The Resurrection of Robert Tilton

Dogged by grabby ex-wives and financial scandals, a Texas prophet-for-profit brings his TV act to Miami Beach

Unless you own a satellite dish, you can't see Tilton's show in Miami. You would have to move to Los Angeles, Nashville, Detroit, or Atlanta, where Success-N-Life began airing on various cable channels in April. Three months ago Tilton moved into the New York market and now appears there twice each day.

The new Tilton seems a bit less frisky. Gone are the tantrums aimed at Satan and his minions. His hair is less flamboyant, almost grandfatherly in its salt-and-pepperedness. But some of the recent Success-N-Life segments suggest that Tilton may have broken into a South Florida wardrobe trailer and discovered a trunk of treasures from Miami Vice days -- pastel pants, tropical sport coats. ("He's trying to reach out," says J.C. Joyce. "Suits and ties don't reach out.")

The old studios in Dallas and San Diego were lugubrious dens lined with leather-bound books. The new set looks like a Sunday-school vision of ancient Palestine, complete with Styrofoam "stone" walls and a gurgling fountain. Tilton sits beside the fountain to read samples of viewer prayer requests. Beyond the sound-stage walls, Tremont Towing does a brisk trade in impounded vehicles, while across the street workers are busy building Miami Beach a brand-new Publix. Inside all is peace and tranquillity.

What hasn't changed is Tilton's repetitious message. He quotes a bit of Scripture and speaks in tongues, but mostly he pushes emotional buttons: Cancer. Emphysema. Alcoholism. Credit card addiction. Job layoffs. These ailments can be cured through faith. But faith requires proof, a "vow." To make a vow, preferably of $1000, call the 800 number on the screen. (When a New Times writer called the hotline to seek solace regarding credit card addiction, a telemarketer took less than a minute recording his name, phone number, address, date of birth, and type of ailment, promising to pass the information on to Pastor Bob.)

"When it first came out in April, it was pretty much like a normal religious show," says a source involved in the program's production. "Then after five or ten shows it started to change. [Tilton] pretty much stopped talking about Scriptures. It was just a sales pitch. As a Christian, I find it a little disturbing."

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 Sun Belt construction boom went bust. Within days of sending their last $1000 to Tilton, Rex got a new job and the pair made plans to build a snazzy new suburban home.

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

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 says Tilton and his associates paid cash up-front for a two-year lease on the 50-by-50-foot sound stage and invested at least 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, adding, "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. 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 his attorney J.C. Joyce for fraud, breach of contract, and negligent misrepresentation.

In the lawsuit, her summary dumping is described this way: "Ms. Tilton flew to Fort Lauderdale with two of her children for a short vacation. The events surrounding this family gathering were strange indeed, and the 'holiday' ended at 1:00 a.m. July 5, 1993, with Pastor Tilton announcing that he was leaving Ms. Tilton, and filing for divorce. Pastor Tilton's parting words were: 'Don't ever return to the office or the church.'"

Marte Tilton goes on to call Joyce "diabolical" and "the hub of a master scheme, only recently unearthed, designed to preserve the assets of the ministry to the extent feasible, maintain Joyce's and Pastor Tilton's lucrative incomes, and spirit away the ... church's assets." (At the height of the ministry's success, Joyce's annual retainers from the church ran between $1.3 and $1.7 million, according to court records.) She describes the months following the ABC expose as a "blur" during which Tilton became "depressed and only marginally cognitive" engaged in a "protracted course of infidelity and avarice." She says she also came to believe that Tilton and Joyce had tapped her phone and shadowed her with private detectives.

Joyce, whose other evangelical clients include half a dozen of the nation's wealthiest preachers, including pastors Larry Lea and Don Stewart, calls Marte Tilton's allegations preposterous -- "the colorful product of a lawyer's pen" -- and predicts the lawsuit will be thrown out of court or withdrawn.

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