Steve Crump reflects: 30 years after PTL, a new Tammy Faye film is on the way

Maybe - just maybe - we’ll know more through the eyes of Hollywood and Tammy Faye.
Published: Sep. 16, 2021 at 8:53 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 16, 2021 at 8:56 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - In many respects, you could call it the gift or the story that just keeps on giving.

With the release of the new film “The Eyes Of Tammy Faye Bakker” the PTL saga continues.

For me, it began on a cloudy spring day in April of 1987.

iPhones didn’t exist. That was also the case with text messaging and the internet. No instant communication.

Our only mobile form of communication had us relying on pagers strapped to our belts.

Getting through to our newsroom often required using a payphone or depending on the generosity of someone’s landline.

That was the case nearly 35 years ago.

While on a beat check and burning up some shoe leather, I found myself at the old city hall in the office of Assistant City Manager Don Steger.

My pager started screaming with the flashing numbers reading 911. That meant an emergency.

Steger graciously let me use his phone, and someone on the assignment desk told me a big shakeup at Heritage USA was underway.

I got to the station in a matter of minutes, grabbed my two-man crew of Dan Roberts and Graham Smith, and raced to Fort Mill, South Carolina.

Much to our surprise, they let us on the grounds of PTL.

Back in 1987, we didn’t do a 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. show. The main evening shows came into our homes at 6 p.m. and 11 p.m.

Our broadcast opened with rumors of earth-moving changes, and when the venerable anchor Bob Inman tossed to my live shot - I offered a simple line.

Knowing what we found out from a mounted dash cell phone in our truck gave me enough information to say “Jim Bakker is out and Jerry Falwell is in.”

That began the story that still hasn’t easily gone away.

When it first broke we didn’t know a criminal investigation was underway or that Jim Bakker had an affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn or hush money traded hands in an attempt to keep the whole thing quiet.

Much credit rightfully went to Charles Shepard with our news partner at The Charlotte Observer who had been crafting his story for weeks and months.

Playing catch up was always a challenge as more charges and people were caught up in the investigation.

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were faces behind the powerhouse ministry. You would see their images everywhere.

They appeared on the air daily with a list of celebrities as well as billboards designed to draw tourists to their Christian theme park, along with a slew of CDs, videotapes as well as books.

Jim Bakker created the role of decision-maker and Tammy Faye offered the voice, teared up at will, and could turn the television studio into a congregational singalong.

When charges came for wire and mail fraud along with defrauding the public, it all landed on Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye was legally unscathed.

After their fall from grace, she told reporters they were planning a return to Heritage USA. It never happened.

On a personal note, I left WBTV for two years and three months to work at the CBS affiliate in Detroit only to return to Charlotte where the Bakker story was going full speed ahead.

The trial started more than two years after word got out about Bakker’s affair and every day at the federal courthouse - Trade Street became its own media circus.

Network television crews made the rounds, and the trial got caught up in the middle of Hurricane Hugo.

Supporters of Jim Bakker filled courtroom benches as if they were church pews.

He had a daily entourage of lawyers including Harold Bender of Charlotte, and Tammy Faye was flanked by her admirers in and out of the courthouse.

Legal proceedings in uptown Charlotte lasted five weeks starting in August and ending in Oct. 1989.

The federal judge known as “Maximum Bob” Judge Robert Potter practically threw the book at Bakker.

He received a 45-year sentence, and was released in less than five.

On the day he was convicted, Tammy Faye stood at the courthouse doors and sang ‘’On Christ the solid rock I stand. "

She exited by saying ‘’It’s not over until it’s over.’’

More than three decades later, unanswered questions remain.

What did she know?

How could she and her husband enjoy such a lavish lifestyle after constantly and consistently taking money from their followers?

And how did she go unscathed in the legal system after benefiting from what many see as ill-gotten gains?

Perhaps the release of this weekend’s film “The Eyes Of Tammy Faye” can provide some new insight into those questions.

Back in the day here in Charlotte, the Murphy in the Morning show did its own spoof on PTL. It was called Pass The Loot.

In reality, it was passing the loot that brought down the ministry long before the innovation of iPhones, text messages and not to rule out social media.

And maybe just maybe we’ll know more through the eyes of Hollywood and Tammy Faye.

She remarried well-known church builder Roe Messner and later died from cancer in 2007.

Stay tuned because it appears this story that started in the 1980′s has legs in the 21st century.

Her film is set for release this weekend.

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