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.

Most people begin taking hydrocodone for pain caused by a car accident or surgery or, as in Arms's case, severe migraines, but "this is not a maintenance medication," says Searcy. "When you talk a year, two years, three years Š all you're doing is feeding the addiction." Searcy also says that the 75 to 78 pills indicated in Arms's daily plan are at the high end of the hydrocodone usage he has seen: At that point, he says, "it's a full-time job."

Arms declined to comment directly to the Press about his use of hydrocodone. Through Shine, Arms admitted to taking "too much medicine," but not 78 Norco pills a day. His lawyer also asserts that the pastor never obtained the drug illegally. But on April 10 the DEA arrested James Poindexter, the pharmacist for Safeguard Pharmacy in Katy, a drugstore where the Garners claim Arms filled some of his prescriptions. Poindexter was charged with two counts of manufacturing/delivering a controlled substance. According to the DEA, Safeguard Pharmacy was ranked eighth in the nation in terms of moving the drug hydrocodone. The agency is not pursuing an investigation of Arms.

While the Garners were sneaking into Arms's office and documenting his drug use, Suzanne Arms hired an accounting firm to look into the church's finances. John A. Braden and Company reviewed the cash deposits into the church fund and compared them with the giving records for the period of June 1, 1998, through December 31, 1999. Their report to the board of directors indicates that the giving records exceeded the deposits made. In fact, the report says, $41,805 was given to the church and not deposited.

A recent gig for the Garners: It's hard to find people who want to be saved these days.
A recent gig for the Garners: It's hard to find people who want to be saved these days.

In a sworn affidavit, church office manager Ann Brown alleged that Phil Arms directed her to give him cash from the church offerings that had been entered on the giving records but not yet deposited to the bank account. From early November to the end of December 1999 Brown claims to have given Arms "in excess of $12,000."

The Garners now had plenty of evidence. "We wanted to try to preserve what we could Š because we knew what he was doing was going to destroy that world that we had set up there," Sheila says. "Our hearts were right, our intentions were rightŠ.He was killing himself, and we had to do something about it."

They staged something like an intervention. Ron had it all planned out: On the morning of January 6, he would present Arms with five bottles of Norco and a packet that included a detailed account of his findings from the late-night office investigation, a list of the financial discrepancies, a plan for the pastor's "restoration," a notice of a special meeting of the board of directors to vote on Arms's removal (signed by Ron Garner and Suzanne Arms), a letter of resignation for Arms to sign, a cover letter and a heartfelt conclusion that explains how, just as God has used Arms to affect Ron's life, He now would use Ron to help Arms.

Once presented with this packet from his associate pastor, Arms would weep and repent over his drug addiction and the missing money. Within three working days he would enter Methodist Hospital's chemical dependency program and stay in it until all parties involved were convinced he was cured. He would immediately resign from all pastoral duties, because a pastor, according to the Houston Church reading of the Bible, must live his life beyond reproach. ("It's like losing your virginity," says Ron. "Yes, God can forgive you, but God can't give you that back.") He would make a confession to the congregation via videotape. He would attend counseling sessions with the pastoral staff twice a week. He would submit to random drug tests. And most importantly, according to the restoration plan, he would "maintain a broken and contrite spirit and cooperate fully with those in authority over [him]," namely Garner. In return, the church would support Arms, financially and spiritually, and work to bring him "back into full fellowship."

But that's not exactly how it happened. Ron did present Arms with the pills and the packet on the morning of January 6, but he says Arms's initial reaction was to try to smooth things over. So, in accordance with 1 Timothy 5:19 ("Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses"), Ron brought in witnesses to the accusation: Bob Francis and Jim Miller, two men who worked in the church. When Arms realized he couldn't keep this quiet, he called in some support of his own: his lawyer. What baffled Ron the most was that Arms asked for his five bottles of pills back.

The next few weeks were a whirlwind of closed-door meetings and confusions of facts. Arms gave his explanations and denials from the pulpit and took a sabbatical to go in for some "tests" and get healthy. He appointed his brother, a lifelong friend and the friend's associate pastor to be interim ministers to prevent Ron from taking power. And Suzanne Arms, who had moved out of her husband's home, switched sides. "When it all came out," says Sheila, "there was this line, and she had to either step on this side against Phil or step on this side with Phil, with her children, her home, everything they'd built in all these years, her comfort zone."

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