Longform

Second Coming

Page 4 of 7

Intercut with Tilton's sermonizing are "testimonials" in the form of news reports about people who have received miracles after giving money to Tilton. One recent testimonial featured "Rex and Kay," a Dallas couple who lost everything when a Sunbelt construction boom went bust. Within days after sending their last $1,000 to Tilton, Rex got a new job, and the pair made plans to build a new suburban home.

The testimonial, according to its own tagline, was produced by Paul Pettite. Pettite was laid off by Tilton in the early '90s.

Ronald Wishna, who is listed on corporate records as the owner of the Miami Beach studio, declined to discuss Tilton. But another local entertainment industry source said Tilton and his associates paid cash up front for a two-year lease on the 50-by-50-foot soundstage. They invested another $30,000 to transform the building's interior.

"These guys are geared up for real, and they're here to stay," the source says. "They're a real piss to hang out with. They're just good ol' Texas boys. They like to smoke cigars and drink brandy and have a good time on South Beach. But they like to keep a real low profile. Tilton told me once, 'I just want to come here and be left alone.'"

If Tilton is ready for some R&R in the subtropics, it's understandable. Though he dropped off the national radar screen in 1993, the meltdown of his ministry continued.

* In late 1993, Tilton fired, then divorced, his co-pastor and wife of 25 years, Marte Phillips Tilton. For a time the split seemed amicable. Now Marte Tilton is suing her ex-husband and attorney Joyce for fraud, breach of contract, and negligent misrepresentation.

* In March 1994, according to news accounts, police responded to Word of Faith World Outreach Center to quell a disturbance caused by a walkout of congregation members. At issue was Tilton's relationship with leaders of a North Carolina charismatic sect that practices a form of shouted prayer known as "demon blasting." (Demon blasting involves sect members forming "prayer circles" around a child believed to be possessed by demons and shouting at the subject for hours at the top of their lungs.) In sermons, Tilton has credited sect leaders Sam and Jane Whaley with saving his life in 1993 by casting out his own demon. Tilton was introduced to the Whaleys by his second wife, Leigh Valentine, whom he secretly married in the Dominican Republic February 10, 1994.

* In September 1995, Tilton and Leigh Valentine moved into a new $1.6 million home in Addison. Two months later Tilton filed for divorce from Valentine, only to cancel the action. On March 11, 1996, he sued for divorce again.

* On March 16, 1996, after announcing his call to evangelical work in Cuba and the Philippines, Tilton named Chattanooga, Tennessee, preacher Bob Wright as senior associate pastor of the Dallas church. Then he vanished.

When Tilton finally decided to duck and run from Dallas, he did it right. Picking up his trail in South Florida is no small task. There is no telephone listing in his name, either published or unpublished; no property records in Dade, Broward, or Monroe counties; no car registration with the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Corporate records show that Tilton registered his nonprofit Word of Faith World Outreach Center Church Inc. in Florida more than a decade ago, but the registration is inactive. There are a few titillating hints in the Broward County court files: a trio of traffic tickets handed out over the years (one for doing 93 in a 55 m.p.h. zone on Christmas Eve, another for "failure to use due care," and a third this April for driving without registration documents.) Computer research reveals 12 addresses used by Tilton in the last decade, three of them in Fort Lauderdale. But two of those are commercial mail drops, and the last, a $500,000 waterfront vacation home in the Rio Vista, Florida, neighborhood, was sold last year as part of Tilton's divorce settlement with his first wife; ditto for his 38-foot fishing boat.

Where's Bob?
"Not here," says a bartender at a fashionable Fort Lauderdale bistro. "He used to sit outside and drink single-malt Scotch, but we haven't seen him in a few months."

Federal records show that Tilton bought a 50-foot Carver motor yacht last year in Fort Lauderdale for $500,000. In July 1996, he told a judge in Dallas that he was living aboard and making $4,000 monthly payments on the boat, which he named the Liberty Leigh.

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Sean Rowe