Gazing down at the frail man in his bed, you think: there's no way this can be Ole E. Anthony, scourge of the some of the world's richest and most powerful televangelists, a man so despised that preachers have labeled him ''Ole Antichrist.''
The 64-year-old doesn't look like much of a threat to anyone. The lingering effects of a near-fatal electrocution 23 years ago have left him severely disabled and in crippling pain generated from thousands of burned nerve endings.
He is the founder of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, a group of about 400 Christians, 100 of whom live communally in a rundown section of the city, attempting to emulate the practices of the 1st century church--right down to its poverty. Each Trinity employee, including Anthony, earns $50 per week, after room and board. Trinity's annual budget is $500,000, a sum that some of the nation's most popular televangelists routinely raise in a single day. Foundation members hold Bible studies and church services in their houses and apartments and run a small school and a restaurant serving hearty dinners for $3. The organization's primary mission is to house the homeless, not in specially dedicated shelters, but in the bedrooms and living rooms of Trinity members.
And that is how Anthony came to oversee a national spy operation dedicated to rooting out fraud and excess among some of America's biggest TV pastors. Many of the destitute who took refugee at Trinity told him that they had given their last dollars to TV pastors who had promised the gullible and often desperate believers a huge return on their faith-inspired giving. It's called the Prosperity Gospel, and it's preached often over the airwaves.
''It's a perverted theology that tells people they'll get a return on their investment,'' Anthony says. ''They're told they'll get a hundredfold blessing for their money. They are told to write hot checks, take out loans. These televangelists have got to know what they're doing.''
In 1989, Anthony launched his own war on dishonest religious broadcasters, using the skills he learned as an intelligence operative with the U.S. Air Force to ferret out corruption. ''I do enjoy the hunt,'' he says. ''But I'd much rather be out of a job.''
For now, he and his half-dozen investigators soldier on in a target-rich environment: the unregulated industry of televangelism is estimated to generate at least $1 billion through its roughly 2,000 electronic preachers, including 80 nationally syndicated television pastors. Trinity's forces dig through trash bins, search computer databases and go undercover with hidden cameras. Their victim's hotline turns up informants, victims and new scams. They enlist double agents in their fight. And they provide their research to academics, fellow watchdog groups, government agencies and the media, including The Times.
In 1991, Anthony went undercover with a hidden camera to expose the operations of Robert Tilton, a televangelist now based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and who at the height of his success took in more than $80 million annually and appeared in every television market in the U.S., sometimes as many as six times a day. Anthony says he posed as himself, president of the Trinity Foundation, a religious organization. And he said he was interested in using direct mail. His video documented Tilton's well-oiled direct-mail operation that helped bring in an estimated $380,000 a day to Tilton.
Part of the investigation focused on how the mail was processed: Trinity alleged that Tilton's organization put checks and cash in one pile and dumped the accompanying prayer requests into the trash--an accusation still hotly disputed by Tilton supporters. The video and documents obtained by Trinity became the basis of an ABC "PrimeTime Live" expose by Diane Sawyer that ultimately crippled Tilton's huge ministry along with two other televangelists. One of them, W.V. Grant, then based in Dallas, spent 16 months in jail for tax fraud after Trinity's investigation.
Anthony's operatives struck dumpster pay dirt five years ago in south Florida when they found a travel itinerary for Benny Hinn, the Trinity Broadcasting Network's superstar faith healer who has filled sports arenas with ailing believers seeking miracles cures. Hinn's itinerary included first-class tickets on the Concorde from New York to London ($8,850 each) and reservations for presidential suites at pricey European hotels ($2,200 a night). A news story, including footage of Hinn and his associates boarding the jet, ran on CNN's "Impact." In addition, property records and videos supplied by Trinity investigators led to CNN and Dallas Morning News coverage of another Hinn controversy: fund-raising for a $30-million healing center in Dallas that has yet to be built.
Hinn and other pastors ask viewers to send in donations for both specific projects and for general expansion of the television ministry. Donors aren't told of the opulent lifestyles led by some of the televangelists, but that fact isn't too much of a secret either--perhaps because it fits nicely with the message of the Prosperity Gospel they are spreading. A quick computer search of homes owned by Trinity Broadcasting Network, for example, reveals 17 residences in Orange County alone, including two hilltop mansions in a gated Newport Beach community.
''These people are putting this . . . this . . . slime on Christ," says Harry Guetzlaff, a 58-year-old Trinity investigator. But the targets of Trinity's investigations say it's Anthony who is the blasphemer.
''Whatever pluses there might be, the minuses cancel him out,'' says Dennis G. Brewer Sr., a Texas attorney who represents numerous televangelists and has tangled with Anthony. ''He's a liability to the Body of Christ.''
Similar comments were uttered nearly 50 years ago in Wickenburg, Ariz., during Ole Anthony's teenage years. By his own accounts, he had a normal childhood until age 16, ''when something snapped'' and he became the small town's most notorious juvenile delinquent. He let his red hair and beard grow long, drank heavily, took drugs and boosted cars. One Easter morning, he got up early and drove his '47 Packard to a natural desert amphitheater where the town's sunrise service was to take place. He poured gasoline on the huge wooden cross that rose from the desert floor and torched it.
''It made national news,'' he says. ''Everyone thought the communists did it.'' Eventually, Anthony was arrested for the act of vandalism. A sheriff's deputy told his mother, ''Edna, the boy's gone too far this time.''
He was given an option: three years in prison or three years of military service. He joined the Air Force and learned to install and monitor devices that detected nuclear tests behind the Iron and Bamboo curtains, according to Capt. William D. Ballard, his commanding officer. After his discharge, he continued the intelligence work as a contract employee until 1968.
With his sharp mind and intense personality, Anthony transitioned smoothly into the booming Dallas business world, where he worked as a fund-raising specialist for a variety of big-ticket projects, including ski resorts, casinos, movies, even a religious television station. He worked closely with a number of politicians and now calls many of the shady deals ''probably illegal. Thank God the statute of limitations has passed.''
Despite outward success, Anthony felt inwardly bankrupt until he heard a talk by an evangelical author.