The Cult of Ole

Ole Anthony anointed himself the watchdog of America's televangelists. But who was watching Ole Anthony?

It was heady stuff for Anthony--hobnobbing with ABC producers, flying to New York to be interviewed by a reverential Diane Sawyer. The resulting story on Primetime Live was devastating. Lea came off as a liar, Grant a carnie act and Tilton as a callous, greedy bastard who ripped off widows and orphans.

Anthony and crew were mobbed by reporters from all over the world. "We were superstars for being able to do what nobody else could do," Holloway says. Five different law enforcement agencies--the Texas Attorney General's Office, the IRS, the FBI, the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Attorney's Office--announced investigations of Tilton.

Tilton fired back with an hour-long response called Prime Time Lies, which ran for weeks on cable channels all over the country. He accused ABC of distortions and deliberate omissions and attacked Anthony for being jealous and for lying about his background. It was pulled off the air only when Anthony, furious at the attack on his credibility, hired an attorney and threatened to sue the stations.

Ole Anthony (left, in an undated photo) and members of Trinity Foundation lived in community, eating together and sharing their possessions--just like the early Christians.
Ole Anthony (left, in an undated photo) and members of Trinity Foundation lived in community, eating together and sharing their possessions--just like the early Christians.
Women were "preternaturally drawn" to Ole Anthony, one former Trinity member said. "He has a charismatic personality women find utterly fascinating."
Women were "preternaturally drawn" to Ole Anthony, one former Trinity member said. "He has a charismatic personality women find utterly fascinating."

The David vs. Goliath story was irresistible. On camera, the more Tilton shrieked "I was framed!" the more believable the cool Anthony appeared. Another round of publicity accompanied a press conference Anthony called to accuse Tilton of mail fraud and money laundering. His charge was based on a confidential informant for the DEA who claimed the televangelist was shipping currency in crates of Bibles to the Caribbean.

Tilton's ministry collapsed, Grant went to prison on charges of tax evasion and Lea's ministry faded away.

Holloway, Guetzlaff, Duncan and others at Trinity were thrilled. Their mission of monitoring religious charlatans had proven important to the body of Christ. Contributions jumped 33 percent. To continue their work, Anthony acquired a "master" investigator license so Trinity members could be licensed as PIs.

Tips poured in on the hotline. Informants offered dirt on other televangelists. "Every bug in the world came out of the woodwork," Holloway says. "We had women who claimed to have had affairs with televangelists. Some of these ladies needed some serious Prozac." News crews would show up and stay for days.

At first, Larry Ferguson supported the investigations. "In theory it's OK," he says, "but it didn't take long for me to realize it was a travesty on the body of Christ. It brought nothing but rebuke and ridicule. It's horrendous what they [televangelists] do, but to exploit that for notoriety..."

Ultimately Tilton would win all the lawsuits filed by his "victims." Sad stories, yes, but not actionable in court. Despite federal agents crawling all over his operations, Tilton was never charged with a crime. Few media outlets that carried stories about Tilton reported anything when the investigations were dropped.

And few covered what would be revealed about Primetime Live in the next few years. Reams of documents released in discovery, raw ABC footage and depositions would show that producers had edited interviews out of context, distorted facts and omitted information favorable to Tilton. (Glenna Whitley will report on the Tilton investigation in more detail starting Thursday, August 3, on Unfair Park, the Dallas Observer blog. Visit

Holloway was stunned to discover that Anthony and the producers had mixed the trash from various dumpsters. "It was on videotape," says Holloway, "Ole and the producers literally playing with the evidence on B-roll." That made Holloway--who'd testified repeatedly about the accuracy of their evidence log--a potential perjurer.

Now a private investigator in Florida, Holloway credits Anthony for his new career. But after apprenticing under experienced PIs, Holloway realizes the Trinity garbologists got too lucky, finding discarded prayer requests where no Tilton mail had been processed for months, unearthing letters before their corresponding envelopes had reached the mail room and discovering mountains of Tilton trash but only a few pieces from other televangelists, though their mail was processed at the same place.

Had ABC used Anthony and Trinity as dupes, pawns to "discover" the trashed prayers? Or had Trinity fooled ABC? That question was never answered.

Anthony denies any deception, but his misrepresentation of the evidence log prompted Holloway to take a closer look at his leader.

ABC had accused Tilton of manufacturing tears; people were noticing Anthony had the same skill. "I think Ole is a classic sociopath," Larry Ferguson says. "I don't think he knows what real emotions are."

They had trouble pinning him down about his past. Though Anthony made a big deal about living on $80 a week--he got a raise in the '90s--he'd go months without cashing his checks from Trinity. In a 1992 deposition, Anthony admitted he had a $26,000 account at Merrill Lynch. He was getting money from an annuity set up in 1986 after his electrical shock: $600 a month for life plus lump sum payments every five years. Over the last 20 years, he has received more than $200,000. Though Anthony told people the money was in a trust for his mother, that wasn't true at the time of the deposition.

But the biggest issue was the far-fetched stories. Anthony always had a new tale: In addition to being a spy, he'd been a helicopter pilot and crashed when he had a backpacking and survival company in Montana, and he was also in Vietnam setting up nuclear test stations and in Colombia trading coca leaves for intelligence and on and on.

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