Second Coming

Sitting in Ross Perot's favorite booth at a fancy Dallas restaurant, Leigh Valentine eats half of her low-fat redfish and then explains her husband's "disguise kit." The kit contained several fake moustaches and a $1,200 custom-made wig. Robert Tilton, the Texas televangelist, carried it everywhere, and during their first year of marriage he wore disguises "50 percent of the time," Valentine says.

It's a tale she's told before, under oath in divorce court--the disguise kit, and the nights aboard a yacht in Fort Lauderdale or in various mansions where Tilton would throw her down stairs, slam her against walls, or hurl cordless telephones at her head; how Tilton would drink himself into blind rages and declare he was the Pope, or wake up in the night screaming that "rats were eating his brain."

Valentine, a former Miss Tallahassee, Florida, further explains why Tilton felt compelled to use disguises in 1995 but probably doesn't anymore, and why, despite having spent $6,000 on private detectives in Texas and Florida, she has no idea where her husband is right now.

"We would go to restaurants here in Dallas, and people would give us the finger," she says. "People would scream at us on the street. It was incredible. Bob hated Dallas, and the more he hated Dallas, the more he loved Florida. He said Fort Lauderdale was like his cloak of invisibility. Nobody would ever find him there. No one recognized him. He could wear shorts and Hawaiian shirts all day and do whatever he wanted."

Apropos of nothing, Valentine announces she's "doing a book and movie deal" (working title: The Dark Side of the Cross). Later, over coffee, she says she hopes any story resulting from tonight's interview will ignore her drunk-driving arrest last month, which occurred after she broadsided another motorist at a Dallas intersection.

It would be nice if she were described as 39 years of age instead of 41, she notes. "And call me Leigh Valentine, not Leigh Valentine Tilton," she says. "I don't know how I got myself into this mess. I mean, I'm the daughter of a surgeon. I wish I'd never heard the name Tilton."

Parting words: "Find Bob. I want photos of him. Him and whatever girlfriend he's with. He keeps telling the judge he's broke. He keeps pretending he's changed. Bob Tilton will never change, and he'll definitely never be broke."

If you want to find Robert Tilton these days, a good place to start looking is at a South Florida television studio. While members of Tilton's Dallas church may believe that Tilton has vanished from the face of the Earth or is busy doing God's work in some Third World backwater, he's in fact alive and well and living in South Florida, busily preparing his own resurrection.

Nearly five years have passed since the TV empire that Tilton ran from his Farmers Branch church collapsed under the weight of scandal. But, if you saw him on television during the late '80s or early '90s, you will not have forgotten Robert Tilton. Not the Howdy-Doody dimples, nor the frosted pompadour. Not the bizarre facial contortions, nor the antics. (Tilton once climbed atop his desk to wallow in a pile of viewers' prayer requests; he told his TV audience that he had undergone plastic surgery because ink from those same prayer requests had seeped into his bloodstream and created bags under his eyes.)

At his peak he purchased 5,000 hours of air time per month and appeared in all 235 U.S. television markets. His daily Success-N-Life show reached nearly every television set in North America. Tilton's mass-market ministry pulled in an estimated $80 million per year, and his church drew as many as 5,000 worshippers to Sunday service.

Tilton gleaned the donations by pitching a narrow, well-oiled version of the Pentecostal "prosperity gospel." In exchange for $1,000 "vows" from followers, Tilton promised to lobby God for miraculous improvements in their health and finances. According to one survey, he spent 68 percent of his air time asking for money. "If Jesus Christ were alive today and walking around, he wouldn't want his people driving Volkswagens and living in apartments," explained Tilton, who favored a Jaguar or Mercedes-Benz and lived a lavish private life in mansions in San Diego and Dallas.

Then came November 21, 1991. On that evening, ABC's PrimeTime Live aired the findings of a six-month investigation into the ministries of Tilton and two other local TV preachers, W.V. Grant and Larry Lea.

The segment on Tilton was by far the most damning. At its heart was the accusation that Tilton never saw the vast majority of prayer requests and personal correspondence sent to him by faithful viewers. On the air, Tilton promised to pray over each miracle-request. But on the ground, ABC said it found thousands of those requests and viewers' letters dumped in garbage bins in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Checks, money orders, and in some cases cash, food stamps, and even wedding rings sent by followers had been removed for deposit at a nearby bank.

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Sean Rowe