in Ross Perot's favorite booth at a fancy Dallas restaurant,
Leigh Valentine eats half of her low-fat redfish and then
explains her husband's "disguise kit." The kit contained
several fake moustaches and a $1,200 custom-made wig. Robert
Tilton, the Texas televangelist, carried it everywhere, and
during their first year of marriage he 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."
former Miss Tallahassee, Florida, 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."
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
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."
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 want
to find Robert Tilton these days, a good place to start
looking is at a South Florida television studio. While members
of Tilton's Dallas church 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's in fact alive and well and living
in South Florida, busily preparing his own resurrection.
years have passed since the TV empire that Tilton ran from his
Farmers Branch church collapsed under the weight of scandal.
But, if you saw him on television during the late '80s or
early '90s, you will not have forgotten Robert Tilton. Not the
Howdy-Doody dimples, nor the frosted pompadour. Not the
bizarre facial contortions, nor the antics. (Tilton once
climbed atop his desk to wallow in a pile of viewers' prayer
requests; he told his TV audience that he had undergone
plastic surgery because ink from those same prayer requests
had seeped into his bloodstream and created bags under his
At his peak
he purchased 5,000 hours of air time per month and appeared in
all 235 U.S. television markets. His daily Success-N-Life show
reached nearly every television set in North America. Tilton's
mass-market ministry pulled in an estimated $80 million per
year, and his church drew as many as 5,000 worshippers to
gleaned the donations by pitching a narrow, well-oiled version
of the Pentecostal "prosperity gospel." In exchange for $1,000
"vows" from followers, Tilton promised to lobby God for
miraculous improvements in their health and finances.
According to one survey, he spent 68 percent of his air time
asking for money. "If Jesus Christ were alive today and
walking around, he wouldn't want his people driving
Volkswagens and living in apartments," explained Tilton, who
favored a Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz and lived a lavish private
life in mansions in San Diego and Dallas.
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 local TV preachers, W.V. Grant and
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
miracle-request. But on the ground, ABC said it found
thousands of those requests and viewers' letters 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.
outraged followers quickly followed, along with further media
exposes concerning dumped prayer requests. (Tilton claimed the
trashed prayer requests were part of a plot against the
church.) State 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
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 trip to Tilton's Word of Faith Family Church in Farmers
Branch is an unsettling one. High up on the facade, the 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.
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
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
Lost in the
chronicle of Tilton's battles with the media, the Texas state
attorney general, and various civil plaintiffs is the fact
that Tilton has all but won his holy war.
Last summer a
$900,000 jury award against him was overturned on appeal.
Eleven other lawsuits have been dismissed, dropped, or settled
out of court. Fraud investigations of Tilton's ministry by
state and federal authorities ultimately 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 were never
proven in court.
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 damn lies. But there hasn't been any story about that,
To judge the
health of his mass-market ministry on the basis of church
attendance in Dallas betrays a fundamental misapprehension of
how his operation works. 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.
the Trinity Foundation leader who assisted ABC in its
investigation, claims the 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
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.
former Word of Faith church members, Tilton employed hundreds
of minimum-wage "prayer warriors" to answer his toll-free
hotline. When viewers called in, their names and addresses
were entered in computer banks. The master list was then used
to generate mailings to the faithful--and more pleas for
money--over and over again.
"Do you need
more money?" reads the question on an envelope received by a
California resident a few months ago. A pair of pennies is
visible through a cellophane window in the envelope.
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."
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."
are typically accompanied by testimonials from former
sufferers 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, for example, the miracle recipient
identified only as "Robert":
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
cowering in a chair with all my curtains closed. Heartbreaking
love songs gushed from the stereo...I lit a joint.
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."
invariably come with trinkets such as seeds 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."
is that mailing lists grow stale when the TV screen stays dark
too long. Now, though, it's bright once more. Tilton's
toll-free prayer line is up and running, and his Tulsa,
Oklahoma, post office box awaits a hoped-for onslaught from
between 11 a.m. and noon Eastern Standard Time, a fiberoptic
telephone line 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. A for-profit
affiliate of the station called Comtel beams Tilton's
brand-new Success-N-Life show up through the heavens to a
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 twice daily.
Tilton seems a bit less frisky. Gone are the tirades against
Satan and his minions. His hair is less flamboyant.
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 left over 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
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 burbling fountain. Tilton sits
beside the fountain to read samples of viewer prayer requests.
Beyond the sound stage walls lie a towing company and a
construction site. But inside, all is peace and tranquility.
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 $1,000, call the 800 number on the screen. (When a
reporter called the hotline 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
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 10 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."
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 $1,000 to Tilton, Rex got a new job, and the pair made
plans to build a new suburban home.
testimonial, according to its own tagline, was produced by
Paul Pettite. Pettite was laid off by Tilton in the early
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 up front for a two-year lease on the 50-by-50-foot
soundstage. They invested another $30,000 to transform the
are geared up for real, and they're here to stay," the source
says. "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. But they like to keep a real
low profile. 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 Joyce for fraud, breach of contract, and negligent
* In March
1994, according to news accounts, police responded to Word of
Faith World Outreach Center 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 a form of shouted prayer known as "demon
blasting." (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 sermons, Tilton has credited sect leaders Sam
and Jane Whaley with saving his life in 1993 by casting out
his own demon. Tilton was introduced to the Whaleys by his
second wife, Leigh Valentine, whom he secretly married in the
Dominican Republic February 10, 1994.
September 1995, Tilton and Leigh Valentine moved into a new
$1.6 million home in Addison. Two months later Tilton filed
for divorce from Valentine, only to cancel the action. On
March 11, 1996, he sued for divorce again.
* On March
16, 1996, after announcing his call to evangelical work in
Cuba and the Philippines, Tilton named Chattanooga, Tennessee,
preacher Bob Wright as senior associate pastor of the Dallas
church. Then he vanished.
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
unpublished; no property records in Dade, Broward, or Monroe
counties; no car registration with the state Department of
records show that Tilton registered his nonprofit Word of
Faith World Outreach Center Church Inc. in Florida more than a
decade ago, but the registration is inactive. There are a few
titillating hints in the Broward County court files: a trio of
traffic tickets handed out over the years (one for doing 93 in
a 55 m.p.h. zone on Christmas Eve, another for "failure to use
due care," and a third this April for driving without
registration documents.) Computer research reveals 12
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, Florida, neighborhood, was sold last year as part of
Tilton's divorce settlement with his first wife; ditto for his
38-foot fishing boat.
"Not here," says a bartender at a fashionable Fort Lauderdale
bistro. "He used to sit outside and drink single-malt Scotch,
but we haven't seen him in a few months."
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
seen him or the boat in over a year," says a resident of Bahia
Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale, where the yacht berthed for
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 where in Broward County.
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.
doesn't enter or exit the building. Although there are plenty
of Texas license plates outside the Miami Beach studio,
Tilton's blue Chevy Tahoe Tilton is not attached to any of
A source who
owes his paycheck to Tilton and will speak only on condition
of anonymity finally reveals the secret with a giggle:
examination of Leigh Valentine, September 4, 1996, court
"Bob's mail ministry is a lie and a total deception. He does
not write those letters. He did not even proofread them during
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
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...
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 ghettoes, 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
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
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.
October 10, Robert Tilton checked out of the Hyatt in
Jerusalem. Ten days later (and 18 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 a few blocks from the studio. Topics of
conversation: the weather, the new show, and Leigh Valentine's
recent DWI arrest. Tilton wore a pair of late-era-Elvis
sunglasses, expensive gray slacks, and a white linen shirt
with French cuffs.
lesser-known client of Joyce's is the Rev. James Eugene Ewing.
For years, from a stucco mansion in Bel Air, California, he
has supplied Tilton and other big-name evangelists with
computer-driven mass-mail campaigns filled with fractured
grammar, homespun homilies, and twisted scriptural
Ewing's letters, written for evangelist Rex Humbard,
reportedly brought in as much as $64 per mailing. 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.
Ewing travels in a fleet of black Lincolns and Cadillacs with
a crew of 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."
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 sub-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 tens of thousands of
them across the nation."
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. Their ministries are not a
that he was in South Florida to help out on the design of a
new letter campaign. "It's a collaborative effort," he
explained, acknowledging that Tilton doesn't actually write
the highly personalized letters himself.
pray over viewer prayer requests as he says on TV?
"Absolutely," Joyce contends. "Everything he says he does, he
whose Dallas-based Trinity Foundation assisted PrimeTime Live
with its 1991 expose, says he's not dismayed by Tilton's
return to television.
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...There are too many questions out there about
former government spy, millionaire businessman, and 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 East Dallas who attempt to
live like early Christian apostles. The group also monitors
and investigates televangelists, sometimes with a vengeance.
Virtually everything that is known about Robert Tilton's
business operation and off-air lifestyle has come from
documents and recordings gathered by Trinity Foundation
members during their periodic undercover forays and trash
operatives gearing up for a duel in the sun, a special project
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
The two other
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 time for tax fraud.
Tilton, he was observed at the Miami Beach Marina one recent
Friday night. At first, the self-described "apple of God's
eye" sat alone with his thoughts and a plate of stone crabs.
Then a well-wisher sidled up and engaged him in conversation.
Finally Tilton paid his tab and departed, generously donating
the remains of his stone crabs to his new admirer.
bore west across the MacArthur Causeway, then ducked into the
Fisher Island Ferry terminal to avoid pursuit by a reporter.
a representative of Fort Lauderdale yacht broker Chic Marine,
his boat was repossessed by the finance company earlier this
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
is a damn liar," Joyce retorts. "Bob just couldn't pay the
bills. He spent everything he had on that woman in 18 months
and now he simply has no money left."
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
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 12 lawsuits filed against us.
You tell me: How could anyone stand up under this? The
depositions, the interviews, the allegations. This an honest
minister that has all but been destroyed by the media. But he
survived. He feels very comfortable wherever he's at down
there in Florida. http://www.dallasobserver.com/issues/1997-11-06/feature2.html/page1.html
(this is an old link but can be varified by emailing the
Dallas Observer at
us your thoughts on this article.
We used the
article above from the Dallas Observer because it covers
Robert Tilton as well as anyone could. I am sure there
will more news of interest coming about Mr. Tilton in the
future. Blessings, Robert Wise.