In Arms' Way

Phil Arms once saved Ron Garner from a life of sin. Garner tried to return the favor when confronted with evidence of the preacher's drug use. But Arms viewed it as just a Judas kiss.

In the meantime, Sheila was being asked to give Arms increasing amounts of cash from the account for the in-church sales of Arms's religious tapes and books. At first, she gave it without a thought. "This is a very lucrative business," she says. With most of the congregation tithing 10 percent of their incomes, the church was, according to Sheila, taking in between $18,000 and $20,000 a week just from offerings. Plus, there was income from Arms's tapes, TV appearances, books, newsletter and radio shows. The $200 or $300 a week she says he was asking for wasn't very noticeable. Besides, Sheila just thought he needed the money to buy books. But soon the money was flowing out of the account faster than it was coming in, and Sheila asked Suzanne, the main bookkeeper, what to do when there wasn't any more money to give to the pastor. Sheila says Suzanne didn't even know about the account, let alone the weekly cash disbursements. (Suzanne Arms declined to comment; the Armses' attorney, Brett Shine, does not deny that Phil Arms borrowed from the account but says, in a fax to the Press, that it did not occur on a weekly basis. Shine shifts the blame to Sheila Garner for failing to keep detailed records of the disbursements.)

When Ron and Sheila put their heads together, they realized they might have a bigger problem than they had thought. Still, they needed more evidence before they could accuse an elder of wrongdoing. Suzanne made copies of her husband's office and desk keys, and Ron and Sheila began a reconnaissance mission. They reasoned that they had a right to investigate because Ron was on the board of directors of the ministry.

Under cover of night, they entered Arms's private office on November 30, 1999, and unlocked the bottom file drawer behind his desk. In it they found what they describe as a "menagerie of pharmacy bottles and medications," including 25 empty bottles of a drug called Norco, a version of the highly addictive pharmaceutical narcotic hydrocodone. They found pharmacy receipts for prescriptions filled on dates that were dangerously close together: A quantity of 120 Norco filled on November 10, another 120 filled on November 12, another 120 filled on November 17. The drug cost almost $100 for each order. They took pictures, photocopied the pharmacy receipts and decided to return the next night. Sure enough, the next day there was another pharmacy receipt for another 120 pills of Norco.

Before they were saved: Sheila and Ron Garner at the Whiskey River club in 1981.
Before they were saved: Sheila and Ron Garner at the Whiskey River club in 1981.
The Garners were happy at Houston Church, until they rocked the boat and got tossed overboard.
Troy Fields
The Garners were happy at Houston Church, until they rocked the boat and got tossed overboard.

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Ron and Sheila rummaged through Arms's drug drawer nearly every night for the next 35 days. Sometimes there were full bottles; sometimes there were empty ones. Sometimes there were pharmacy receipts; sometimes the bottles came with no prescription labels at all, only the manufacturer's packaging. They began marking the Norco bottles with a ballpoint pen on their UPC codes in an attempt to track Arms's usage.

On December 7 the Garners found a yellow legal pad on Arms's desk with notes that they claim were evidence of his addiction. One piece of paper was covered in scribbled notes like "gotta resupply" and "I'm leaving for pharmacy in hrsŠ." It also delineated his three-step plan to go to three different pharmacies and the alias, Roby, that he used on some of the prescriptions. Another sheet of paper was titled "Daily Plan" and showed that on July 1, 1999, Arms was taking 75 to 78 Norco pills a day and supplementing Ultram, a newer and as yet unscheduled synthetic narcotic. By July 31 he planned to be down to a daily total of 45, taking 3.5 pills every two to four hours. By August 21 he hoped to be down to 28 pills a day. But judging by the number of pills the Garners saw appearing in, and then disappearing from, Arms's desk drawer in December, if the summer cutback plan had worked at all, it hadn't lasted.

Hydrocodone, most commonly known by the brand name Vicodin, is a schedule III controlled substance in a federal classification system that attempts to balance a drug's risks with its benefits. Schedule I drugs, like heroin and LSD, are deemed illegal because they serve no medical purpose. Schedule II drugs, like cocaine and Demerol, have some legitimate medical uses but are also so addictive that prescriptions are scrutinized and refills are rare. Hydrocodone comes in just below them, but it may be moving up in the world. It has made the news many times in the past few years as the drug that sent celebrities like Friends star Matthew Perry and Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre into rehab. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, there is mounting evidence that hydrocodone is just as dangerous as a schedule II drug.

"Hydrocodone is the most abused narcotic drug in Texas," says Jerry Ellis of the DEA. "Probably between 80 and 90 percent of all the cases made on illegal pharmaceutical drugs in Texas are on hydrocodone. It's a very addictive drug; people will do anything at all to get the stuff." They will forge prescriptions, seek out shady pharmacists and "doctor shop," a practice that involves taking a somewhat legitimate medical condition to many different doctors for many prescriptions to be filled at many pharmacies. They will even buy the tablets on the street for $7 each. The drug can destroy your liver, and DEA tactical diversions officer Sam Searcy says the withdrawal symptoms are worse than heroin's. What hydrocodone offers in the meantime is pain-free euphoria.

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