By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The Reverend Charles Wilkerson fell to the floor at the bottom of the staircase. He clutched his chest and curled into the fetal position. The Eastlake Christian School and Daycare investor and church pastor was having a heart attack. Or so it seemed. Administrators ran down the school hallway to help him.
Wilkerson was under a lot of pressure that day and understandably so. The previous summer he had purchased the 20-year-old elementary school and church building. Before classes started for about 200 children in the elementary school, Wilkerson agreed to take students from a financially ailing Dallas private high school and add grades eight through 12 to Eastlake's existing elementary school and day care. Wilkerson, who claims to have a doctorate and wide experience in school administration, seemed to be a savior.
But things weren't going well. Bills were piling up, and school employees weren't being paid on time. Teachers and administrators were starting to wonder about Wilkerson's much-touted skills. Rumors were flying about how Wilkerson had presided over the failures of other schools in other states and how he claimed to have had a heart attack at the height of another crisis.
Wilkerson denies any truth to the "rumors and innuendo" and says any financial difficulties now and before were not his fault. Previously incurred debts and mismanagement were plaguing Eastlake, he says. On the day last spring that Wilkerson fell in the staircase, he was scheduled to appear before the school board to explain why things appeared to be going so badly.
"Payday was in two days," says a former employee who asked not to be identified. "It was the third payday in a row that we weren't going to get paid. People were very charitable the first time and kind of understanding the second time. The third time people were like, 'No, I need my money.' Everything was falling in on him, caving in on him that day."
With Wilkerson on the floor, teachers and students gathered around.
"His wife was standing beside him not even touching him, not even kneeling down to see if he was OK or anything. His son-in-law showed up," the ex-employee says. "He's walking down the stairs...slowly, casually, with his hands in his pockets."
A witness yelled for someone to call 911, but Wilkerson's wife didn't want that.
"His wife jerked her head around--'Don't call 911. No, he doesn't want you to.' This man is lying in the fetal position. Kristi [Kristin Newton, Wilkerson's daughter] comes out of her office and sees the whole thing, and she is cussing and screaming, 'Shit, dammit, I can't believe this. You people did this to him. You're putting too much damn pressure on him. Look what you've done to him.' She's doing all this in front of the students."
Despite the wife's admonition, someone called 911. But, when the paramedics arrived, there was no Charles Wilkerson.
"The crowd was still standing there. That's how fast he hauled butt up the stairs and went out the side door. The paramedics were standing there. I said, 'Where'd they go?' and his wife said, 'He went home.' I looked at the paramedics. They're looking at me like, 'He was having a heart attack?'...That was the real turning point for me. I was furious because I felt like he put me in a position to where I had to play along with the whole thing."
Wilkerson says he has a history of heart trouble and doesn't know why anyone would think he was faking that day.
"I just lost my breath. I told them not to call 911. I know what it is now. See, I went in and had some tests done here in Dallas and found out what was causing it," he says. "I had what they call bridging, and when I get under stress it causes sinus arrest...Your heart stops, slows down very low."
It was the third purported heart attack the 50-year-old Wilkerson had in the previous decade, according to newspaper stories printed in Wisconsin and Louisiana. The last episode of a serious health problem occurred at the height of a similar financial crisis in Wisconsin. At the time, Wilkerson's son Keith told the Wisconsin State Journal that his father had suffered a "massive" heart attack.
Wilkerson disagrees with that assessment. While he concedes he had "sinus arrest" three times before the incident at Eastlake, in Madison he accidentally overdosed on prescription medicine.
"They were treating me for high blood pressure, and I was suffering from massive depression, and I just overdosed on my medicine," he says. "I don't think it was on purpose, but I did, and I had heart trouble because of that."
As Eastlake teachers, students and members of Wilkerson's congregation began to doubt the authenticity of the heart attack, they also started to doubt any academic and financial miracles would be realized at their school. Promised improvements such as televisions in every classroom and paychecks that would arrive on time didn't happen, Eastlake's longtime and now former head administrator says.
And they wondered about Wilkerson and his family, a group of people who presented themselves at Eastlake as educators with excellent backgrounds in administration. Former staff members who tried to verify the family's educational credentials said it was impossible--mostly because the "credentials" are not recognized in the world of academia, at least not in any traditional sense. They hold bachelor's and master's degrees--Wilkerson has a doctorate--from obscure and unaccredited correspondence schools where you can earn a degree "without stepping on campus," Wilkerson says.