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Bakker Gets 45 Years in Prison : Fraud: The defrocked television evangelist is also fined $500,000 in connection with selling 'lifetime partnerships' in the PTL ministry.

October 25, 1989|LEE MAY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A federal judge sentenced defrocked television evangelist Jim Bakker to 45 years in prison and fined him $500,000 on Tuesday for perpetrating a "massive fraud" on the followers of his PTL ministry.

U.S. District Judge Robert Potter, known here as "Maximum Bob" because of his stiff sentences, refused Bakker's plea to remain free pending appeal and ordered him sent to a federal facility in Talladega, Ala. Bakker was led from the federal courthouse in handcuffs.

Before his sentencing, Bakker, in a quiet voice that cracked momentarily, said: "I want to say I am deeply sorry for the people that have been hurt, for the partners and the people who worked at Heritage USA. I have sinned. I have made mistakes. But never in my life did I intend to defraud anyone, and I plead for your mercy."

Bakker was convicted on Oct. 5 of 24 counts of wire and mail fraud and conspiracy in connection with the sale of "lifetime partnerships" at the ministry's Heritage USA resort. A jury found that Bakker used more than $3.7 million of the proceeds to buy luxurious homes, cars, jewelry and expensive vactions.

As he pronounced sentence, Potter recounted much of the prosecution's case. He noted the six-figure bonuses the Bakkers received even as PTL finances plummeted, and the Rolex watches and Mercedes-Benzes the Bakker's had bought with money from partners.

"There was massive fraud here," the judge said.

"I'm concerned about the hundreds of letters I have here from people who say they'd do anything for him and that could include preventing Mr. Bakker from going to prison," Potter said.

Therefore, the judge said, "I think we're going to have to put him into custody."

Prosecutors said Bakker will be eligible for parole in 10 years. While his attorney called the sentence stiff, Bakker could have received a maximum 120 years in prison and fines totaling $5 million.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Jerry Miller said the sentence "sends a message that you can't use TV and the mails to make fraudulent statements to get people to send money to you. This is a simple fraud case."

Bakker's attorney, Harold Bender, said his client was "in as good spirits as he can be under the circumstances. Of course, he's concerned about the lengthy sentence, but he has strong faith and will come through."

Bakker, 49, remained stoic through the sentencing hearing, gazing up attentively as Bender argued passionately for mercy. Bakker's daughter, Tammy Sue Chapman, 19, moaned as the judge refused to let her father remain free. Bakker's flamboyant wife, Tammy Faye, did not attend the hearing.

Although he is appealing his conviction, Bakker's sentencing appears to mark the end of a remarkable story of his rise to the top of TV evangelism and his fall from grace--a fall that began two years ago with the revelation of his 1980 sexual encounter with church secretary Jessica Hahn.

Zany and filled with bizarre twists, the Bakker case was true to form to the end. One of Bakker's attorneys, George Davis, did not attend the hearing. Davis, whose frequently contentious exchanges with Potter became standard fare during the trial, reportedly was dismissed by Bakker, but Davis contends he quit.

A throng of Bakker supporters filled the courthouse lawn, some carrying signs and complaining about the sentence. Some sang spirituals, their mood now subdued rather than defiant, as it had been during the trial.

Inside the gray, two-story courthouse, the hearing, which lasted about two hours, centered on defense efforts to lighten Bakker's sentence and to keep him free on appeal, while the prosecution argued for a long sentence and incarceration during appeal, asserting that Bakker presented a "flight risk."

Dressed in a gray suit and white shirt (before heading for prison, he changed into a blue jacket), a somber Bakker stood briefly to make his statement.

A jury of six women and six men had convicted him after only 10 hours of deliberation, agreeing with the prosecution that Bakker had oversold the "partnerships," which typically cost $1,000 apiece. The partnerships supposedly guaranteed the purchasers three nights lodging annually for life at Heritage USA, a Christian theme park located in nearby Ft. Mill, S.C.

However, many partners testified during the 22-day trial that they were told there was no room at Heritage, and a group of partners has filed suit to recover their money. In his sentencing, Potter declined to address the question of restitution.

In the wake of the jury's resounding verdict, Bakker, the once-charismatic minister who persuaded thousands of people to join PTL (People That Love, or Praise the Lord), was singularly ineffective in his effort to gain leniency from Potter.

Bender, Bakker's feisty attorney, suggested at one point that Bakker should be given probation and allowed to return to PTL--an idea he acknowledged likely would be scorned. It was.

Bender's plan would have given Bakker five years to complete "his vision, his dream and his promise to the partners." If he failed, Bender said, then he should be sent to jail. During the trial, Bakker contended that he had a plan for building enough lodging to accommodate all of the partnerships sold.

Bender asked: "What's the harm . . . to the people . . . and the victims in allowing Rev. Bakker to do that?'

But Miller, the prosecutor, said allowing Bakker to rejoin PTL would be "putting the fox right back in the hen house."

BACKGROUND

Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker created the PTL (Praise the Lord or People That Love) organization in 1974 and quickly built it into one of the nation's largest television ministries. He resigned in March, 1987, after admitting to a sexual encounter with church secretary Jessica Hahn. In December of last year, Bakker was indicted on charges of defrauding followers who had bought time shares in a PTL resort, leading to Tuesday's sentencing.

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