Amazing Disgrace : Jim Bakker’s Now Battling Not Only With the Law but to Keep a Grip on Reality

Times Staff Writer

When Jim Bakker is having a problem and is called before the government, that is Christianity being called before the government. That is the Body of Christ’s problem.

--Jim Bakker in his 1980 book, “Survival: Unite to Live”

Nine years ago in the same book where he equated himself with an entire religion, PTL founder Jim Bakker wrote of a premonition. He believed that “God’s clock is in the final hour,” meaning that the world would end soon.

He may have been right--but not in the way he intended.

Thursday Bakker was on the precipice of a personal Armageddon that forced a halt to his media-saturated trial on federal charges of fraud and conspiracy. Bakker, whose PTL television ministry once had the potential to reach a billion people, was ordered to undergo psychiatric testing to see if he is mentally competent to stand trial, after he apparently became hallucinatory and irrational. The order by U.S. District Judge Robert Potter suspending the trial in its fourth day came after Bakker’s psychiatrist testified that the televangelist, 49, suffered hallucinations and “was lying in the corner of his attorney’s office with his head under a couch, hiding.”


“He was expressing thoughts that someone was going to hurt him,” Dr. Basil Jackson testified in a brief competency hearing in Judge Potter’s court Thursday morning.

Federal marshals led a crying Bakker from his attorney’s office shortly after the order was issued. “Please don’t do this to me,” Bakker pleaded before crawling into the waiting car and assuming a fetal position. He was taken to the federal courthouse here for paper-work processing and was led, crying and disheveled, out of the building some 90 minutes later in handcuffs.

Jackson, a Milwaukee psychoanalyst, said Bakker’s hallucinations began Wednesday after a prosecution witness collapsed while being cross-examined.

“Mr. Bakker reported that when he left the courthouse, suddenly people outside took on the form of frightening animals which he felt were intent on destroying him, attacking him and hurting him,” Jackson said. After the witness had collapsed, Bakker, prompted by his attorney, went to the witness’ side, knelt down and began to pray.

The psychiatrist also said that Bakker was suffering from “acute depression” and had “lost the ability to judge and evaluate reality.” Bakker apparently was continuing to hallucinate Thursday morning when he was persuaded not to appear in court because “he was not able to participate in a rational manner in these proceedings.”

Jackson, who testified that he has been treating Bakker for about nine months, was present in court last week, ostensibly to advise Bakker’s attorneys during jury selection.

Federal marshals indicated that psychiatric tests would not be completed before Tuesday or Wednesday. Potter recommended that the tests be conducted at a psychiatric hospital that is part of a federal prison in Butner, N.C., about 140 miles northeast of here.

When he headed the PTL network, Bakker exercised power over millions with his emotional, often tearful, appeals. His sense of drama and staging brought PTL from backwoods obscurity to national and, ultimately, international prominence before the electronic ministry collapsed.

Before he was forced to resign from PTL in 1987, Bakker reigned over Heritage USA, a gigantic theme park, resort and ministry headquarters that included hotels, a shopping center and PTL’s state-of-the-art TV studios and satellite broadcast links. It was Bakker’s need for luxury and television time, the government charges, that led him to divert donations earmarked for construction at Heritage to PTL’s operating expenses and to his own pocket.

Bakker’s current, bargain-basement teleministry, based in Orlando, Fla., is carried by only eight television stations, in contrast to the hundreds that once beamed PTL programming into millions of homes.

The Bakkers’ overall circumstances are a comedown of interstellar proportions, too. And that fall from the heights seems to have put a strain on both. Lately, Tammy Faye Bakker--who has not been present at the trial and who taped a program for broadcast Thursday--has been issuing emotional pleas for contributions to her husband’s legal defense fund, claiming that they owe lawyers about $1 million. At its height, PTL--which means Praise the Lord and People that Love--brought in $100 million a year in donations, defense attorney George T. Davis said in his opening argument.

Bakker’s apparent mental collapse underscores concerns expressed before the trial began here Monday that Bakker was in a fragile state of mind. Moreover, court records, the testimony that had been presented against the television evangelist and his own behavior, indicate that the former high-flying head of PTL is a man who lived grandiose dreams but denied his own nightmares.

In fact, denial or avoidance of hard realities was a Bakker hallmark.

Earlier this week, for instance, Bakker’s former personal assistant David Taggart testified that when Bakker got bad news of any sort he “would turn around and look out” his office window, refusing to respond to the bearer of bad tidings. On the telephone, Bakker’s silences could stretch up to 10 minutes when unwelcome information was passed along, Taggart noted.

As a result, Taggart said, underlings often were afraid to tell Bakker anything negative.

It may be an indication of Bakker’s denial that until just before the trial began, his largest concern was raising money to keep his latest television show on the air, a source close to Bakker said last week.

When the federal grand jury began the investigation that led to his indictment, Bakker called it “a fishing expedition.”

And after he resigned from PTL, broke and in disgrace, Bakker turned up in the Palm Springs area with plans--apparently without any reasonable hope of fruition--for a hotel, golf courses and a religious theme park that would rival PTL’s Heritage USA complex.

Moreover, in a fund-raising letter last year, Tammy Bakker reported that her husband had lain in a fetal position for hours following his resignation from PTL.

Bakker also practiced denial of another sort, according to Taggart, the prosecution’s first witness.

Taggart testified that Bakker sometimes chose to stay ignorant of what was done on his behalf. When he was approached about paying hush-money to cover up his 1980 sexual encounter with former church secretary Jessica Hahn, Bakker refused to discuss the issue at any length, Taggart said.

“Mr. Bakker made the statement he didn’t believe in paying blackmail money but he told (former PTL executive vice president Richard) Dortch to do whatever you have to do,” explained Taggart, who was convicted last month of tax evasion for using cash advances from PTL ministry credit cards to support his own expensive tastes in jewelry and cars.

And although Bakker shied away from his own imbroglios, he was quick to fault others and demand that his whims be fulfilled, according to the prosecution. Bakker once ordered a cook fired at his ministry’s Heritage USA headquarters because he was served a hamburger without mustard, prosecutor Jerry Miller said in his opening statement Monday.

Taggart testified that Bakker once ordered the air-conditioning to be reinstalled in his son’s treehouse at their lakeside home near Heritage USA and demanded an explanation of why it had been removed.

Showed No Anguish

Until his breakdown Wednesday and Thursday, Bakker seemed to be keeping himself in an iron grip. He showed no anguish or regret that he faces up to 120 years in prison and $5 million in fines if convicted of defrauding his followers of millions of dollars. He had been showing up for trial with a smile ready for the cameras and had been attentive during court, making notes and occasionally whispering to his attorneys.

Bakker’s collapse was the third health problem to strike former PTL executives this week.

The witness who collapsed Wednesday, former PTL vice president Steve Nelson, returned to court Thursday, saying “I feel a lot better.”

Earlier, Dortch was admitted to a hospital in Clearwater, Fla., near his home, for an undisclosed ailment. Dortch, who was scheduled to testify for the prosecution, pleaded guilty Aug. 8 to three counts of fraud and one count of conspiracy for his role in the PTL scandal, the irresistible combination of religion, sex and money that produced such cultural artifacts as a violated church secretary turned centerfold, an air-conditioned doghouse and countless jokes about Tammy Faye Bakker’s zealously applied makeup.

Thursday’s eye-popping events were additional icing on what was proving to be one of the biggest--and wackiest--stories of the year.

Every television network, most major newspapers and news magazines, a smattering of the foreign press and a host of local media had staked out the courthouse grounds by the time the trial began in earnest Monday.

And that doesn’t include demonstrators such as the two men in baseball caps carrying signs condemning Bakker to perdition. Or the couple who arrived in a limousine wearing masks of Bakker and Tammy Faye. Or the man and woman hawking “Bible belts,” black cloth belts with small Bibles glued to the buckle.

The circus atmosphere was accented by the weather--unrelenting, oxygen-depleting humidity punctuated by brief bursts of broiling sun and intense thunderstorms. By midweek, many of the television technicians, required to stay outside at all times, were both damp and tan.

Everybody, of course, had come to see--or be part of--another episode in the long-running spectacle of the PTL scandal.

‘Maximum Bob’

Unfortunately, only a few were chosen to enter the cramped 70-seat courtroom where Judge “Maximum Bob” Potter was presiding over Bakker’s trial on 15 counts of wire fraud, eight counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. The charges stem from Bakker’s fund-raising measures while he headed PTL.

What the chosen few had been hearing this week was chapter and verse on how Bakker and his associates raised $158 million from 1984 to 1987 and how Bakker allegedly diverted more than $3.7 million for his own benefit.

Those benefits included such items as a $5,000 Christmas tree, a Florida vacation in a mansion that rented for $10,000 a week and two Cadillacs that cost a total of $57,000--one each for his home near here and for the Bakkers’ house in Palm Springs, one of several homes or condominiums that Bakker once owned. The Bakker family once spent $600,000 on a Florida condominium that Tammy Bakker complained was “nothing but a hotel suite.”

“This case is about cheating people out of their money. This case is about tricking people out of their money,” declared Miller in his opening argument. Miller, a former college football player and Washington, D.C., policeman, is one of two attorneys prosecuting Bakker. The other is Deborah Smith, a former newspaper reporter who once worked for the Justice Department in Alaska.

But Bakker’s attorney, 82-year-old Davis, portrayed his client as the focus of a “lynch mob mentality.” He also maintained that Bakker never had “criminal intent” in selling the partnerships. PTL was “the product of a religious, creative genius,” Davis said, placing the blame on Dortch and Taggart, Bakker’s two closest associates at PTL.

Heart of Government’s Case

The heart of the government’s case is that Bakker raised the money for his many homes, cars and other extravagances largely by selling “lifetime partnerships” in Heritage USA, the theme park and ministry headquarters located in nearby Ft. Mill, S.C. Most of the $1,000 partnerships promised that donors would receive three nights of free lodging annually for the rest of their lives in a Heritage hotel or bunkhouse. Further, the government contends that Bakker knowingly sold more partnerships than could ever be accommodated, a total of 153,000.

The diverted millions were used to support PTL executives’ “lavish and extravagant life styles,” the indictment maintains, alleging that Bakker, his wife and associates received millions in bonuses while keeping the amount of those bonuses--often $100,000 or more--secret.

Despite the charges, a hard core of Bakker support remains, although, before his breakdown, most observers thought Bakker was almost a sure bet to be convicted.

“I’ll be glad when it’s over and Jim is cleared,” said Loretta Mays of Jacksonville, Fla., as she waited in line this week for a courtroom seat with a handful of other Bakker supporters.

“I never had a problem with a reservation,” declared Virginia Mack, also of Jacksonville, referring to her ability to use her $1,000 “lifetime partnership.” “I would do it again,” Mack said, noting that she had purchased three of the partnerships.

However, Bakker has been deserted by some of his closest associates, who also profited handsomely for spreading PTL’s brand of religion.

Richard Dortch and brothers David and PTL interior designer James Taggart are probably prison-bound for their parts in the scandal. All have agreed to testify against Bakker in hopes of leniency.

Damaging Development

By far the most damaging development was the guilty plea last week of Dortch, PTL’s defrocked former executive vice president and mastermind of the hush money payment to Hahn. Dortch was sentenced to eight years imprisonment and fined $200,000--two years and $300,000 less than he might have been fined under the plea agreement. However, if he performs to the prosecution’s satisfaction, that term may be reduced. The Taggarts are to be sentenced Sept. 8.

While there is no way to know absolutely what transpired in the minds of Bakker and his associates, the physical evidence of their ambitions and their downfall lies open for all to see 14 miles south of here in Ft. Mill, S.C.

The Christian theme park, resort, campground and residential development--Heritage USA--that was the launch pad for Bakker’s voyage to the drab, gray federal court building here is still open, in a manner of speaking.

Bakker originally envisioned Heritage partly as a Christian Disneyland or Magic Mountain, an alternative to the “secular theme parks” that were drawing both the faithful and the undevout.

But as his television ministry grew and the money flowed in, his dreams mushroomed. In his final months and days as a big-time televangelist Bakker apparently conceived of Heritage USA’s four square miles as a mini-theocracy, self-contained and sustained by his electronic pipeline to the pocketbooks of his followers.

Plans called for a giant crystal palace containing the “largest church sanctuary in the world,” a 5,000-seat television studio, 100 offices, hundreds of classrooms, altogether capable of accommodating 30,000 people at one time. Nearby a proposed “Crystal Tower” would house one-, two-, and three-bedroom timeshare condominiums.

10 Million Visitors

Heritage USA attracted more than 10 million visitors from its opening in 1978 until PTL declared bankruptcy in 1987, according to the ministry’s own figures.

Now, however, the flow of visitors that sustained these grandiose schemes has dried to a faucet drip. Weeds grow in the cracks between the concrete slabs of the vast, nearly empty parking lot. Weeds also sprout around an uncompleted fairy tale castle with five brass-colored towers; a sixth tower lies tumbled at the edge of the parking lot in tall grass and mounds of dirt.

The castle was meant to be part of Heritage’s amusement park that included a giant water slide, a miniature railroad and an Old West town. Only the waterslide is open, attracting on one recent sweltering day a few hundred children and teen-agers who carried large blue inner tubes to the top of the slide like penitents climbing to a shrine.

The other still-operating portions of Bakker’s former kingdom on earth include a chapel called the Upper Room, the 500-room Heritage Grand Hotel and Main Street Heritage USA, a mall-like array of shops selling fudge, baked goods, toys, Christian art and a combination souvenir, book and music store.

By far the largest, the souvenir shop contains a potpourri of items left over from the Bakkers’ zenith. The records, tapes, books, Bibles, coffee mugs, insulated cups, T-shirts, jackets, post cards, sweat shirts, buttons, baseball caps, ceramic bells, boomerangs, Frisbees, stuffed animals and other items are marked 50% to 75% off their original prices--if not much more. Maps of Heritage USA, formerly $2, are 99 cents each--and the customer gets two maps free. A coffeetable book titled “Jim & Tammy Bakker Present the Ministries of Heritage Village Church,” once priced at $100, is now $5.95.

One end of Main Street opens onto the lobby of the Heritage Grand Hotel, which sports an in-door swimming pool. The smell of chlorine from the pool--which doubles as a baptismal pond--mixes with the strains of Christian music issuing from large speakers on a dais that also holds a grand piano.

A Glaring Symbol

Outside the hotel lobby, the most glaring symbol of Bakker’s downfall stands vacant and boarded up, surrounded by a deteriorating barricade of wooden sawhorses. The 21-story skeleton is the Heritage Grand Towers Hotel. A construction crane still stands in place on the building’s flank, and an overgrown field behind the rusting crane is littered with big bundles of bricks and other building materials.

In the eyes of most, the verdict of the federal jury--if there is one--will determine whether the abandoned hotel, the crumbling castle and the moribund Main Street are the remnants of a grand dream or a seedy scam.