Unholy Roller Coaster
The Jim Bakker Trial proceeds, but the most damaging accusations may be yet to come
Finally, sadly, there seemed nowhere new to run, no place to hide, no new crusade to announce. In a federal courtroom in Charlotte, N.C., disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, 49, stood on trial for a long list of alleged sins, facing 120 years in prison and a $5 million fine on 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy. He’s accused of siphoning $3.7 million from his PTL (Praise the Lord) ministry to live like Croesus while telling his flock to follow Jesus. Then, as has happened so often in the 30 months since disclosure of the Jessica Hahn affair shook Bakker’s pulpit, a flood of tears and bathos washed away what has seemed the continuing tragicomedy of Bakker’s life and left behind something closer to a theater of the absurd. Chapter and verse so far:
•Day One: The chipmunk-cheeked Bakker strolls into federal court, exuding confidence. However he hears damaging testimony to the effect that he tacitly approved a $265,000 hush money payment to Jessica Hahn.
•Day Three: While testifying that some of Bakker’s TV solicitations were deliberately misleading, prosecution witness Steve Nelson, a former aide, swoons on the witness stand and collapses unconscious in his chair. After a stage-whispered nudge from his lawyer—”Jim, Jim, Jim”—Bakker rushes to Nelson’s side, kneels and prays for the witness. (Nelson later recovers in a hospital.)
•Day Four: Unholy hell breaks loose as Bakker crumples to the floor of his lawyer’s office and hides his head under a couch. He rolls into the fetal position and begins to weep. Judge Robert Potter suspends the trial and orders Bakker to the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C., for psychiatric evaluation. Bakker’s psychiatrist, Dr. Basil Jackson, reports the preacher is suffering from a Goyaesque hallucination in which “suddenly people took the form of frightening animals, which he felt were intent on destroying him, attacking him and hurting him.” As he’s deposited in the backseat of a squad car after being led from his lawyer’s office, Bakker once again assumes the fetal position.
•Day Five: Wife Tammy Faye Bakker arrives in North Carolina from their Orlando home and begins a not-very-lonely vigil outside of Butner. Near the gates of the prison, Tammy sobs and complains to the press about the treatment of her husband. “What Judge Potter has done to my husband is a disgrace to the Constitution,” she insists. “Jim has been manhandled, strip-searched and paraded like a freak at a carnival show.”
•Day Eight: Wearing a bright yellow shirt and looking glassy-eyed and emotionally vacant, a haggard and hunched-over Bakker is returned in manacles to court. Dr. Sally Johnson, a psychiatrist at Butner, declares him mentally competent for trial, despite his “panic attack” of the previous week, in which, she explains, Bakker saw the throng of newsmen as “giant ants with antennae waving.” Meanwhile the wheels of justice begin to grind again as the trial is resumed.
If some saw a Christian being thrown to the lions, others took a more jaundiced view of the events. Courtroom skeptics say that the Bakker defense team had simply miscalculated. Angling for an insanity plea at best or a mistrial at worst, they hoped Bakker would be sent to a cushy private mental hospital. Instead he was sent to the prison facility at Butner, whose famous alumni include the likes of would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. There, some say, Jim got scared straight. Fast.
Yet others, even those who are normally deeply distrustful about Bakker, take the breakdown at face value. One of them is Charles Shepard, a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his investigation of the PTL and whose book about the Bakker scandals (Forgiven) will be published this month. “I’m convinced Bakker’s breakdown was real,” says Shepard, who watched as Bakker wobbled down the courthouse steps in handcuffs. “His pain appeared genuine. So genuine I couldn’t even ask him questions. Neither did the TV reporters. He has this problem thinking people are always after him, out to get him. It is sort of a psychic nightmare of his. Now he is being dragged out in chains. He always felt like a victim, that people were after him. Now they really came and got him.” Indeed, the “frightening animals” nipping at Bakker’s heels are more than mere hallucinations. The 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy focus on his hawking $1,000 “lifetime partnerships” in the PTL that supposedly allowed PTL members three free nights of lodging a year for life at his $200 million, 2,300-acre Heritage USA theme park—a sort of Christian Disneyland—in Fort Mill, S.C. Problem was, say the indictments, there was not nearly enough room at the inn. The Heritage park hotel wound up way overbooked, while Bakker lavished the $4 million he skimmed from the $158 million he raised on luxury cars, jewels, vacation junkets and cinnamon buns. One PTL aide would regularly purchase $100 worth of cinnamon buns for Bakker. Though the reverend never ate them, he loved the aroma.
But if Bakker’s breakdown was a ploy, it was reputedly not the first time he had curled into the fetal position under stress. When the going gets tough, some who know him say, Bakker’s reaction is often to hit the deck and curl up like a pill bug. One occasion came after his illicit 1980 tryst with Jessica Hahn—the former secretary who helped bring down the klieg-lite Church of Fund-raising known as the PTL. “When I got up this morning, it was the first thing I saw,” says Hahn of the day that Bakker’s courtroom collapse made the news, “and I just went, ‘Oh, my God, here he goes again.’ ” Hahn says that after Bakker had his way with her in her Clearwater Beach hotel room, John Wesley Fletcher, the evangelist and middleman for the Bakker-Hahn liaison, rushed in and told her, “Jessica, you’re not going to believe it, but Jim Bakker’s in a fetal position right now, crying and hallucinating and having a fit and not knowing how to handle what just took place. He’s just a mess and is saying how much you helped him because of the problems he’s having with Tammy.” Hahn believes Bakker opts for the fetal position whenever “there’s been a very desperate situation where he needs people’s sympathy. He’s a master of manipulation.”
Bakker reportedly hit the carpet again shortly after the affair, when he confessed his sexual misdeeds with Hahn to psychologist Fred Gross, a PTL counselor. Quickly, Gross joined him on the floor. “Within 10 minutes, we were prone on the floor,” Gross once said in an account authorized by Bakker. “His face was buried in the carpet, sobbing. He was kicking the floor. He was writhing. He was retching.” But Bakker could also adopt a more catatonic mode of collapse. Tammy Faye wrote that in 1978, when she and Bakker were having marital troubles over his refusal to have children, he had a breakdown. “He lay in bed for a month in the back bedroom with his Bible in his hand, begging God not to let him lose his mind totally,” recounted Tammy in her autobiography, I’ve Gotta Be Me.
Others offer backhanded praise for what they see as Bakker’s three-hankie tactics. Lawrence Bernstein, the former FCC attorney who investigated Bakker for alleged misappropriation of funds in a 1979-82 inquiry, says that Bakker often opened the spigots during 11 days of cross-examination. “From our experience, Jim cries when he’s put in difficult situations,” says Bernstein. “It takes him about 30 seconds to work it up, then he can’t be stopped. He interrupts the proceedings, and it reached a point where we had to withdraw questions. We thought it was an act by a talented actor.” In a controversial decision, the FCC decided not to bring Bakker to trial. Perhaps the go-with-the-flow emotionalism dates to one of Bakker’s earliest successes as a novice televangelist. Soon after he got his first show on CBN in 1966, he performed at a telethon to raise funds for the fledgling network. Tears streaming down his face, he looked into the camera and announced. “We need $10,000 a month or we’ll be off the air…. Christian television will be no more.” The dollars came flooding in.
Despite his jittery emotional gyroscope, Bakker proved a genius at raising money, though former supporters and PTL members allege that Jim and Tammy’s greed corrupted their ministry. Disillusioned followers have portrayed Bakker as a kind of Kewpie Caligula, ruling over the decadent imperial court of the PTL. “Bakker built a city where he would sit on the throne and have people pay him tribute,” says Austin Miles, who gave up his career as a circus ringmaster two years after joining the PTL ministry in 1974 and who witnessed Jim and Tammy’s theatrics for 10 years. “That’s when the sex started to go wild.”
Although Shepard’s 635-page book is perhaps the most thorough and scholarly analysis of the rise and fall of the Bakker empire yet to be published, the author devotes an entire chapter of Forgiven to Tammy and Jim’s many indiscretions. While Tammy played the role of the neglected wife, she became friendly with country musician Gary Paxton and later cozied up to married PTL executive Thurlow Spurr. So angry was Bakker over their crumbling marriage that he melted down his wedding ring and had it turned into a charm.
Meanwhile, Jim himself was no angel. “They put a Jacuzzi right in Jim’s office which we called the Floozie Jacuzzi because of the gossip about what went on there,” says Miles, whose own recently published book, Don’t Cull Me Brother, chronicles his life with and without Bakker. Before Jessica Hahn, Miles alleges, Bakker had an affair in the late 1970s with a born-again Christian beauty. Bakker reportedly did not limit his dalliances to women. In a 1989 Penthouse article, fellow PTL minister Fletcher alleged he caught Bakker in bed with his right-hand man, David Taggart. Fletcher said he himself had homosexual encounters with Bakker on three occasions. Their affair reportedly began when Bakker made advances to Fletcher as Fletcher was giving him a back rub in the ministry sauna at Heritage Village. Shepard recounts that one aide who traveled often with Bakker, a married man, used to give Bakker back rubs that Bakker took as a prelude to masturbation. Though upset and disgusted by his role as Bakker’s geisha, the employee explained that Bakker compensated him for this arousal service with an unlimited budget, travel and his assurance that this was God’s work.
Miles offers a more richly descriptive account of Bakker’s homosexual cavorting. On Jan. 13, 1977, he walked into the steam room and found Bakker naked with three young men. “There they were, frolicking about, taking turns placing each other on the massage table. The hands started with the knees, working their way up the thighs into the intimate massages—accompanied by schoolgirl giggles and cries of ‘Whoooeee!’ ” he says. When Bakker realized someone was watching, a silence fell over the scene of good of boys at play. Then Bakker became businesslike, complimenting Miles on his performance on that day’s show and telling one of the three men with him to “book Austin every month on this program.” While retreating from the steam room, Miles heard footsteps and ducked into a corner. “It was Tammy Faye storming across the place,” he says. “She banged on the door and said, ‘Jim Bakker, I know you’re in there. Now come out of there right now.’ Then she broke down and started to cry.”
Although such goings on took their toll on Jim and Tammy’s marriage, they somehow managed to have an active sex life. Shepard reports that Bakker liked to boast about his and Tammy’s sexual exploits, recounting a tryst in a park and how their screams of passion startled innocent strollers. Bakker also strongly touted PTL staffers on the marital benefits of vibrators. But sexual aids were no longer sufficient by 1980, the year of Bakker’s fateful encounter with Jessica Hahn. At a PTL world prayer conference in Honolulu that year, reports Shepard, Tammy complained about her husband to other PTL wives and talked of divorce. Through failed attempts at reconciliation, they kept the marriage together for the sake of a profitable ministry, but Tammy took to drinking and popping pills, resulting in several nervous breakdowns of her own.
If Jim Bakker’s reputed lust knocked the cornerstone out of his PTL edifice, it is his alleged corrupt financial dealings that toppled it. His and Tammy’s rise from storefront TV preachers to famed televangelists had been a giddying, nonstop journey to success. “They are phenomenal, charismatic personalities,” says Miles. “Even when you know they are lying through their teeth, there is something folksy and good about them. No one else could have pulled it off.”
Miles says he saw the light when he flew from his home in Forest Hills, N.Y., to help raise money for a PTL telethon in 1982. “They said they were going to pull the plug out of the TV satellite if they didn’t get so many millions by a certain date,” he recalls. “Tammy was crying, mascara running—’We’ve sold everything we have. This is a real crisis.’ ” After the fund drive was over, Miles claims, Jim’s brother, Norm Bakker, told him, “There’s no crisis. We had the money all along. This gave us a tool to raise money and something for people to rally around.” Miles asked about a plea made four months previously, in which the Bakkers claimed that Heritage USA was going to be dismantled. “That was just the same thing—just business,” says Miles, who alleges that Bakker used a fund-raising firm that composed carefully timed pitch letters and planned each “crisis” in advance. The letters, says Miles, were sent “to arrive the same time that the welfare and Social Security checks come, the first week of every month.” Miles says he told a PTL producer “little old ladies are eating cat food to send in their money for God” and walked out. He now suspects that the PTL’s “overseas ministries” were nonexistent and that film clips purporting to show the PTL in Brazil, Italy and Africa were shot in a corner of the Heritage Village studios.
Despite being accused of more machinations than a Renaissance pope, the Bakkers have launched a new ministry in Orlando. “We are fighting for our lives, literally,” says Tammy Faye. “And I don’t think we’re just fighting for our lives. I feel that we are fighting for the life of Christianity the way we know it today. I think we’re fighting for the right to preach the gospel in the United States of America. I think we’re fighting for the right to have Christian television.”
The new Jim and Tammy Show broadcasts from his New Covenant Church headquarters in a tacky, pink strip shopping mall just minutes from Disney World, in the heart of the city’s factory outlet district. The Bakkers lease about a dozen of the empty storefronts for their church service, studio and offices. Two bars, the Oriental Bazaar and the Designer Boutique, where Tammy has dress designs on sale, also occupy the mall. The look of their rust-and-blue studio set, filled with floral gifts from supporters, matches the opulence of their former Heritage USA studio set. A bank of nine phones stands ready to receive callers pledging donations, and they do occasionally ring during the show, which currently goes out to about a dozen stations compared with the 200 stations that broadcast the PTL show in its heyday.
These days Jim and Tammy live on a cul-de-sac in a wealthy lakefront section of Orlando. The word around town is that the neighbors aren’t happy about having the Bakkers next door. The house includes a swimming pool and a three-car garage that can only park two. The rest of the space is taken up by Tammy’s 30-foot dress rack.
The Sunday of Labor Day weekend, Jim and Tammy’s friend Orlando Pastor Roy Harthern preached the New Covenant service. He told an audience of 150 supporters and the curious that Tammy was planning to stay by Jim in his time of distress and that it was unclear when she would be able to return to Orlando. “But when she does,” Harthern said, “let’s show her how much we care by making offerings. Write out your checks to New Covenant Church. This will make her happy.” Though their judgment day seems well nigh, Jim and Tammy are still in business.
—Reported by Liz McNeil in San Francisco and Tom Nugent in Butner