By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Three days earlier, Arms's right-hand man, associate pastor Ron Garner, and two other staff members confronted the church leader with these accusations, asking him to repent and resign his position. Garner, with the help of Arms's wife, had spent more than a month gathering evidence against his boss. And on this morning, he was prepared to address the church body himself, but Arms had insisted on speaking. This was to be expected: Arms rarely let the associate pastor preach much anyway. Arms was the voice of Houston Church.
The preacher speaks slowly with a rich Southern accent, punching certain syllables and pausing for dramatic effect. Sometimes, when the Holy Spirit moves him, he speeds things up in a flurry of charismatic emotion. The rest of the time, though, it's easy to get lost in the hypnotic melody of his many, many words, particularly since he seems reluctant to get to his point. After proclaiming the specialness of Houston Church, lamenting the false accusations that have befallen other pastors, pointing out that nobody's perfect, reminding everybody of his multiple cluster migraine headache attacks and criticizing Garner and the other men for how they've handled the situation, he gets down to it, sort of.
"I had been taking pain relievers," Arms tells his followers, "that after using them over a long period of time, as all of them do, they begin to lose their effectiveness which necessitates an additional one in order to compensate for the first one or the second or the next that isn't working." As for the alleged theft, a subject that he introduces with "incidentally, a side note," Arms says the long-standing operating procedure is that he pays back any unaccounted-for petty cash at the end of each year.
That's it. No tears, no pleas for forgiveness, no Jimmy Swaggart "I have sinned" moment of truth. And why should there be? To hear Arms tell it, he has some health problems and may have taken too long to pay back a few dollars of petty cash. There's no scandal in that. A member of the crowd shouts out, "Thank you for being so honest!" and the flock bursts into spontaneous, standing applause.
At his post by the piano, Garner is seething with outrage, trying not to let it show to the true believers lest they cast him in the role of Judas. When Arms finishes speaking, Garner heeds his call to lead the church in a song, just like he does at the end of every worship service. "Oh, Lord, your tenderness," he sings, "melting all my bitterness." But the bitterness isn't melting. By the end of this Sunday's service, Ron Garner wants to add another sin to the list of Phil Arms's crimes against God and church: lying.
Garner was once a sinner, too. He and his wife, Sheila, played country music in Houston's honky-tonks, and they didn't shy away from the heavy drinking and drugs that went along with the musician's life. Sheila says Ron was always bucking responsibility. When she got pregnant, he wanted her to have an abortion.
Sheila wouldn't, and that presented a problem: How would they bring a baby into a life like this? Who would care for it when they were wasted at 3 a.m.? How would they afford a family? The Garners had hoped to become famous country musicians one day, but they weren't there yet. Sheila had to spend her days working as a secretary, and Ron delivered ad contracts for a Yellow Pages-type directory company.
It was in his car, on a delivery, that Ron Garner heard God speak to him through the voice of Phil Arms. Ron was in the habit of listening to radio talk shows on his trips, and he stopped on a conversation between Arms and a man from Jimmy Swaggart's ministry. They were hitting Ron where it hurts, talking about music, music that glorified God. Ron began to wonder what his music was accomplishing, what he was accomplishing. When he got home that evening, he told Sheila that he wanted to go to the church that Arms was starting as an outreach of his revival-based ministry. Sheila was shocked: "Church?" she asked.
Sheila was fat with pregnancy at the first Sunday service of Houston Church in 1986. Both she and Ron had been taken to Baptist churches on occasion as kids, but they had never been very religious. "We never heard the Gospel," she says. "I mean, we weren't ready. We heard it, but it doesn't make sense to somebody who doesn't have ears to hear it. It just sounds like a bunch of religious mumbo-jumbo."
On this day, though, on the verge of their son's birth, the Garners were ready to hear it; and Arms was certainly ready to preach it. "He had that fiery delivery, and he was passionate about what he was saying," remembers Ron. "That's why people are drawn to cults. I mean, Jim Jones was passionate about what he was saying. And these people are sick and tired of religion, dead stuff. They wanted to get with somebody who believed something, even though it was totally wrong. I think that was the draw."
The Garners immersed themselves in Houston Church, attending every service, getting saved, even giving up music. "God gave us a purpose," says Sheila. "Instead of wandering, meandering out there in a world, not knowing where we're going or what direction, all of a sudden we had a purpose, and we had a direction. And we were pursuing that."
God also gave them jobs. Ron started working for Arms full-time in 1992 as the praise and worship director. He handled the ushers, the parkers and the greeters. He went on hospital visits, organized trips to Israel and taught Sunday school. He counseled parishioners in need and even became licensed within the church as a minister. Arms asked the Garners to go back to music, this time using their talents for good rather than evil. In 1994 Sheila started working in the church office as well. In 1996 Ron was elected to replace a deceased member of the board of directors of Phil Arms Ministries, the church's nonprofit umbrella organization that Arms had started in the early '70s.
Their marriage was thriving, they were making a good living, they had friends who shared their beliefs, their son was growing up with a solid moral foundation. They were happy, and their happiness seemed to hinge on Houston Church. So when Arms asked Ron to quit teaching his Sunday school class after it got too popular, Ron agreed. When Arms made Ron squat down in photos so that the pastor would look taller than the associate pastor, Ron dutifully slumped his shoulders and bent his knees. Ron even swallowed his pride during a meeting with Arms at a Randalls coffee shop, when the pastor drew a tiny dot and a large circle on his notepad.
"Do you know what this is?" Ron remembers Arms asking.
"No," Ron answered, figuring it was a rhetorical question.
"That's you," Arms said, pointing to the tiny dot. Then he pointed to the big circle and said, "That's me."
Arms was weird, Sheila and Ron recognized that. But prophets of God are allowed to be a little strange. Sheila describes their unquestioning faith in Arms as "the fog." The entire congregation was shrouded by it to some degree. That's why, the Garners say, churchgoers often gave Arms their pain pills to ease his migraines. It was an honor to be asked to help the pastor, to be closer to he who was closer to God. Ironically, it was those who got close to Arms who began to question his methods.
The Garners claim that twice in the late '80s and again in 1994, inner-circle staff members confronted Arms about financial discrepancies, drug addiction or both. (Levern Jordan, the associate pastor who the Garners say confronted Arms about his drug addiction, refused to talk to the Houston Press about his reasons for leaving Houston Church in 1994.) The Garners, who hadn't yet risen through the ranks of the church staff, didn't believe any of the allegations at the time. According to Sheila, Arms explained the flurry of false accusations with the line, "I'm so godly that the devil is trying to take me over." Arms always won the conflicts; the accusers left the church destroyed and disgraced. In retrospect, the Garners think this was because the accusers didn't have enough evidence to support their claims. So once Ron and Sheila got close enough to Arms to begin to see the truth, they vowed they would not make the same mistake.
Ron's suspicions started in 1998 when he was helping Arms build his house, a two-story country colonial affair for which, he points out, Arms borrowed $359,000 from the ministry to finance. Arms had an office in a barn on the property, and the two of them conducted house and church business from there. They were almost always together.
Ron noticed that Arms was under a lot of stress from working on two major projects. Arms was acting more strangely than usual, and making frequent but short trips out to the water hose. Was he just thirsty? Well, maybe, but what Ron saw reminded him of the pill-poppers he had seen in his days as a musician. A short time later, Arms's wife, Suzanne, came to Ron for counseling. She was concerned about her husband's drug use. In fact, Ron says she had been trying to get him to quit taking painkillers for years before she finally decided she needed help. Arms had begun preaching erratically, manipulating scriptures for his own purposes ("Do not touch God's anointed") and directing his sermons at his wife.
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.
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 hrs." 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.
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 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.
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 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 right.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."
Ten days after his "confession," Arms took the pulpit again. He updated the congregation on his medical condition (apparently God had inhibited any liver damage) and wrote a postdated check for the missing $41,805. He said that there was no way he would have "personally procured that kind of money for anything [he has] ever done" but that he would take "personal responsibility for having done it," just in case. (Much after the fact, Shine clarifies Arms's quote. Arms, he says, disputes the amount of the shortfall in the church offerings account. Any money withdrawn from the account, Arms argues through his attorney, was used for expenses such as hospital visits, gas, parking, gifts for troubled families and other legitimate ministry needs. There is no way, Arms contends, that those expenses could add up to $41,805. Unfortunately Arms didn't keep a detailed record of his expenses. In his church address, he was merely taking responsibility for "maintaining the church accounts," which apparently falls under his job description.)
No amount of lawyering could have placated Jim Miller, who rose from his seat in the crowd and said, "I will not stand for more lies." Taken aback, Arms threatened to have the dissenter removed. In a passively resistant protest, Miller threw himself on the green carpeted steps below the pastor and prayed for him to repent. When Arms had finished his speech, he crawled down onto the steps with Miller and spoke to him harshly under his breath, like a parent scolding a child in public. "Now, God's told me to wash your feet," Arms said. "I want you to get up here right now."
But the forced foot-washing did little to bring Miller back into the fold. From the altar, he pointed out that Arms's repayment of the money didn't negate the fact that he stole it, and this sparked shouts for truth and repentance throughout the congregation. Finally Suzanne Arms took the stage to try to help her husband defend himself, but she ended up just giving the crowd more of the blood they wanted. "Yes, he took too many drugs, he's confessed that," she said. "Yes, he took money, and he shouldn't have -- it was drug-driven."
"The authority of this church," said Arms, trying to calm things down, "ultimately, spiritually and legally is still in the hands of this pastor." But he couldn't maintain control for much longer. After the foot-washing debacle, the interim ministers, Arms's brother and friend, told Arms that he needed to step down from the pulpit of Houston Church. It looked for a moment like Ron had won, that for the first time an underling had taken on Arms and managed to remain standing. Ron Garner thought of the story of David and Goliath.
But on the same day that Arms resigned, the interim ministers asked Arms's accusers, Garner, Miller and Francis, to resign as well. Things had become too messy in this biblical battle for anyone to survive. Arms had publicly maligned the men as the enemy in a spiritual war and as jealous liars trying to destroy God's church. In Arms's April newsletter, the pastor wrote of "the ludicrous, nonsensical rantings of foolish, unenlightened hearts" and penned the following verse:
When the jeering voice of darkness hisses at the end of day,
And the hounds of hell are howling, and none are held at bay;
When fiery darts from demon's slings have pierced the heart within,
And devils dance with glee and mock, as night and pain descend.
Ron's charges were further tainted by the appearance of self-interest. As Shine points out, Garner could have expected a significant pay increase and a dramatic jump in visibility if he had succeeded in taking the reins of the ministry. He could have walked right into the cushy situation Arms had worked for decades to create. In a letter to the Press, Shine summed up his client's position: "The simple fact is that no one has brought forth any credible evidence that Phil Arms has acted improperly in regard to his pastoral role at Houston Church. Phil Arms suffers from a rare blood disorder that causes him to suffer extraordinary pain. The severe pain began to limit his ability as the Pastor of the very large Houston Church, and Pastor Arms voluntarily resigned." Shine also told the Press that Ron Garner suffers from manic depression and has problems with alcohol that cause him to act "irresponsibly."
Sheila takes the smear campaign in stride, saying that "anytime you try to do something against the norm or against the system, you're going to get accused of all kinds of things that you're not doing." Ron angrily denies any problems with depression or alcoholism. "It's like [Phil is] supernaturally energized, and it's not by God, so you figure out who it's by," he says. "It ain't the tooth fairy."
Bob Francis and Jim Miller both say that they stand behind the evidence compiled by the Garners.
When Arms left Houston Church, he didn't leave empty-handed. As the congregation realized during the scandal, Houston Church was a mere outreach program of the nonprofit organization run by Arms and his wife. Phil Arms Ministries owned the church building, the land the church had purchased for expansion, the bank accounts, everything. Houston Church was never its own legal entity, and because the church is nondenominational, it can seek no help from a higher religious authority. It seemed that if no one wanted to play by Arms's rules anymore, he could just pack up his toys and go home. All the money that the congregation had tithed to the church over the years they had actually donated almost directly to Arms's ministry. "It wasn't set up like a church," says Sheila. "It was set up like a mom-and-pop business."
According to Shine, the pastor did "gift" the church with $5 million of equity in the building it is operating in. (The attorney says the property at 7500 Eldridge was appraised at $6.2 million and has a $1.2 million mortgage.) But the expansion land and the money, Arms has taken with him to support his still intact ministry and, possibly, a new church.
Ron is trying to start a new ministry as well, but without the financial backing. God hasn't told him to start a church quite yet, so he and Sheila spend their time trying to book appearances at different African-American churches around town. The Garners' music and message seem to cross cultural boundaries. "Black people love us," says Ron. "We're so welcome in black churches. I think it freaks them out when these white people come in to preach and sing.It's really neat." But the main goal of Glorybound Ministries, which includes several former members of Houston Church, is to access the "unchurched" by appealing to their needs for love and acceptance, or even food and clothing.
Ron Garner wants to reach a lost soul, just like Phil Arms reached him. His religious experience with Arms might have turned sour, but it hasn't soured him on religion. He has managed to separate the man from the message. "You've got the false and you've got the real," he says, "and you don't throw out the real because you've got the false. Because we got bad policemen, we don't throw out the whole police force. Because we got bad lawyers, we don't throw out the whole law office."
Ron Garner and his family are well turned-out for a recent Saturday-night gig at The Point Christian Outreach Ministry in a strip mall in northwest Houston. Ron looks the part of the evangelical preacher in a flashy double-breasted suit and a red silk tie, his hair moussed back and up into a TV-ready pompadour. His tanned and freckled 13-year-old son, Ryan, has imitated the hairstyle. Sheila is channeling a little bit of Tammy Faye Bakker, with peroxided curls piled on top of her head and thick mascara clumped around her eyes.
Sadly, it's past time for the service to start, and there's no one in the 100-seat hall. It's hard to find people who want to be saved these days, and Ron is certainly not the only fundamentalist preaching game in town. Besides, it's Memorial Day weekend. The Garners and their band set up anyway, perhaps realizing they have to pay their dues in empty rooms like any young act. When an African-American teenager with gold-capped teeth takes a seat, Sheila can hardly control her excitement. "Oh, praise be," she says. Throughout the course of their performance, about ten more members of The Point's congregation filter in.
The crowd may be small, but it is enthusiastic. To these worshipers, the Garners are white folk with soul, both spiritually and musically. They play jazzy, bluesy, rocking gospels, hymns with honky-tonk piano solos. Ron throws in an Elvis-inspired "We-e-ell" as he goes to town on his keyboard, Sheila sings with her face scrunched up like a country-music diva, and Ryan gets in on the action, too, belting out a Christian-rock duet with his mother. They even have some cheesy between-song banter worked out: "You ain't gonna hear that one at the Presbyterian church unless we're there," Ron jokes.
But when he starts to preach, he's serious as salvation, and the fire in his delivery is reminiscent of the pastor he watched for 13 years. Ron bounds about the front of the strip-mall hall, preaching his message for the evening: that Christianity of late has been too much about condemning and not enough about comforting, too much about stoning and not enough about saving. Relaying the scene in the Book of John about the adulteress who is brought before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees, Garner throws imaginary stones at the crowd, shouting with each one. Homosexuals! Drug addicts! Adulterers! Drunkards! In the Bible, Jesus answered the accusations, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." And Garner speculates on the scene that followed Jesus' profound words. Thunk, thunk, thunk. The scribes and the Pharisees must have let their heavy rocks fall to the ground one by one. That, says Garner, is what we should all do.
But there is one stone that Ron Garner will not drop. There is one stone for the man who saved him, the man who introduced him to Jesus, the man who kept his family together, the man who gave him a new career, the man who betrayed him, the man he hopes he never becomes. That stone he will throw with all his might.