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Rainbow Man's dark side keeps him from getting out

CROWE'S NEST

May 19, 2008|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

IONE, Calif. -- For more than 10 years starting in the late 1970s, Rollen Stewart was the nation's most celebrated sports fan, a wig-wearing, wigged-out self-promoter who showed up at virtually every major athletic event worldwide and always managed to plant himself smack-dab in front of a television camera.

He was known as the Rainbow Man, for the multicolored Afro wigs he sported, or Rock 'n' Rollen, for the party vibe he exuded. Later, after finding religion, he morphed into the John 3:16 guy, for the Biblical messages he espoused.

He says he drove about 60,000 miles a year to attend events, and he got more TV face time than the network announcers who sometimes left him tickets.

He found fame, as planned, simply by showing up.

But the fanatic who was always there, Stewart says, really was no fan at all.

"I despised sports," he says.

Stewart is 63 now, no longer wears an Afro or any other type of hairpiece to mask his baldness and last attended a sporting event about 20 years ago.

Serving three life sentences for hostage-taking, he has been imprisoned since 1992. The punishment was the result of a bizarre incident in which an armed Stewart locked himself in a hotel room near Los Angeles International Airport and kicked off an 8 1/2 -hour standoff with police, demanding a three-hour, televised news conference to air his views. Earlier, he had driven two day laborers to the hotel, both of whom escaped, and encountered a frightened housekeeper who locked herself in a bathroom.

Currently serving time at Mule Creek State Prison, about an hour southeast of Sacramento, he has been denied parole three times in the last six years, most recently in March, and does not believe he will ever be set free.

"Jesus will come back before I get out," Stewart tells a visitor from Los Angeles, his startlingly blue eyes revealing little emotion. "To justify their own unbelief, they use me as a scapegoat so they can sleep at night.

"But they've still got their Rolaids next to the bed."

Stewart says his "final presentation" in 1992 was mistimed -- the end of the world was nigh, he believed -- but otherwise does not regret his actions.

"It was a crime to prevent a greater harm," he says, explaining that it was his duty to warn the world of the coming Apocalypse. "If somebody's standing in the way of me going into a burning building, I'm going to knock them on their butt."

As Stewart reveals in "The Rainbow Man/John 3:16," a 1997 documentary by filmmaker Sam Green, his views were not always so extreme, nor his actions threatening. When Stewart, a former marijuana farmer, initially conceived the Rainbow Man in the late 1970s, it was to draw attention to himself.

In Stewart's autobiography, Green's film reveals, the author writes, "Instead of going to Hollywood and waiting in casting lines for years, I would be world famous overnight . . . and have complete control over my life."

He carried a battery-powered TV to see where the cameras were pointed, sneaked into the best seats and positioned himself for maximum exposure.

Stewart, however, tells a prison visitor that he is a "very quiet, shy person," adding matter-of-factly, "The Rainbow Man was not me; he was a character."

In order to play him, he says, he needed to be stoned.

"Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll," he says. "That was my thing."

In time, though, Stewart says he wearied of "chasing the Hollywood high," though he continued smoking pot. Nor did his unusual fame endear him to Hollywood. A beer commercial was about all he had to show for his efforts at self-promotion. In January 1980, after attending Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl, Stewart says he was mesmerized by a TV evangelist and found Jesus.

Making his way through an estimated 80 rainbow wigs -- "They got dirty, and I told people it was my real hair," he says -- Stewart continued crisscrossing the country into the late '80s, this time showing up at sporting and other news events wearing T-shirts and carrying sheets touting Bible passages, most frequently John 3:16. "Sports was only a vehicle," he says, "because to a lot of people, that's their God."

Nine times out of 10, Stewart says, he wrangled free tickets. But as Stewart's act grew stale and less fun-loving, TV tried to limit his exposure.

As veteran announcer Brent Musberger told ESPN several years ago, "I know directors who threatened to kill the guy in their anger in the truck because he would get in behind very dramatic shots and the eye, as you watched the screen, would be attracted immediately to this wacko."

The late '80s brought the end of the Rainbow Man. Stewart's car was totaled, his money ran out and his wife left him, saying he choked her because she held up a sign in the wrong location. "No one can meet my standards," says Stewart, who has been married four times, "but I don't recall ever hitting her."

Homeless and living in L.A.'s Skid Row, he hatched another, more sinister character. Targeting churches, religious broadcasters and newspaper offices, he set off a string of stink bombs to warn of the world's impending doom.

That led, finally, to his standoff with the LAPD.

In prison, Stewart says, "They say I'm a threat to society."

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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