How Low Can You Go?

When a Tyler masseuse accused televangelist Garner Ted Armstrong of sexual assault, no one came out smelling like a rose

When news of the lawsuit--and a copy of the scandalous videotape--reached Church of God International, its board of directors scrambled to control the damage. Dozens of ministers in the 6,000-member sect began questioning Armstrong's actions, and most were either disfellowshipped or left the church of their own accord. Armstrong's lawyer, Tom Buchanan of Tyler, says the televangelist resigned from his official church duties on November 11 and will remain on leave until the lawsuit is settled or tried. But Armstrong, who declined to be interviewed for this story, will continue preaching, as well as producing his television ministry--Garner Ted Armstrong, a paid program aired locally on Sunday mornings by Chicago cable channel WGN.

Buchanan says his client does not deny going to Suerae Robertson for a massage--a service for which he expected sexual contact, and for which he expected to pay. "Garner Ted Armstrong is an imperfect man," he says. "Unfortunately, he's done some stupid things, and this is one of them. He's never denied showing bad judgment by going there."

But as unseemly as Armstrong's videotaped behavior may appear, the Robertsons themselves are no Citizens of the Year. Smith County court documents show that their 4 1/2-year marriage, which Royce says ended in divorce after he began an affair with a topless dancer from Dallas who "had a drug problem," was annulled on May 2, 1995. The reason? Suerae had never divorced her previous husband, whom she married in Dallas County. Nor was Suerae, a 49-year-old vocational nurse and grandmother of six, ever licensed by the state as a massage therapist--so her sessions with Armstrong were illegal. There's also the matter of a few bounced checks--totaling about $1,000--which Suerae wrote against her checking account shortly after the alleged assault last summer. She pleaded no contest in Smith County to a misdemeanor theft-by-check charge and received deferred adjudication on the condition that she repay the money.

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Meanwhile, Royce Robertson has been trying to rustle up some business of his own from Armstrong's misfortune. For two consecutive weeks in March, he bought a classified advertisement in the Dallas Observer hawking $29.95 copies of the uncut videotape. The ad read, "TV EVANGELIST CAUGHT IN THE ACT!" And so the alleged assault that Royce claims has so traumatized his ex-wife has now become a marketing tool. "It wasn't a good idea," Royce concedes when confronted about his money-making scheme. "But it was out of total concern for Suerae. It was absolutely out of desperation."

The Robertsons have found little sympathy in Tyler. A local criminal-defense attorney, quaffing a cold Heineken after work at Rick's on the Square, a favorite downtown yuppie bar, offered his own sneering assessment: "It didn't sound like there was anything therapeutic about that massage." To him and many others in this East Texas town of 75,000, the case of the randy preacher and the desperate masseuse shows just how low human beings can go.

Armstrong calls the whole thing a setup, and has accused the Robertsons of being under federal, state, and local investigation for unspecified offenses. (A spokesman at an FBI field office in Tyler says he does not recognize Suerae's name, but--as is the FBI's usual practice--wouldn't comment on whether his office was conducting an investigation. Jack Skeen, Smith County district attorney, says he has no plans to file criminal charges in the case, which the sheriff's office has already "looked into.")

Royce Robertson scarcely seems troubled by using his ex-wife's suffering for his own gain. Meanwhile, Suerae Robertson lives in a virtual fog, claiming she was sexually abused as a child, and now as a grown woman. Emotionally shuffled about by all the men in her life--her former husband, Armstrong, and her lawyers--she seems resigned to her victim status. Armstrong's critics--former CGI ministers and cult-awareness types--are also lying in wait, hoping this lawsuit topples the man from power and crumbles an institution they view as corrupted by greed.

Should Robertson vs. Armstrong ever go to trial, a judge will instruct a Smith County jury to consider only the facts. But no doubt the jurors will be puzzling over the subtext--considering the baser side of human nature--and wondering, how low can you go?

It wasn't hard to fall in love with the house--a stunning, two-story Victorian home on the edge of Tyler's historic Azalea Trail District. It seemed the perfect place to start a day spa, the kind of business Suerae Robertson had long dreamed of building. The house was a stone's throw from some of the city's grandest homes, and the price was right--just $36,000. The Robertsons bought it in 1993.

On a recent spring morning, Royce stood outside the house at 310 S. Fanning, describing its amenities. He and Suerae lived on the second story, which features leaded-glass windows and three fireplaces. The downstairs front entry has a 30-foot ceiling. The only thing the 100-year-old home needed at the time--and still does--is an exterior paint job.

Their plan was to turn the downstairs into a therapeutic massage center, with Suerae--a licensed vocational nurse who worked through a temp agency at hospitals and clinics--serving as its proprietor. But in late 1994, the Robertsons split up, and Suerae stayed on alone in the house. She bought a $1,200 custom-built massage table and opened her doors for business in January 1995 as "Personal Touch Massage." She ran an ad titled "Be Good to Yourself" in a free local paper, and also bought advertising space on the menu of a Tyler restaurant called Bodacious Barbecue.

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