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Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were among the most famous televangelists in America, living a life of luxury with multiple houses, expensive cars and more money than God, when their empire all came crashing down amid sex and financial scandals.
But in the years following the demise of their ministry, the Bakkers didn’t let a prison sentence, the loss of their massively popular multimillion-dollar TV network, the closure of their “Christian version of Disneyland” theme park, financial ruin, a divorce and being the butt of many “Saturday Night Live” jokes keep them down – or away from the spotlight.
By the mid-’70s, the Bakkers were becoming household names through their TV show, “The PTL Club” — PTL stood for “Praise the Lord” or “People That Love.” Initially it aired on a small North Carolina station owned by media mogul Ted Turner.
“What [Bakker] really wanted to do… was create a Christian version of ‘The Tonight Show’,” said John Wigger, author of “PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire.” “Which was really the first of Bakker’s big innovations, the Christian talk show.”
The Bakkers purchased airtime on TV stations across the United States, Wigger said, in order to run their various programs. In 1978, Jim Bakker created a satellite network to distribute his paid programming more efficiently and widely.
To fund his enterprise, the Bakkers hosted telethons and asked viewers to sign up for monthly pledges to become “PTL Club” partners.
“Instead of us running a commercial and being paid for that commercial, we just went directly to our viewers and said, ‘If you like what you see, help us’… All of your favorite shows are asking you to give them money by buying their products. It’s no different,'” said former PTL security chief Don Hardister.
The money, according to Hardister, came pouring in.
“We had a cash office and at times there was certainly more money in than… I could imagine,” he said.” “People would send us mink coats, diamond rings, deeds. I mean, we got all sorts of donations.”
By the mid-’80s, the Bakkers, who had two children by then, had built a multimillion-dollar empire.’
“What we didn’t realize was this would come to an end,” Hardister said. “I never dreamed that it would come to an end.”
The income from their satellite network allowed the Bakkers to purchase a total of 2,300 acres of land for a new venture — a 500-room hotel and waterpark complex they called Heritage USA, located in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
“Bakker had always been fascinated by Walt Disney,” he said. “He sat back and said, ‘Why can’t we have a Christian version of Disneyland?”
Bakker asked followers to give $1,000 for “lifetime partnerships” that would entitle them to an annual three-night stay at the Heritage Grand hotel, but this would be one of the first of many cracks in the Bakkers’ empire.
“Problem is, there were way too many people giving $1,000, not nearly enough hotel rooms,” said Mark Becker, a reporter for Charlotte-based ABC affiliate WSOC-TV, who reported on the Bakkers.
“He sold more than 66,000 lifetime partnerships in the Heritage Grand, which amounted to more than 100 percent occupancy in that hotel,” Wigger said.
Then in January 1987, Jim Bakker had just broken ground on a $100-million dollar ministry center he dubbed the Crystal Palace when Wigger said, “Tammy Faye had a breakdown.”
Hardister said he was with Tammy Faye when it happened.
“They left me in the house alone with Tammy, and that’s when she started hallucinating,” he said. “And I couldn’t believe I’m there by myself with this lady and she’d taken her clothes off, and Tammy didn’t do that kind of stuff around me… We all knew she had some prescription drug problems.”
Two months later, the Bakkers disclosed to their viewers in a videotaped message that Tammy Faye was being treated for drug dependency. But then they were rocked again when their hometown newspaper, The Charlotte Observer, published an expose revealing Jim Bakker had a sexual encounter more than 6 years earlier with Jessica Hahn, a young church secretary from Long Island, New York.
Hahn later claimed that in December 1980, when she was 21 years old, Jim Bakker allegedly sexually assaulted her. The ministry then paid more than $200,000 in hush money. Jim Bakker disputed her account of a sexual assault and years later, he wrote in his book, “I Was Wrong,” that the sex was consensual.
“The way Jessica Hahn later described her sexual encounter with Jim Bakker sounds very much like rape,” Wigger said. “She later told me that she doesn’t really feel comfortable talking about it in those terms, but she also clearly didn’t believe that it was consensual.”
Needing to lay low at the time, Jim Bakker resigned from PTL and turned to Jerry Falwell, another well-known televangelist and minister, to step in and run the ministry until the Hahn scandal blew over.
“Bakker said [to Falwell], ‘I’d like you to take the helm of PTL and hold it together. I need to take some time with my wife and family,'” said Mark DeMoss, a former Falwell spokesman.
But what Falwell didn’t know at the time, Wigger said, was that PTL was “deeply in debt.”
“Leveraged to the point of collapse… they’re bleeding two million dollars a month,” he said. “The other thing that comes to light is that [Jim] Bakker allegedly had a number of same-sex relationships.”
At a press conference in May 1987, Falwell said the Bakkers were no longer fit to lead PTL, accusing Jim Bakker of being secretly gay and claimed that Tammy Faye Bakker made a long list of demands in order for them to give up plans to come back to PTL that included large annual salaries, two cars, a maid for one year and a furnished house on a lake, among other things.
The Bakkers too went on a media tour. In a May 1987 interview with Ted Koppel for “Nightline,” Tammy Faye didn’t deny making that list of demands.
“He [Falwell] asked us what we felt that, after all these years of the ministry, of leaving the ministry, what we should have,” she told Koppel at the time. “And you know, when you’re negotiating –”
“You start out at the top,” Jim Bakker finished for her.
Reflecting on that interview today, Koppel said, “Over the years, I did over 6,000 ‘Nightlines,’ that was number one. Not in my heart … but in terms of what had the greatest appeal to the greatest number of people. That was it.”
The government began reviewing PTL’s finances, as well as the spending and compensation of the Bakkers and other top PTL officials. At one point, the Bakkers’ vast portfolio included several homes, a private jet, two Rolls Royces, a Mercedes Benz, expensive clothes and an air-conditioned doghouse.
“It was quite a lengthy investigation,” said former ABC News correspondent Rebecca Chase. “But ultimately culminated in significant indictments… for Jim Bakker and all of his lieutenants.”
Meanwhile, Jessica Hahn went on to pose for “Playboy” magazine multiple times and made several appearances on “The Howard Stern Show” that continued for years afterward.
Jim Bakker was indicted in 1988 on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy.
“Tammy Faye was not indicted,” said Suzanne Stevens, a former WSOC-TV anchor who covered the Bakkers. “But that was the big talk: How could she have not known? She was wearing fur coats, she was wearing rings.”
Even Bakker’s trial, which took place before federal Judge Robert Potter, was marred by drama.
“One of the witnesses the prosecution called was Steve Nelson, and Nelson’s department at PTL had been in charge of collecting the data on lifetime partnerships, so Nelson knew that Jim Bakker knew the lifetime partnership program was oversold,” Wigger said.
During his testimony, Nelson collapsed on the stand and had to be taken to the hospital.
“When he fainted, it was this silence and… a voice from the audience came [up and said], ‘Oh, he’s giving his life to God,’ … and Bakker’s attorney called him [Jim Bakker] up, ‘Jim, Jim,’ as if there’s going to be a miracle, he can bring him back to life,” said Jerry McJunkins, who was one of several court sketch artists covering the trial.
“Jim literally thought [Nelson] had died,” added Hardister.
The next day, Jim Bakker “had a psychological breakdown,” Wigger said, saying he was hallucinating that “the reporters outside the courtroom looked to him like giant bugs.”
“He was curled up underneath his attorney’s couch,” Hardister said. “I think the weight of that trial and the weight of everything that he had done, good and bad, just crushed him.”
Judge Potter ordered Bakker to be committed to a psychiatric ward in a federal prison and the trial was put on hold.
Six days later, Jim Bakker emerged, ready to take the stand in his own defense.
On Oct. 5, 1989, a jury found Bakker guilty on all 24 counts. He was sentenced to 45 years in prison and ordered to pay a $500,000 fine.
Jim Bakker filed an appeal, arguing that his sentence was too long for the crimes. In 1991, the appellate court upheld his conviction but granted him a sentence-reduction hearing, during which he was granted a reduced prison sentence from 45 years down to eight years. He ended up serving almost five years of that sentence before being paroled in 1994.
While Jim Bakker was in prison, Tammy Faye filed for divorce. Shortly thereafter, she married Roe Messner, the contractor who built Heritage USA. But after the financial fallout of PTL, Messner was sentenced in 1996 to 27 months in federal prison for bankruptcy fraud.
In the years that followed, Tammy Faye did a number of TV appearances, including interviews on daytime talk shows and even appearing in VH1’s “The Surreal Life.”
She also struggled with bouts of cancer. In 1996, she announced she had colon cancer, and in 2005, she announced it had spread to her lungs. In May 2007, she announced on her website that she was stopping cancer treatments. She died two months later.
“She believed… that when she took her last breath, that she would see the one who she loved and talked about and sang about and cried about… which gave her not only courage, but it gave her something to smile about,” said BeBe Winans, a former PTL singer and six-time Grammy award-winner.
After Jim Bakker was released from prison, he went to work launching a new ministry called Morningside, nestled in the Missouri Ozarks. In 2003, he began broadcasting a new daily TV show, “The Jim Bakker Show,” from studios near Branson, Missouri, starring him and his second wife, Lori Bakker.
The Bakkers now raise money for the ministry by selling “end of the world” products, Wigger said, such as freeze-dried food by the five-gallon bucket load and survival gear to help people prepare for “the end of days.”
Looking back on the Bakkers’ incredible rise and fall, “It’s a fascinating story about American religion,” Wigger said.
“It’s a fascinating story about American culture,” he continued. “And I think it has a kind of timelessness to it.”