The Reverend Freak

On judgment day, the bishop's women have all come together in one exquisitely cold place: the 372nd District Court in Fort Worth, where a jury has just agreed on a sentence for the Reverend Terry Hornbuckle.

The 44-year-old pastor has been convicted of drugging and raping three women, two of them former members of his Arlington megachurch. And while a hyperactive air conditioner generates a frigid breeze in the courtroom, a capacity crowd awaits the jury's decision.

The bishop's women are arrayed in various places in state District Judge Scott Wisch's courtroom. There is the wife, Renee Hornbuckle, cocoa-skinned and immaculately finished in a brown pantsuit, who stares an empty stare at her husband, a man known to many of his congregants simply as Bishop.

The bishop wears a tailored suit with a thigh-length jacket, the sort he'd choose for any occasion in the spotlight. For 20 years, he sat beside his wife on a church stage, enthroned like a king with his queen. She was the delicate ornament on display, he was the dark-skinned, street-talking black preacher of humble southern Dallas origins whose charisma landed him in a world of money, minor celebrity and access to the occasional Dallas Cowboy.

To this world he later added the ingredients of sex--with scores of women, judging by the accounts of former church members--and drugs. Today it is about to come crashing down.

Renee sits literally at the bishop's right hand, two rows back. She brings a little purple pillow to cushion her on the wooden bench reserved for the defendant's family. She has sat in precisely the same spot every day through the five-week trial, expressionless behind mirrored glasses. In her hands is a small, green leather-bound Bible with an inscription in tiny gold italics: "Pastor Renee Hornbuckle." She makes no statements to the gathered media; all she's been heard to say is an occasional under-the-breath comment--"I'm gonna need some No-Doz to stay awake through this thing." Mirrored glasses and the Word: These are her shields against an outside world that desperately wants to know why she continues to stand by her man.

Beside her are her "armor-bearers." In black church tradition, these are the men and women who faithfully attend to a minister's personal needs. They include her bodyguard, a man who never takes out his Bluetooth earpiece, and two plus-sized fashion plates who've spent every day of this trial at her side.

Then there is the girlfriend. There is no guaranteed seat for her behind the bishop; she sits in the back row of the courtroom, with her own posse of fashion-conscious female friends standing by in support. With coffee-colored skin and a voluminous head of spiral curls, the girlfriend is not welcome on the family bench. She exchanges the occasional icy look with Renee.

Then there are the women Hornbuckle raped. The little red "Reserved" sign on the victims' bench doesn't specify who's supposed to sit there, but it is easy to see that Kate Jones--her pseudonym for this trial--sees not a man of God at the defense table, but a devil. The dishwater blonde, a former drug user, wears a plain, cream-colored sweater and carries a cheap purse. She stares intently at the back of Hornbuckle's head as if she is trying to force this man to bear her rage. She is the only one of the three rape victims at this trial who was not a member of Agape Christian Fellowship, Hornbuckle's church. The preacher picked her up at a gym in the Mid-Cities, smoked meth with her, drugged her and then raped her. Hornbuckle's defense attorney derided her as a "meth ho."

The defense can't come up with any such label for Krystal Buchanan, who never knew Hornbuckle as anything but her pastor. Sitting next to Kate Jones in a smart black jacket, Buchanan's mother, Loretta Sheppard, takes her daughter's place on the victims' bench while Krystal is away coaching a community college basketball team.

Hornbuckle lured Krystal to a Euless apartment in the summer of 2003 with the promise of a birthday present. He gave her $120. He also drugged and raped her. Before that night, she told the court, she was a virgin. Why did she accompany him in the first place? Her plaintive answer: "He was my bishop."

Last, there are current and former Agape parishioners, mostly women, both supporters and detractors of the bishop, who've scrambled for open seats every day in this courtroom.

The loyal wife, the sexy girlfriend, the meth user, the former virgin and the divided congregation were never meant to come together in one place. It is a surreal tableau on sentencing day in the Terry Hornbuckle case, August 28. Newspapers and television have covered each day of this seamy trial, though a significant chunk of the material presented to the jury is not fit to print in a family newspaper. What is missing from the blanket coverage is any sense of why: Why Bishop Terry Hornbuckle made this descent from man of God to meth-smoking rapist. Why many of his congregation members stood by him. Why his wife put up with him when his indiscretions were widely known within the church.