How Low Can You Go?
The man at the pulpit with the mass of neatly coiffed silver hair is speaking of sin and redemption, pleading with his flock to forgive him his very human frailties. "No one is free from sin," he says. His eyes have filled with tears.
The camera lens zooms in, and the man, his voice quavering, continues in a near-whisper: "I let down my armor. I let down my dear wife of 42 years." Then, after a dramatic two-second pause, he thunders, "But I tell you--and with sodium pentothal in my veins--I have never sexually assaulted a woman in my life."
The man is Garner Ted Armstrong, a televangelist and founder of Church of God International, a Christian sect headquartered on the lush shores of Lake Palestine in Flint, Texas. In his first public admission of a colossal moral lapse six months earlier, the 66-year-old Armstrong does not offer his followers the tawdry details--the local TV stations and Inside Edition had already done that quite well. Instead, he tiptoes around the specifics, saying, "By now, you've probably heard or read the stories."
It's gut-wrenching, this routine of coming clean in public--pioneered by fellow televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. Confronted with these bare emotions and seeming remorse, the members of Armstrong's flock can do little but extend their forgiveness. There are those, of course, who remain unwilling to pardon the fallen leader. And they have been busy ever since that January 26 evening, floating copies of the videotaped sermon around the world.
Just 10 minutes northeast of Flint, in a tiny frame home in Tyler, Royce Robertson is gearing up for another day of what he calls his "investigation" of Garner Ted Armstrong, the Church of God International, and its business dealings. Robertson, 38 years old and pudgy, his thinning brown hair pulled back into a flimsy ponytail, keeps a copy of the minister's weepy confessional in a bulging nylon briefcase along with an entire arsenal against Armstrong and CGI--several thick folders of legal documents, tax and real-estate records, and magazine articles, including a particularly salacious Hustler profile that detailed the sexual escapades and financial questions leading to Armstrong's 1978 ouster from Worldwide Church of God, the sect his father, Herbert W. Armstrong, founded in 1934.
Also stuffed inside the briefcase is the most lethal weapon of all--or so Robertson thinks. It is a grainy, 43-minute videotape of his ex-wife, Suerae Robertson, massaging a naked Garner Ted Armstrong at her Tyler salon on July 15, 1995. With recordings of big-band tunes playing softly in the background, a tattooed Armstrong is seen masturbating on a massage table as Suerae, dressed in baggy surgical scrubs, lightly flicks her oiled fingers along his arms, back, buttocks, and between his thighs. About 15 minutes into the tape, Armstrong makes one of many clumsy grabs at Suerae's breasts and gropes at her crotch. She makes several weak attempts to pull away and politely protests his behavior, but not once tells him to leave. Suerae never actually touches Armstrong's genitals, but at one point she pumps massage oil from a nearby dispenser into his hands, allowing him to do the work himself. He moans and begs her to "give me some relief."
Despite its seamy content--and the ambiguous role played by his ex-wife--Royce Robertson insists the videotape has a noble purpose. It will help prove Suerae's claim that the televangelist is a "rapist."
Just 11 days before the Robertsons videotaped Armstrong with a hidden camera, Suerae alleges that the televangelist, who had been a regular client at her south Tyler massage business, violently pulled her head down during a massage session and forced her to perform oral sex on him. She claims that he bit her breasts, leaving teeth marks on her skin, and grabbed her arms so hard he left bruises.
Suerae, however, did not report the incident to Tyler police. Instead, on Royce's advice, she contacted a friend who is a private investigator. He referred them to an attorney, Royce says, who advised them to sue Armstrong--and secretly tape him the next time he visited Suerae. "We had to have solid evidence of sexual assault," Royce says. "And Suerae was told she had to let him go absolutely as far as she could possibly stand, and without provocation, so that when we go into court the evidence will hold up."
The two Tyler television stations blitzed the city last November 22 with the tale of the minister and the masseuse. Earlier that day, Houston attorney John Osborne had filed a civil lawsuit on Suerae's behalf against Armstrong and Church of God International. The case, filed in 7th state District Court in Smith County, accuses Armstrong of sexual assault and battery, and accuses the church of negligence for allowing Armstrong, who has a "well-documented history of sexual indiscretions which were well-publicized throughout the theologian [sic] community," to continue in his leadership position. The suit seeks unspecified damages, with Suerae claiming that Armstrong's actions have caused her severe emotional distress and mental anguish. Earlier this year, state District Judge Cynthia Kent issued a summary judgment in the case, dropping the church as a defendant. A disappointed Osborne--the church has by far the deeper pockets, he says--is appealing the judge's decision.
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.
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.
Suerae says she didn't then know her LVN license would not allow her to perform massages at her business. In her native Indiana, where she attended nursing school, the state allows nurses also to do massage, she says. A state cosmetology-licensing official in Indiana confirmed the state does not license or regulate massage therapists or massage businesses.
"I called the LVN licensing people in Austin and asked them if my license would be enough for me to do massage, and the lady I talked to said yes," Suerae says. (A spokesman for the Texas Board of Vocational Nurses licensing department says he does not recall the case, but adds, "The law is very clear on who can do therapeutic massage, and LVNs can't without the proper license. It's highly unlikely one of our people would get that wrong.")
In an effort to keep the massage business legitimate and to control illicit sexual activity, the Texas Legislature has mandated strict licensing regulations for therapists and schools that teach massage. The Massage Therapy Registration Department--a division of the state Department of Health in place since 1992--monitors the industry. State law requires a registered massage therapist to have a minimum of 300 hours of basic massage-therapy training, with specific instruction in anatomy, physiology, hygiene, hydrotherapy, and other aspects of massage, according to Leslie Green, a department administrator. Therapist candidates must also practice for 50 hours as interns. Once they finish their training, they receive a six-month temporary license that allows them to work until they pass a board exam in Austin for a permanent license. Licenses must be renewed yearly, Green says.
Beyond the individual therapist's license, a massage business must also be licensed, and comply with state health and safety codes.
Suerae Robertson, records show, had satisfied none of the training requirements, and had acquired no licenses. "I did a lot of deep-tissue massage as a nurse, and I was able to do it in Indiana," she explains. "I honestly didn't know I was doing something wrong."
But she does acknowledge that Kelly Page, a state health-department investigator, made the law abundantly clear to her in June 1995, when Page cited Suerae for working and advertising as a massage therapist without possessing a license. Page had investigated after receiving a complaint about the business. Suerae pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor charges before Smith County Justice of the Peace Quincy Beavers Jr. on December 14, 1995. Beavers fined her $200.
After her run-in with the law, Suerae planned to play by the rules. She expanded the services at her business to include hydrotherapy, cosmetology, and a snack and juice bar. She hired Arvilla Bateman, a registered massage therapist. Bateman, who now works as a massage therapist at a Tyler beauty salon, declined to discuss her former job or association with Suerae. And Suerae says she herself stopped doing massages--except for Armstrong, who "insisted" on having her for the job.
Suerae changed the name of her salon to "Victorian Hospitality Spa." She says she kept regular business hours--Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Occasionally she stayed open one night a week until 8, she says, but by appointment only. "Suerae was building up a steady clientele, people with back problems or who had been in accidents and needed regular massage," Royce says.
In May 1995--her best month, Suerae says--"I probably made about $1,500." The Robertsons provided the Observer with the names of some former clients who did not return telephone calls.
On March 31, 1995, Garner Ted Armstrong, responding to one of Suerae's newspaper ads, called the spa for an appointment. According to Suerae's lawsuit, Armstrong said he needed massage therapy because he "spent long hours driving in his automobile," and that his lower back and groin area were particular trouble spots.
As Suerae told the story of her relationship with Armstrong, she sat in a chair at the Observer office, kneading her hands, glancing every few seconds at Royce, who sat five feet away. Her voice was as flat as pavement. "I had no idea who Garner Ted Armstrong was," she said. Although she had lived in Tyler for nearly five years, and although Armstrong is well-known in the region, she added, "I'm not a churchgoing person, and his name didn't mean a thing to me."
She conceded, though, that once he walked into her teal-colored massage room, Armstrong's requests were, well, kind of bizarre. He insisted on being totally nude during the massage--except for his dress socks. "He couldn't stand to have his feet touched," Suerae recalled. According to Suerae's court pleadings, Armstrong also insisted on a "nondeep-tissue massage," and that Suerae "concentrate her therapy on the area of his groin, lower back, inner thigh, and buttocks because of the stiffness he purportedly felt from his driving."
That initial appointment led to regular, twice-monthly sessions with Suerae, who conducted the massages even though she knew she was breaking the law by performing them without a license. She says she informed Armstrong about the law and suggested he visit Bateman, the licensed therapist she'd hired.
"But he insisted I was the only one who could work with him," Suerae explained. "He said that getting a massage is something like going to a doctor. You trust a doctor you've been with for a while, and you're real skeptical about going to a new doctor.
"All I can say is the 'Nancy Nurse' in me came through. He was complaining of this severe pain, and he was literally begging me to do the massage."
Suerae, dressed in a purple jogging suit, shifted her gaze to the floor. "I am a classic co-dependent," she said blankly, shrugging her shoulders. "Royce has always told me I could get bit by a dog, the dog could run across the street and get hit by a car, and I'd run across the street with a bloody leg to save the dog."
As Armstrong's massage sessions with Suerae continued throughout June 1995, he grew ever bolder, according to court documents. "Armstrong would begin to fondle his genitals and try to place plaintiff's hands on his genitals while he would 'minister' to the plaintiff," the lawsuit says. "His tattoos, including that of a naked woman on his body, would greatly frighten her."
Suerae said she would abruptly end the sessions when Armstrong got aggressive. But, her lawsuit states, "Armstrong would be extremely apologetic, make reference to his similarity to King David" (with whom Suerae says Armstrong compared himself frequently, saying that his work on earth was so important that God would overlook any transgressions he might commit), and beg Suerae to continue. The massages would then conclude without further incident, and she continued booking his appointments.
By early summer, Suerae recalled, she was beginning to understand who Armstrong was. He preached and "counseled" her about her separation from Royce. He urged her to join Church of God International. She said he discussed his ministry and television show, and outlined the tenets of his sect, including a commandment that members pay a tithe of 30 percent of their income. The tithe, he told her, is required to attain salvation.
Despite his clearly sexual behavior, Suerae never stood up to Armstrong, never barred him from her business. He returned again and again.
If the boundaries of propriety at Suerae's spa seemed fuzzy to the preacher, it's because they were.
What Suerae would eventually discover--largely through Royce's research--was that Armstrong had a rather checkered past of his own.
Garner Ted Armstrong was 4 years old when in 1934 his father, Herbert W. Armstrong, secured time on a radio station in Eugene, Oregon, and founded the Radio Church of God. The elder Armstrong spent much of his broadcast time engaging in prophecy, predicting the imminent--and gruesome--end of the world to be followed by Christ's Second Coming. He also started a hugely successful magazine, The Plain Truth, to help spread his faith's unique, unorthodox beliefs. The church, for instance, deviated from most Christian denominations in its observation of a Saturday Sabbath--and its denunciation of Christmas and Easter as pagan holidays, which should not be celebrated. Church members also observed Kosher dietary laws.
Herbert Armstrong, who died in 1986 at the age of 93, also believed in British-Israelism--the notion that modern Anglo-Saxons are the lineal descendants of the lost 10 tribes of Israel. His church also denied the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity--thereby setting it apart from traditional Christianity.
Garner Ted had just graduated from high school when his father moved the church's headquarters to Pasadena, California. He was--according to various biographies--slow to accept his father's beliefs. In 1948, Garner Ted joined the Navy and served for four years. Afterward, he enrolled in the school his father had founded--Ambassador College, in Pasadena (the school is now Ambassador University, and is located just north of Tyler in Big Sandy, Texas), and was finally baptized into the church. He married Shirley Hammer in 1953, and they became the parents of three sons: Matthew, Mark, and David.
In 1968, Herbert changed the name of his organization to Worldwide Church of God. He had also extended his evangelistic reach internationally through a popular television broadcast, The World Tomorrow, which fascinated viewers with gloom-and-doom predictions of the Apocalypse. At the apex of its growth in the early '70s, Worldwide counted 105,000 members, and The Plain Truth magazine boasted a circulation of 2.6 million.
Throughout the '60s, Garner Ted labored under his father's tutelage. He rose to executive vice president of Worldwide, and was lauded for his charismatic on-air presence as host of The World Tomorrow. But in 1972, a rift between Herbert and Garner Ted led to the younger Armstrong's exile from the church for several months. Though a repentant Garner Ted later returned to the fold, by 1974 the word was out among Worldwide ministers: Garner Ted was alleged to have squandered church money, openly disputed his father's teachings, and engaged in sexual misconduct with women church members during a period of several years. Former ministers and church members have maintained the allegations for years in news articles and also in affidavits for Suerae Robertson's lawsuit.
The revelations led to a mass defection of disenchanted ministers, many of whom started offshoots of Worldwide Church of God. Garner Ted himself was excommunicated in 1978. Shortly afterward, he moved to Tyler, and started Church of God International. A handful of Worldwide members went with him, and have remained his loyal friends and board members for years, including vice president Charles Groce and business manager Benny Sharp.
When the news of Suerae Robertson's lawsuit broke last year, some 36 ministers in CGI either left the church of their own accord or were disfellowshipped for criticizing Armstrong's role in the scandal, says Lin Stuhlman, founder of the Exit and Support Network in Hamden, Connecticut. The network, says ex-CGI member Stuhlman, offers support for people who are trying to leave "Bible-based organizations that are deceptive," and also investigates those groups. Stuhlman stresses she is not a "cult deprogrammer," and that her organization doesn't "go sneaking around trying to pull people out of cults. Everything we do is aboveboard."
Network members--most of whom have been associated with the 80 or so splinter groups of what Stuhlman calls the "Church of God conglomerate"--communicate largely via the Internet. For the last several months, much of the online buzz has focused on Armstrong and his sexual indiscretions. Several ministers who have left CGI contacted John Osborne, Suerae's attorney, and offered affidavits against Armstrong, swearing to their knowledge of his long history of sexual misconduct. None of these ministers returned phone calls from the Observer.
In February of this year, Fred Coulter of Hollister, California, filed an affidavit in state District Court in Smith County stating that while working as a minister in the Worldwide Church of God from 1965 to 1979, he had "personal knowledge that while Armstrong was a minister with Worldwide Church of God, Armstrong had a reputation for repeated sexual indiscretions with female members of the church. It was well known by many in the ministry [of the church] that Armstrong had a reputation for visiting massage parlors. I had personal knowledge that Armstrong was disfellowshipped from the church as a result of his sexual indiscretions." Coulter is no longer a member of the church, according to his affidavit.
Another affidavit, filed by North Carolina resident John Tuit, a former member of both Worldwide Church and Church of God International, states that "Church of God International condoned [Armstrong's] sexual indiscretions by consciously ignoring Armstrong's repeated indiscretions.
"In fact, I had a conversation with an agent for the Church of God International, Benny L. Sharp," the affidavit continues. "Mr. Sharp stated directly to me that 'so what if Ted screwed some girls.'"
Members of the Exit and Support Network see the Robertson lawsuit as their first real opportunity to determine the extent of Armstrong and his church's wealth. Because the church is tax-exempt, little public information is available about its finances. Armstrong operates what he calls a dual ministry--the church itself, and the Garner Ted Armstrong Evangelistic Association, his TV ministry, which airs in 40 markets nationally.
CGI business manager Sharp declined to discuss the church's finances for this story, but says, "There's no question this lawsuit has hurt our donations. I can't give you a figure." Likewise, Armstrong's attorney, Tom Buchanan, refused to discuss the church's income.
But real-estate records show the church and its various high-ranking members have outright or partial ownership in several prime pieces of property in East Texas. Armstrong's main residence is in the private, gated community of Emerald Bay on Lake Palestine. The home, at 175 S. Bay Drive, is modest by Dallas standards--a tan brick contemporary on a hill overlooking the bay, appraised in 1996 at $159,600. The Church of God International headquarters, consisting of a few brick buildings, some small wood dormitories, and a vast, prefabricated building that serves as a church, sits on a tranquil and shaded chunk of property on State Highway 155 in Flint, also on Lake Palestine. Smith County records show the land is assessed at $585,000.
On November 23, 1995, the day Osborne filed Suerae Robertson's suit, Armstrong faxed a signed, two-paragraph statement to local media. "The allegations of sexual assault are totally false," he wrote. "The people making these accusations against me are under investigation by federal, state, and local authorities."
Attorney Tom Buchanan says that "Mr. Armstrong is an easy target because of his fame and ability to be recognized. But Mr. Armstrong just doesn't have a whole lot of money. The plaintiff is under the impression that he has millions. And they've tried to come after the church, too. Unfortunately, churches have been fair game for this kind of thing for a long time now. The Catholic Church, the YMCA have been sued for the alleged actions of their priests and employees.
"In this case, it is an absolute setup."
Business had been good throughout the early summer of 1995 at the Victorian Hospitality Spa, but Suerae was planning for some "dead time" from the Fourth of July onward. So it surprised her to get an early-morning phone call from Garner Ted Armstrong on Independence Day.
He said he had just finished a long driving trip, and was complaining of the usual pain in his back and groin. He asked if he could come by for a massage. His speech, she says, was slurred.
"I told him we were closed for the holiday, and that everyone was off. I told him Arvilla was the only one who could legally do massage, and she was off for the holiday," Suerae says. But Armstrong persisted, and once again, "Nancy Nurse" surfaced. "I just can't stand to see people suffer," she says.
Armstrong arrived around 9 a.m. and went into the dressing room next to the massage room. When Suerae entered, according to court records, Armstrong was naked and lying on the massage table. "Immediately, Armstrong's actions were more aggressive than any of his previous therapy sessions," the lawsuit states. "Armstrong began to fondle his own genitals and wanted the plaintiff to rub massage oil on his penis. Plaintiff declined but became extremely frightened when she discovered the smell of alcohol on Armstrong's breath."
Suerae claims she tried to leave the room, but that Armstrong grabbed her and refused to let her go. Over the next several minutes, she says, Armstrong grabbed her breasts, bit her nipples, and finally forced her mouth onto his penis.
Shortly after the oral-sex episode, according to the lawsuit, "plaintiff broke free of Armstrong and ran and hid from him. Upon returning a short time later, [she] discovered the defendant had left, but had left a sum of money."
Forty dollars, to be exact.
When Suerae tells this story, she fidgets in her chair and her voice trails off. Royce picks up the story from there, and expertly supplies the remaining details.
Just one month before the July 4 incident, he says, the couple had decided to try and reconcile. So it was no surprise that Royce was the first person Suerae called after Armstrong left her business that day.
The Robertsons did not call the police or a rape-crisis line because, Royce says, "the Tyler police are just a bunch of good ol' boys, and they wouldn't believe us." Instead, they called a private-investigator friend who lived in Oklahoma City. The investigator referred them to an attorney there, who, they say, also advised them against reporting the incident to police. He did tell them, however, that since Armstrong was likely to return, they should videotape the next session as "evidence" for a lawsuit.
On July 15, the day Armstrong returned for an appointment, Royce hid a video camera inside a wall clock in Suerae's massage room. From an upstairs bedroom, Royce watched the situation on a video monitor. "I was close enough to get there quick if anything turned the least bit violent," he says.
The 43-minute, black-and-white tape--of which 300 copies are now floating around worldwide, thanks to Royce's entrepreneurship--begins with Suerae walking into the massage room, dragging on a cigarette as she throws a sheet over the massage table. A nude Armstrong then walks in. The two embrace--"though very lightly," Royce says. Then Suerae snuffs out her cigarette in an ashtray on the corner of a nearby hot tub, and Armstrong lies face down on the table.
The rectangular table is not like the ones most registered massage therapists use in their work. It splits apart in the middle, where, Suerae explains, "men can, you know, sort of hang," and can also split into an upside-down V, on which the client's legs are extended. On the tape, Suerae stands inside the V, between Armstrong's spread legs. During the next 43 minutes, she performs a feather-light massage on the minister as he masturbates, grabs her breasts, and tries to pull her on top of him.
The sound of their voices is largely drowned out by the incessant ticking of the wall clock and a tape of big-band music. "Autumn Leaves" is playing about 15 minutes into the tape, as Armstrong tries to pull Suerae's hands to his genitals. When she says, "That's not part of the massage," he lets go. At 42 minutes, Suerae leaves the room, and Armstrong then walks out of camera range. A low moan is heard off-camera. The final scene is of Armstrong walking back into view, dressed in double-knit pants and a sweater. There's a little lift in his step, and he is singing along with the Andrews Sisters: "Don't sit under the apple tree/With anyone else but me/Anyone else but me.../Till I come marching home."
When Sterling Mansoori, director of the Sterling Health Center, a licensed massage-therapy school in Addison, saw the tape recently, he called Suerae's technique "completely inappropriate for therapeutic massage." As for the masturbation and groping on Armstrong's part, Mansoori says, "A therapist who wants to keep her license would never allow anything like that."
Attorney John Osborne says people who would judge Suerae should understand that "she was living alone, trying to make an income during her divorce. It's easy for them to say she should have just kicked the guy out, but the mortgage payment came due. She needed to pay bills. She needed to work."
The tape will buttress Suerae's claim of a sexual assault on July 4, Osborne says. And the charge by Armstrong's attorney and his closest advisors that the tape and the lawsuit are merely a setup sends Osborne into a fury. "Whether they think he was set up or not, he chose to do what he did, and his actions were completely inappropriate for a husband, a father, a businessman, and a minister. I doubt you could trick Billy Graham into doing something like that."
Osborne adds he is likely to depose other Tyler massage therapists who can corroborate Suerae's claims. One witness may be Mary Irby, owner of Mary Irby and Company, a Tyler beauty salon and day spa that caters to the city's toniest clients. Shortly after Suerae's lawsuit was filed, Irby gave an on-camera interview to KETK, a Tyler television station, saying that prior to the incident at Suerae's business, Irby had banned Armstrong from her salon because two massage therapists had reported that he had acted inappropriately toward them. On the advice of her attorney--who initially asked if the Observer would be willing to "compensate" Irby for her information--Irby declined to be interviewed for this story.
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.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.