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From the Tulsa World

Robert Tilton: From downfall to windfall: Living on a prayer
By ZIVA BRANSTETTER World Projects Editor

Under construction
Work continues on a home being built by Robert Tilton’s company, Venetian Way Holdings Inc., at 1350 S. Venetian Way on the island front of Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach, Fla. Building permits, which list Tilton as the owner, have been issued for a two-story home with a tile roof, pool, spa and terraced deck.
DAVID ADAME / Tulsa World

Below: Recent mailings from Robert Tilton include a large poster of himself praying, prayer cloths, fake currency and appeals for money.
TOM GILBERT / Tulsa World

Bottom: Robert Tilton’s company, Venetian Way Holdings Inc., purchased this lot in 2001 for $1.39 million. Tilton is building a two-story home on the property, records show.
DAVID ADAME / Tulsa World

Tilton's ministry reaching out again, raking in millions

More than 10 years after his ministry collapsed in scandal, Robert Tilton is reaching millions of television viewers with his pitches for money, living comfortably in south Florida and maintaining a connection with Tulsa.

Far from shrinking into obscurity, Tilton is reaping millions from his mailing list and daily shows on Black Entertainment Television. He has formed two companies, bought a 50-foot yacht and purchased a $1.3 million piece of oceanfront property in Miami Beach through his company, records show.

And although Tilton's downfall began when prayer requests sent to him were thrown away in Tulsa trash Dumpsters, prayer requests sent to his Tulsa post office box two years ago were apparently still being discarded. A woman who spent two days opening mail to Tilton told the Tulsa World that she and other workers were instructed to remove the cash and checks and throw away the letters and prayer requests written to Tilton.

Tilton did not return calls seeking comment. In a letter to the Tulsa World, he wrote: "For years, we have taken great care to assure that all prayer requests are delivered to me personally and prayed over by me. Written instructions are always given with each communication by this ministry to ensure that prayer requests are to come to me personally."

James Ferris, a Tulsa attorney who has helped Tilton set up several business ventures, declined to answer questions regarding Tilton:

"I'm not a very good PR person, and you know how lawyers are about confidentialities. I'm not sure how much I could tell you. Everything I would have to say about the ministry would be good, of course."

Tulsa attorney Gary Richardson filed several lawsuits against Tilton on behalf of people who had filmed testimonials or donated money to Tilton. One of the suits resulted in a $1.5 million verdict against Tilton but was reversed on appeal.

"He's a great communicator and very effective at touching people in their emotions and motivating them," Richardson said. "He's an enjoyable person to be around, but you just want to keep your hands on your pocketbook."

Richardson said Tilton's followers are often in desperate situations.

"The people that these guys so often attract are people that are going under for the third time. If you looked up and saw a straw on the surface of that water, you would still reach for the straw."

Brain-eating rats

In 1991, ABC-TV's "PrimeTime Live" program reported that Tilton's Word of Faith World Outreach Center Church, then based in Dallas, was making $80 million a year from followers through its direct mail campaign. At the time, Tilton's television show, "Success-N-Life," was broadcast by 200 stations nationwide and his church claimed 10,000 members.

"PrimeTime Live" suggested Tilton's ministry engaged in mail fraud and showed contributors' letters, many of them requests for help, in a trash Dumpster outside Commercial Bank of Tulsa. A Tulsa recycler said he also found thousands of prayer requests for Tilton's ministry among the waste sent to him by a company that handled Tilton's mail.

The program sparked an investigation by the Texas attorney general and numerous lawsuits. Stations canceled Tilton's television program until it eventually went off the air.

He divorced his first wife, Marte Tilton, in 1993, and married evangelist and former beauty queen Leigh Valentine the following year.

Two years later, his first wife sued for more than $1 million and his marriage to Valentine ended in a bitter public feud. Valentine alleged Tilton, in a drunken rage, verbally abused her, claimed he was the pope and thought rats were eating his brain. She eventually lost her claim to church assets.

Tilton has since married a Florida woman, Maria Rodriguez.

Tilton sold his Dallas church in 1999 for $6.1 million. At the time, headlines dubbed Tilton a "beleaguered TV preacher" and news coverage portrayed a man beset by marital and financial problems. But he was already well into his comeback.

During testimony in his divorce from Valentine, Tilton testified that he was bringing in about $800,000 per month and living aboard a $450,000 yacht in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Records show the 50-foot yacht, named the Liberty Leigh, was registered to Tilton.

Tilton returned to the air in 1997, buying time on independent television stations in several large cities. The following year, his program began airing on Black Entertainment Television.

Tilton's show airs on the network for one hour each morning at 3 a.m, as well as 6:30 a.m. on Mondays and 10 p.m. Sundays. The network said it has a potential audience of 74 million homes, although it had no figures on individual viewership of Tilton's show.

Ole Anthony, the founder of the religious watchdog group the Trinity Foundation, said Tilton pays $50,000 per month for the air time. The foundation, based in Dallas, was largely responsible for exposing Tilton's practices in 1991.

Anthony estimates that Tilton's ministry is grossing $24 million a year and that most of his shows are reruns or repackaged versions of older shows.

"With no production costs, a fraction of his former TV time budget, his net must rival that of the good old days with absolutely no effort on his part," Anthony said.

"The purpose of all of it, including the prayer line, is to get names and addresses, which are the key to successful direct mail."

Tilton's Miami, Fla., studio has an ancient Rome theme, complete with faux stone pillars and vine-covered walls, piles of faux boulders, urns and other artifacts.

The shows feature testimonials from working-class people who say they experienced a financial turnaround after giving hundreds or even thousands to Tilton. During one recently aired show, Tilton, clad in a tailored brown suit, urges viewers to make a financial "vow" to his ministry even if they are in debt.

"Anyone can give when things look good, but when you give out of want, when things don't look good . . . it releases faith," he says.

Tilton exhorts viewers toward the end of his show to make a $1,000 vow because "my God is going to supply your need.

"Thank God we have freedom of religion in America, that I can boldly proclaim these powerful truths to you."

As the show continues, Tilton reads the names and hometowns of viewers who have called to pledge money. At the end of the program, a gospel singer performs while Tilton sits at an imposing stone desk nearby. Tilton gleefully claps his hands as an assistant hands him stacks of yellow pledge sheets.

Those who call a toll-free number broadcast on his show and give their address are placed on the ministry's mailing list. They receive two or three mailings from Tilton each month.

Tilton's mailings promise a financial windfall from God if the recipient will only donate to his ministry. Some letters request specific amounts, such as $200. Many mailings contain trinkets such as packets of anointing oil, miracle bracelets, prayer cloths and large posters of Tilton grimacing in prayer.

The mailings request that do nations and prayer requests be sent to a Tulsa post office box.

Two years ago, employees who opened the mail were instructed to remove the money and throw out the letters and prayer requests, according to a Tulsa woman. Patricia Morrow said she worked for Mail Services Inc. for two days in 2001, opening letters addressed to "Rev. Tilton" and taking out the cash.

Morrow, 63, said she got the job through an employment agency. Morrow said she worked for two days in the basement of the Kennedy Building in an old bank vault opening hundreds of letters. The building at 321 S. Boston Ave. is the same address where Tilton prayer requests were found in Dumpsters in 1991.

"They were all addressed to this Rev. Tilton," Morrow said of the letters she opened.

"You're sat down in a cubicle and given a letter opener. You have bundles and bundles of mail and a trash bin beside you. You slice open the envelope, take the money out and throw the letter away in the bin."

She said another employee came by to empty the trash bins regularly and a manager collected the cash and checks from employees who opened the letters.

"The bins are picked up and emptied into trash sacks and put into a special room. They weren't there the next day."

Morrow said there was no attempt to keep the letters together and it was apparent that no one planned to read them. But Morrow read many of them during her two days with Mail Services Inc.

"You cannot help but read them," she said. "All these letters were like, 'Pray for me,' because they were terminal or their son is terminal or there was no money for food . . . desperate situations."

She said nearly all of the letters she opened were from rural Florida or rural Georgia and they often contained cash in odd amounts.

"There would be like $17, and the letter would say, 'I realize I have to give $2 more than I usually give.' "

She described the letter writers as lonely homebound people in rural areas wanting help from God.

Morrow said there were about a dozen other women opening mail and several told her that employees were expected to open enough letters to produce $1,000 per hour.

"It was an unstated criteria that you open enough envelopes to generate $1,000 an hour. It was unbelievable, literally unbelievable."

After opening the letters for two days, Morrow said she told a manager at her employment agency that she had concerns about what was going on there.

"I told her that it was getting to me about these letters and could she find me another job?"

Morrow said she was then told to leave Mail Services' office immediately and not finish the work day.

Officials at the Kennedy Building would not comment on whether Tilton's mail was still being opened there.

Tilton is still listed as pastor of a small church, Church Triumphant, that meets in an office building in Farmers Branch, Texas. During worship services last Sunday, about 70 people attended and sang for an hour while a four-member church band played.

Bob Wright preached a sermon focusing on prosperity. Wright, who also operates a used-car dealership in Dallas, said that he had faith that God would send people to Wright's car lot.

A woman who attended the service said Tilton preached at the church about one year ago and she was unsure when he would return.

Property records list the owner as Church Triumphant and list the same Tulsa post office box used by Tilton for several for-profit corporations. Wright did not return calls seeking comment.

Anthony said Tilton maintains an affiliation with the church so that he can maintain his organization's tax-exempt status as a church and avoid filing financial returns.

"Their moral code is not the Bible. Their moral code is the IRS code," Anthony said.

Miami Beach property

In addition to operating his ministry, Tilton has formed several for-profit companies in Florida and Oklahoma, records show.

Tilton formed Venetian Way Holdings Inc. three years ago. The company lists its address as 320 S. Boston Ave., the address of Ferris, Tilton's Tulsa attorney. According to its incorporation papers, the company exists to hold title to property for a tax-exempt organization.

Records show Venetian Way Holdings paid $1.39 million for a 12,000-square-foot lot on an island fronting the Biscayne Bay in Miami Beach two years ago.

Building permits have been issued for a two-story, single-family home with a tile roof, pool, spa and terraced deck. The holding company takes its name from the street on which the home sits: Venetian Way.

Tilton listed himself as owner of the property in a building permit request for a burglar alarm.

Mail-order faith comes with accessories

Trinkets -- including oil, a bracelet and the "Green Financial Prayer Cloth" -- are supposed to bring wealth.

God wants to make you rich, promises "Pastor Bob" Tilton, and Tilton will send you financial prayer cloths, posters of himself, packets of oil and other trinkets to make it happen.

Those who send money to Tilton's ministry through his daily shows on Black Entertainment Television wind up on his massive mailing list. His mailings, several each month, urge recipients to send money to Tilton's Tulsa post office box.

Letters are personalized, with the recipient's first name and hometown sprinkled throughout. All are signed "Bob" in handwriting and "Pastor Bob Tilton" underneath.

Here are excerpts from several recent mailings:

Feb. 22: "I've sent you this packet of oil to help you release your faith for your emergency miracle," states the letter. "Use it to anoint whatever represents your Emergency Crisis. If it's a financial crisis, anoint your wallet or billfold or checkbook."

The letter ends by asking for a "sacrificial gift of $20 or the largest gift you can possibly give even if you have to scrape the bottom of your meal barrel."

March 1: A thick mailing includes a large poster of Tilton with one hand raised and his eyes closed tightly, surrounded by 21 squares marking a calendar. The mailing includes 21 stickers that recipients are to peel off and affix each day to the poster. It also includes a red "prayer of agreement miracle cloth" and three forms that recipients can return along with financial donations during each week of the 21-day prayer "campaign."

Tilton is pictured throughout the mailing grimacing in prayer, on his knees praying and clutching a red cloth and praying.

"Take the enclosed poster of me and my hand and put it up on your refrigerator or a mirror . . . somewhere so that you'll see it every day. Then every day for the next 21 days . . . lay your hand on top of mine and agree with me for your miracle," the letter states.

The letter also directs recipients to trace their hand on a "miracle request" form and return it with the red prayer cloth. Tilton promises to take the requests and cloths "to my prayer room or my prayer altar on my daily TV program, Success-N-Life."

The letter ends by requesting "your best financial gift as an expression of appreciation."

"You don't buy God but all throughout the Bible, when people came to God with prayer requests, they always brought a quality offering."

March 28: A four-page letter includes a fluorescent pink cotton cord, which Tilton calls an "Ezekiel 16:11 bracelet." The letter instructs recipients to "place this miracle faith bracelet around your right wrist right now.

"I am coming against the spirit of poverty that is trying to cut off your money supply. . . . Get out your largest bill and lay it under this miracle bracelet that I have given you. . . . Give God your biggest and best."

The letter includes a form on which recipients can check off a list of ailments or financial problems and return it to Tilton with their largest bills.

It also includes testimonials from people such as "Earl," who claims his family income jumped from $9,000 per year to more than $94,000 two weeks after his wife began sending money to Tilton.

April 8: "In Jesus' name, I am sending you this Green Financial Prayer Cloth for you to defeat Satan's plan," states the letter, which contains a strip of thin, green fabric.

Recipients are directed to write the date, time and their name on the cloth. "Place this Green Financial Cloth under your pillow and allow God's spirit to rest upon you as you sleep tonight. Tomorrow, remove the Green Financial Prayer Cloth, touch it to your heart, your forehead and your pocketbook."

The letter suggests a financial donation to Tilton of $107, $177 or an amount decided by the recipient. It contains a wish list of items that recipients can check off, including: "a better job," "new clothes," 'a loan" and "a newer car."

April 14: "I must tell you boldly: God wants to make you rich. . . . God wants to make a millionaire out of certain ones who receive this letter. Is it you?"

The letter includes a large slip of paper fashioned into a $1 million bill and a penny glued to the reverse side. The bill includes a checklist of desires, including a new home, new car, a piece of real estate or money for vacation.

"I want you to put a checkmark on the back of the Million Dollar Bill of what you need or desire, and send it back to me, along with a Seed Faith Gift of $200. . . . This ministry has given you spiritual food, so it's time to pay your tithes."

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