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

One day just rolls into the next for Royce and Suerae Robertson. Neither has held a job for months. Royce says a lawn-maintenance company he owned went belly-up last year when some of his bigger clients fell behind in their payments; his lawn equipment got repossessed, and he has nothing left.

Besides, with Suerae's fragile emotional condition, he's had to become her 24-hour "bodyguard." He spends most of his time driving Suerae in their battered brown Lincoln Continental to appointments with the Tyler psychologist to which her lawyer referred her. The psychologist, who estimates Suerae will need some $80,000 in psychiatric treatment over the next two years, is working on a contingency basis, as is the lawyer.

On May 1, the Robertsons put the Victorian home of their dreams up for sale. The list price is $89,000. "We held out for as long as we could, but we don't have a choice," Royce says. "The expenses we're incurring, I mean that Suerae is incurring, we just can't cover."

Suerae, listening in on a telephone extension, pipes in: "The drug store told me they won't keep filling my prescriptions unless I can pay them something. Whatever money we get from the house will be gone right away."

When Royce isn't propping up Suerae, he can often be found digging through the huge, leather-bound indexes at the Smith County Courthouse, trying to turn up financial information on Armstrong and his business cronies. He calls this work "investigation." Royce knows where all of the Church of God International officers live and what cars they drive.

"That's [CGI business manager] Benny Sharp's white Continental," he points out during a drive through the church's grounds in Flint. "There's Garner Ted's Bronco," he says, cruising past Armstrong's home. "These guys really have some money. Most of 'em have boats, too."

Royce says that, just a year ago, he couldn't have imagined living like he is. "My dad died when I was 15. After that I worked for everything I've ever eaten, worn, lived in, or driven," he says. "I put myself through six years of junior college here in Tyler."

Now he and Suerae live mostly off the kindness of Royce's 83-year-old mother--as well as $48 a month in food stamps. The three of them occupy a tiny wood-frame house with a rutted dirt driveway near Tyler's hospital district. Up until the time they put the Victorian house on the block, they had kept up the mortgage payments on it by leasing it.

Suerae says she sleeps most of the day. She says the alleged assault by Armstrong has dredged up memories of childhood sexual abuse by her male relatives. Six pages of "psychosocial evaluations" Royce carries in his bulging briefcase refer to her eight separate psychiatric hospitalizations and long history of medication: Thorazine at age 12, and later, Prozac, Zoloft, and Xanax for the treatment of depression and panic disorder.

"Suerae appears to be somewhat dependent and views herself as a victim who has been re-victimized repeatedly," according to a Tyler therapist's August 1995 evaluation. Sometimes Suerae tries to tell the story of her "victimization" but seldom finishes it on her own. Royce, it seems--or her attorney--is always there to do it for her.

In Tyler, the gossip about Garner Ted and the masseuse was blazing last fall, but has now burned down to an ember. "Good old Garner Ted, he's just a good ol' boy, and I don't know what to think about her," says a well-known Tyler real-estate broker. "Nobody in this deal smells very good."

Local journalists seem to care little about the story these days. Television reporters at first scrambled to cover the news of the lawsuit--it was, after all, filed the day before Thanksgiving, traditionally a very slow news day. But their interest quickly waned. "People in this town, they're going to leave Garner Ted to himself," says a Tyler TV journalist. "Unless they're affected directly, they'll just look the other way."

Even Armstrong's own lawyer, Tom Buchanan, sounds a little exasperated with both the plaintiff and the defendant in this drama--which continues to devolve into a sort of hillbilly soap opera with one trashy revelation heaped atop another.

Says Buchanan, with a long sigh, "I'll tell you, the people of Tyler are pretty damn fed up with both of them.

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