a few months ago. A pair of pennies is visible through a cellophane-covered aperture.
Inside the envelope is a message from Tilton: "Take the miracle request prayer sheet that I have enclosed with the coins and carefully write down the areas of your life (especially financial) where you want me to release my anointing on your behalf ... and then WRITE A CHECK FOR THE BEST POSSIBLE GIFT THAT YOU CAN GIVE!! Make it a widow's step-of-faith and give the devil a black eye by placing the biggest, largest, most generous gift (that would defy natural reason) into God's work."
Tilton includes instructions to pray over the coins and send them back with a check. "Your two token coins will be placed in my New Testament Treasury Chest for me to bless every day," he writes. "I will then send you an anointed miracle coin to use as your miracle reminder and as a point of contact to carry with you wherever you go."
The mailings are accompanied by testimonials from victims of peptic ulcers, layoffs, cigarette addiction, deadly spider bites, rebellious children, infertility, insomnia, and AIDS. Their lives turned around after they sent money to Tilton. Take "Robert," for example, a miracle recipient identified by first name only:
"Everything was crumbling around me," Robert explains. "My two best friends had just sued me. My landlord had served me with an eviction notice. I was jobless and flat broke. I wouldn't answer the telephone because I knew it would be a bill collector.
"I was cowering in a chair with all my curtains closed. Heartbreaking love songs gushed from the stereo .... I lit a joint.
"Robert Tilton was praying [on TV]. I can't explain it but I heard him say, 'You. Right there. You're smoking a joint.' I dropped the joint and he said, 'You just dropped it.' I started crying. I KNEW IT WAS GOD TALKING TO ME."
The mailings come with trinkets such as seeds or sand or salt packets. A Dallas woman received a small strip of red polyester. "Right now this cloth is plain fabric," Tilton wrote, "but after I send it back to you it will be a Miracle Cloth saturated with the presence of God."
As Jim Moore, owner of an Oklahoma printing company that handles Tilton's outgoing mail, explained to a hidden news camera in 1991: "It's all about names and addresses."
Mailing lists grow stale when the TV screen stays dark too long. Now, though, it is bright once more. Tilton's toll-free prayer line is up and running, and his Tulsa, Oklahoma, P.O. box awaits a hoped-for onslaught from the faithful.
Every weekday between 11 a.m. and noon, a fiberoptic telephone line the size of a human hair carries the voice and image of Robert Tilton out of a small TV studio in Miami Beach. The signal runs under city streets and across Biscayne Bay until it reaches WPBT-Channel 2, a public television station in North Miami. Comtel, a for-profit affiliate of the station, beams Tilton's brand-new Success-N-Life show up through the heavens to transponder number one on a satellite owned by Hughes Communications and known as Galaxy 9.
Unless you own a satellite dish, you can't see Tilton's show in South Florida. Instead you must move to Los Angeles, Nashville, Detroit, or Atlanta, where Success-N-Life began airing on various cable channels in April. Two months ago Tilton moved into the New York market and now appears there as well twice each day.
The new Tilton seems a bit less frisky. Gone are the tantrums aimed at Satan and his minions. His hair is less flamboyant, almost fatherly in its salt-and-pepperedness.
On the other hand, some of the recent Success-N-Life segments hint that Tilton may have broken into a South Florida wardrobe trailer and discovered a trunk of treasures from Miami Vice days -- pastel pants, tropical sport coats. ("He's trying to reach out," says lawyer J.C. Joyce. "Suits and ties don't reach out.")
The old studios in Dallas and San Diego were lugubrious dens lined with leather-bound books. The new set looks like a Sunday-school vision of ancient Palestine, complete with Styrofoam "stone" walls and a gurgling fountain. Tilton sits beside the fountain to read samples of viewer prayer requests. Beyond the sound stage walls lie a towing company and a noisy construction site. Inside, all is peace and tranquillity.
What hasn't changed is Tilton's repetitious message. He quotes a bit of Scripture and speaks in tongues, but mostly he pushes emotional buttons: Cancer. Emphysema. Alcoholism. Credit card addiction. Job layoffs. These ailments can be cured through faith. But faith requires proof, a "vow." To make a vow, preferably of $1000, call the 800 number on the screen. (When a New Times reporter called the hot line to seek solace regarding credit card addiction, a telemarketer took less than a minute recording his name, phone number, address, date of birth, and type of ailment, promising to pass on the information to Pastor Bob.)
"When it first came out in April, it was pretty much like a normal religious show," says a source involved in its production. "Then after five or ten shows it started to change. [Tilton] pretty much stopped talking about Scriptures. It was just a sales pitch. As a Christian, I find it a little disturbing."
Intercut with Tilton's sermonizing are "testimonials" in the form of news reports about people who have received miracles after giving money to Tilton. One recent testimonial featured "Rex and Kay," a Dallas couple who lost everything when a Sunbelt construction boom went bust. Within days after sending their last $1000 to Tilton, Rex got a new job and the pair made plans to build a snazzy new suburban home.
The testimonial, according to its own tagline, was produced by Paul Pettite. Pettite was laid off by Tilton in the early Nineties.
Ronald Wishna, who is listed on corporate records as the owner of the Miami Beach studio, declined to discuss Tilton. But another local entertainment industry source said Tilton and his associates paid cash upfront for a two-year lease on the 50-by-50-foot sound stage. They invested at least another $30,000 to transform the building's interior.
"These guys are geared up for real, and they're here to stay," the source says. He adds: "They're a real piss to hang out with. They're just good ol' Texas boys. They like to smoke cigars and drink brandy and have a good time on South Beach. Tilton told me once, 'I just want to come here and be left alone.'"
If Tilton is ready for some R&R in the subtropics, it's understandable. Though he dropped off the national radar screen in 1993, the meltdown of his ministry continued:
In late 1993 Tilton fired, then divorced, his co-pastor and wife of 25 years, Marte Phillips Tilton. For a time the split seemed amicable. Now Marte Tilton is suing her ex-husband and attorney J.C. Joyce for fraud, breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation.
In the current lawsuit, her summary dumping is described this way: "Ms. Tilton flew to Fort Lauderdale with two of her children for a short vacation. The events surrounding this family gathering were strange indeed, and the 'holiday' ended at 1 a.m. July 5, 1993, with Pastor Tilton announcing that he was leaving Ms. Tilton, and filing for divorce. Pastor Tilton's parting words were: 'Don't ever return to the office or the church.'"
Marte Tilton goes on to call Joyce "diabolical" and "the hub of a master scheme, only recently unearthed, designed to preserve the assets of the ministry to the extent feasible, maintain Joyce's and Pastor Tilton's lucrative incomes, and spirit away the ... church's assets." She describes the months following the ABC expose as a "blur" during which Tilton became "depressed and only marginally cognitive" and engaged in a "protracted course of infidelity and avarice." She says she also came to believe that Tilton and Joyce had engaged in tapping her phone and shadowing her with private detectives. Joyce calls the allegations preposterous -- "the colorful product of a lawyer's pen" -- and predicts the lawsuit will be thrown out of court or withdrawn.
In March 1994, according to news accounts, police responded to Word of Faith Family Church to quell a disturbance caused by a walkout of congregation members. At issue was Tilton's relationship with leaders of a North Carolina charismatic sect that practices "demon blasting," a form of shouted prayer. (The group was later the subject of a child-abuse investigation by North Carolina state authorities, though no charges were ever filed. Demon blasting involves sect members forming "prayer circles" around a child believed to be possessed by demons, and shouting at the subject for hours at the top of their lungs.)
In Sunday sermons Tilton has credited sect leaders Sam and Jane Whaley with saving his life in 1993 by casting out his own demons. Tilton was introduced to Whaley by his second wife, Leigh Valentine, whom he secretly married in the Dominican Republic February 10, 1994. Sect members interviewed by an Inside Edition reporter confirmed that Tilton visited the group's compound on several occasions and was "treated like God."
As Joyce notes: "A lot of ministries may look nutty to a lot of people. Bob later decided that this stuff was not true doctrine."
In September 1995 Tilton and Leigh Valentine moved into a new $1.6 million home in the Dallas suburb of Addison. Two months later Tilton filed for divorce from Valentine, only to cancel the action. On March 11, 1996, he sued for divorce again.
Describing her husband as an increasingly paranoid and abusive alcohol-fueled adulterer, Valentine first sought to prove that Tilton and his church were essentially the same and that she was therefore entitled to some portion of the church's $60 million in real estate and other assets. A panel of judges ultimately ruled against her, but the final divorce settlement is pending. Valentine filed for personal bankruptcy last month.
On March 16, 1996, after announcing his call to evangelical work in Cuba and the Philippines, Tilton named Bob Wright as senior associate pastor of the Dallas church. And then he vanished.
When Tilton finally decided to duck and run from Dallas, he did it right. Picking up his trail in South Florida is no small task. There is no telephone listing in his name, either published or nonpublished; no property records in Dade, Broward or Monroe counties; no car registration with the state Department of Motor Vehicles. Corporate records show that Tilton registered his nonprofit Word of Faith World Outreach Center Church, Inc. in Florida more than a decade ago, but the corporation is listed as inactive.
There are a few titillating hints in the court files: a trio of traffic tickets handed out over the years in Broward County (one for doing 93 in a 55 mph zone on Christmas Eve, another for "failure to use due care," and a third this April for driving without registration documents). Computer research reveals twelve addresses used by Tilton in the last decade, three of them in Fort Lauderdale. But two of those are commercial mail drops, and the last, a $500,000 waterfront vacation home in the Rio Vista neighborhood, was sold last year as part of Tilton's divorce settlement with wife number one. Ditto for his 38-foot fishing boat.
"Not here," says a bartender at a fashionable Las Olas Boulevard bistro. "He used to sit outside and drink single malt Scotch, but we haven't seen him in a few months."
Federal records show that Tilton bought a 50-foot Carver motor yacht last year in Fort Lauderdale for $500,000. In July 1996 he told a judge in Dallas that he was living aboard and making $4,000 monthly payments on the boat, which he named the Liberty Leigh.
"I haven't seen him or the boat in over a year," says a resident of Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale, where the yacht was berthed for several months.
"Robert Tilton is an individual who resides in Broward County, Florida," says the preamble to Marte Tilton's current lawsuit against her ex-husband. The lawyer who wrote the preamble, James Clutts, says he doesn't know exactly where in Broward County.
Tilton's trail warms up a few miles south. The directory in the lobby of an office tower on Michigan Avenue in Miami Beach lists "WOF, Int'l" -- shorthand for Tilton's Word of Faith ministry.
But Tilton doesn't enter or exit the building. And although there are plenty of Texas license plates outside his Miami Beach TV studio, Tilton's blue Chevy Tahoe isn't attached to any of them.
A source, who owes his paycheck to Tilton and will speak only on condition of anonymity, finally reveals the secret, with a giggle:
"He's on hiatus."
Cross-examination of Leigh Valentine, September 4, 1996, court testimony:
Bob's mail ministry is a lie and a total deception. He does not write those letters. He did not even proofread them during our marriage.
He makes it sound like [he's] writing to you right now, this is what God spoke to me for your life, Jesus will appear to you tonight; if you sleep with this little red cord under your pillow, you will prosper.
He doesn't even know what's going out to those people, and he doesn't care, as long as they send their money in.
One time he said in one of the letters that was sent, 'I will be taking these to the East Coast to pray for you by the ocean where Jesus prayed for his people.' So we flew to Fort Lauderdale and we checked into a four- or five-star hotel on the beach and got a nice penthouse view ....
That is stealing from people. Most of those people are on welfare. They're little Hispanics and blacks. And he even said, 'What I do is I look at a map and we go after the ghettos, we go after those on welfare, we go after those that don't read, those that are lower socioeconomic backgrounds. That's who we send our letters to ....'
Q. Have you now given me your full list?
A. No. That's a lot right there. Do you want more?
Q. Well, I wanted the lies that you were referring to in your prior testimony.
A. Just the lies about the trips, that they're ministry church trips, when they have nothing to do with God and ministry.
When we went to Israel, he said it was going to be a holy time, we'd get away with God, and all he did was drink the whole time I was with him and lay in bed. And one time he got so sick from the drinking, he was just in bed, we didn't get to see any of the sites.
We never went to Jordan. We never went -- you know, when we did go to Caesarea, he drank most of the time, and wanted to go to a fashion show, and so that's what we did on the church's money.
On Friday, October 10, Robert Tilton checked out of the Hyatt in Jerusalem. Ten days later (and eighteen hours after Leigh Valentine described his disguise kit in Dallas), Tilton arrived from Europe at Miami International Airport looking tanned and fit, rather younger than his 51 years.
The next day at noon, Tilton sat down to lunch with eight friends and associates at Pizza E Via on Lincoln Road mall a few blocks from the studio. Topics of conversation: the weather, the new TV show, and Leigh Valentine's recent DUI arrest. The party sat outside at two pushed-together tables. Tilton wore a pair of late-era Elvis sunglasses, expensive gray slacks, and a white linen shirt with French cuffs.
The party had the look of a modern-day Last Supper, and two of Tilton's favorite apostles were there: J.C. Joyce, fresh from Tulsa, sat near the head of the table. Daniel Moroso, resplendent in a hundred-dollar haircut and electric-blue silk shirt, sat across from Tilton.
Moroso, who worked briefly for evangelist Jim Bakker in the early Eighties, has served Tilton for years as confidant, best buddy, and executive producer of Success-N-Life. He accompanied Tilton on his trip to Israel last month, just as he has followed him to India and South Africa and the Bahamas in recent years.
In the fall of 1989, when Tilton briefly moved his operation to San Diego, Moroso went with him. The following year he and Tilton returned to Dallas. Moroso's first wife stayed behind in California and filed for divorce.
After serving as Word of Faith spokesman through some of Tilton's darkest days, Moroso briefly left Tilton, but not the public eye. In 1993 reporters in Dallas gleefully noted that Moroso had been arrested while sitting in a parking lot with a Dallas prostitute, engaging in "oral deviate sexual intercourse." He later pled guilty to one count of public lewdness. In July of this year, the 41-year-old Moroso and his new wife bought a $295,000 house on Miami's San Marco Island, about a mile from the studio.
Lawyer J.C. Joyce met Tilton around the same time Moroso did. In 1984 he helped Tilton with a tax audit and has since run virtually every aspect of Tilton's daily business operations. At the height of the ministry's success, Joyce's annual retainers from the church ran between $1.3 and $1.7 million, according to court records.
Joyce's other evangelical clients include half a dozen of the nation's wealthiest preachers, including pastors Larry Lea and Don Stewart. They once included Tulsa preacher and virulent anticommunist Billy James Hargis. More than four decades ago, Hargis became the first evangelist to tap into the fund-raising potential of direct mail by purchasing contributor lists from Barry Goldwater and other conservative politicians. Hargis passed on much of what he learned to J.C. Joyce, who went on to briefly represent evangelist Oral Roberts in the late Seventies before signing on with Tilton.
Another lesser-known client of Joyce is the Rev. James Eugene Ewing. Though not present at the Miami Beach lunch table, Ewing was there in spirit. For years, from a stucco mansion in Bel Air, California, the reclusive Ewing has supplied Tilton and other big-name evangelists with computer-driven mass-mail campaigns filled with fractured grammar, homespun homilies, and twisted scriptural interpretations.
One of Ewing's letters, written for evangelist Rex Humbard, reportedly brought in as much as $64 per letter. In 1968 Ewing, an eighth-grade dropout, doubled Oral Roberts' cash flow almost overnight with another mail campaign, sources say. Roberts rewarded him with an airplane, according to former Roberts' aide Wayne Robinson. In a Dallas Morning News interview last summer, Hargis noted that Ewing "has no education, his English is atrocious, but he is absolutely brilliant."
Robinson says Ewing travels in a fleet of black Lincolns and Cadillacs with a crew of "cartoon-character" bodyguards dressed like Secret Service agents. Leigh Valentine claims she and Tilton visited Ewing on five occasions during their marriage, and described Ewing's high-security mansion as "dark and spooky" and containing a stuffed black bear. She refused to discuss Ewing himself.
According to an October 1993 memorandum to Tilton's lawyer, Ewing's latest coup is a computer demographics program that identifies and isolates some of America's poorest ZIP codes and then targets them for Ewing's garish, trinket-driven mailings. "The size of each special area is about two to four city blocks," the memo notes. "And thank God there are 10's of thousands of them across the nation."
Joyce says Tilton stopped using Ewing's mailings when he went back on the air in April. "They filled the bill until Bob could get back up and started doing television."
Joyce noted that he was in South Florida to help out on the design of a new letter campaign for Tilton. "It's a collaborative effort," he explained, acknowledging that Tilton doesn't actually write the highly personalized letters himself.
Does Tilton pray over prayer requests, as promised on TV?
"Absolutely," Joyce contends. "Everything he says he does, he does."
Communicating through Joyce, Tilton, Moroso and Ewing all declined to beinterviewed.
Ole Anthony, whose Dallas-based Trinity Foundation assisted PrimeTime Live with its 1991 expose, says he's not dismayed by Tilton's return to television.
"I don't think there's any way he can make it back into the big time," Anthony says. "He needs to go back on the air periodically to rejuvenate his mailing list, but I think he'll continue to be a minor player. He's just on too many databases now. There are too many questions out there about his practices."
Anthony, a former government spy, millionaire businessman, and Republican candidate for the Texas legislature, underwent a religious awakening in 1972. After a stint as a religious talk-show host, he founded a small community of believers in north Dallas who attempt to live like early Christian apostles.
The group also monitors and investigates televangelists, sometimes with a vengeance. Most of what is known about Robert Tilton's business operation and off-air lifestyle has come from documents and recordings gathered by Trinity Foundation members during undercover forays and trash sorties.
Are Trinity operatives gearing up for a duel in the sun here in South Florida? "There's no question we will continue to monitor Mr. Tilton's activities," Anthony says, "as long as he continues to invite himself into people's living rooms and mailboxes."
The other two preachers who shared ABC's PrimeTime Live spotlight with Tilton six years ago have long since exited the airwaves, though W.V. Grant is back in the pulpit in Dallas after serving eighteen months for income tax fraud. Elsewhere, Jim Bakker was scheduled to be released from parole this month after completing an eight-year prison sentence. The terms of his parole had reportedly barred him from soliciting the faithful by mail or TV.
As for Tilton, he was observed at the Miami Beach Marina one recent Friday night. At first the self-described prophet sat alone with his thoughts and a plate of stone crabs. Then a well-wisher sidled up and engaged him in conversation. After a few minutes Tilton paid his tab and departed, generously donating the remains of his stone crabs to his new admirer.
In the cool of the evening Tilton bore west across the MacArthur Causeway, then ducked into the Fisher Island ferry terminal to avoid pursuit by a reporter.
According to a representative of Fort Lauderdale yacht broker Chic Marine, his boat was repossessed by the finance company earlier this year.
"He loved that boat," says a secretary, who wouldn't give her name. "But he let the bank take it back so the wife couldn't get it in the divorce."
"Your source is a damn liar," Joyce retorts. "Bob just couldn't pay the bills. He spent everything he had on that woman in eighteen months and now he simply has no money left."
Joyce says Tilton's recent trip to Israel and Europe was an opportunity to line up locations for future live broadcasts. He promises his client will be back in Dallas to preach in November and December.
Surprisingly, Joyce says even he doesn't know where Tilton hangs his hat.
"I don't have the foggiest idea," he says. "But if I did, I wouldn't tell you. We were audited by the IRS. We were investigated by the FBI. We had twelve lawsuits filed against us. You tell me: How could anyone stand up under this? The depositions! The interviews! The allegations! This is an honest minister that has all but been destroyed by the media. But he survived. He feels comfortable wherever he's at down there in Florida.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.