Six months studying at Christ for the Nations to be a good missionary and yet there I was... drunk, high, and trying to push the television evangelist Mike Murdock's six hundred pound safe down a flight of stairs. It wasn't that I just wanted to steal the man's money. I mean, of course I wanted to steal his money, but more than that, I had truly come to hate the man and everything he represents. I had come to hate the lies, the deception, the greed, the backroom deals, the secrets, the sex and all the pain that comes in pursuit of Christian television's greatest god--the dollar bill.
To me, Mike Murdock was the greasiest of the bunch. While the world was watching the suit, tie and open Bible on their television screens, I was in places that the cameras never go.
My best friend (Mike's son, Jason Murdock) and I used to spend hours in the same electronically locked closet that I had just pried the hinges off of. We would pretend we were kings--trying on Rolex watches, playing heads or tails with ancient coins, covering ourselves in gold bracelets and diamond rings, and, least noteworthy, raiding the "holy" Dr. Murdock's extensive porn collection.
Once, Jason pulled a ten thousand-dollar Augustus Caesar Denarius out of the rare coin section of his father's closet. He went on and on about how he had never had that expensive of a trinket settled in the bottom of his pocket. "Who has?" I asked him. To avoid the headache of argument, I ended up helping him break the thing out of its glass case with a hammer. Jason grinned as he slid it into his pants pocket.
Later that night, after stumbling out of a shady gothic night club and crawling into the back of one of the Christian Ministry's limos, I asked him about the coin. Drunkenly checking his pockets, a somber look on his face, he responded: "Oh shit!" Probably one of the rare moments in history where someone has mistaken ten grand for an ordinary quarter -- no doubt to buy another drink for some sleazy underworld tramp whose name neither of us can remember.
Most people go to prison for less. But, in the world I lived in, no one even noticed. Or, the other possibility, perhaps Murdock did notice; he just didn't say anything, like the pet lion he owned that would just lay waiting for a bigger chicken to get loose.
While I was a seminary student at Christ for the Nations I considered Mike's closet like a personal account where I could make small withdrawals in exchange for keeping my mouth shut. It is a burden living in a Christian bubble without ever talking about the hidden godly paradise, complete with big-breasted bimbos, sex toys, porn, and, as Jason put it, the best quality dope money can buy.
In my mind it was all a trade, an unspoken arrangement.
And, this isn't my imagination making things better than they were. Back then, I would have rather walked into my best friend's father's closet than to have been the guy to discover King Tut's Tomb.
There were bins and bins of gold rings, hanging cases full of bracelets and necklaces, coins, and a grand disorganization of precious stamps. There was stuff in there that could cause the hands of a man at a hole-in-the-wall pawnshop to tremble. I know. I've seen it. I've held it. I've paid my rent off of it. That closet was larger than the apartment I'm sitting in to type this page.
But, my point is this, all that grand wonder, the shine of gold and sparkle of diamonds, surrounded a single object: The Safe.
By that night---the night everything in my life changed forever, I knew every inch of it. I had dreamed about it, fantasized about it, and woke up with hot sweats because of it. Damn it, I wanted it!
More than that, I had become numb. I didn't start life as bad guy. Like boiling a frog, I just kind of became that way. Take my word for it, a lot has to happen to a man's mind before believing that ripping off a television evangelist is the best and only option left. I felt I had been wronged and I was there to make things right. Greater still, I knew that virtually none of that money was going to Murdock's so-called "charities." It was merely a private slush fund fueling his lust for obedient listeners, earthly possessions, large bank accounts, trophy women, sexual escapades and power. For all these reasons, I wouldn't have felt a bit bad about taking every last red cent he had.
So, if you started this story to hear about a good Christian boy that naively got abused by a bunch of big bad wolves, then you may have bought the wrong book or sat down in the wrong theater. I was no innocent duckling. I was no hero. I had become a dirty, rotten scoundrel just like the rest of them.
Thus, I drove down that twelve mile stretch of tall pine trees on the outskirts of Denton. With careful eyes I rolled into an entrance concealed under the dangling moss of a dozen willows. I crossed the tiny English style bridge and found myself before the towering gate to the private paradise of a greedy glutton, a liar, an adulterer, and author of the Topical Bible Series for Men: Mike Murdock.
I knew the gate code, 0714, which stands for Matthew 7:14 --"...small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life and few are those who find it."
Nevertheless, I felt it more appropriate to open that electronic fence with the front end of my friend Jack Moates' Cadillac.
Smash! There were a few sparks and the sound of grinding metal as the luminously majestic gate to Hacienda de Paz gave way in the otherwise calm night air.
One might wonder if such a dramatic entrance would draw attention.
Not a chance.
On that stretching acreage of trimmed trees, carved bushes and perfectly groomed green grass the only thing I may have disturbed were the families of birds in the branches above. With the good Dr. Murdock away on his holy annual trip to Israel, the security was looser than a drunken Catholic girl's vow to virginity.
Oh indeed, I was in. I was ready. In fact, I was more than ready. I was loaded on Oxycontin, and Screwdrivers made with the cheapest grade vodka they sell over the shelf.
"Oops... Sorry Mike." I couldn't help but speak aloud. I could feel the shattering of expensive looking ground lights that decorated the windy path of pristine pavement that led to the main house. One by one they went black as they were rapidly sucked under the front bumper one burst of glass and plastic at a time.
Pulling into the parking area alongside a limousine, ministry Corvette, Lincoln Town Car and other such shiny things, I slammed on the brakes.
I can remember drawing a deep breath as I climbed from the vehicle. Even as drunk as I was, I would be lying to say that I wasn't nervous.
Who wouldn't be?
I was in the sacred hidden center of one of the prettiest dark empires man's eyes were ever meant to see. I was an uninvited pilgrim in the dead middle, the underbelly, the beating heart of one of Christian Television's modern day pillars. More than that, I wasn't there to bow my head. I wasn't there to buy a book. I wasn't there to put my offering in the plate. No. I was there to slip my hand into the cookie jar. Let me re-phrase that: I was there to break the cookie jar. I was there to rob Mike Murdock
I was surrounded by the grandness of his grandeur. I was surrounded by everything that little old ladies and good Christians' charitable donations could buy. I was surrounded by the numerous adobe buildings with Spanish tile roofs, to the hanging balconies, to the tennis courts, to the gymnasium, to the steaming saunas, to the indoor basketball court, to the enormous heated Jacuzzi, to the gazebo, to the waterfalls, to the colorful variety of exotic birds that surrounded the swimming pool, to the camels in their pens, to the Llamas that wandered the property, and the African Reindeer grazing behind twenty-foot fences. From a network of speakers in every tree, I could hear Mike Murdock playing his own horrible singing and ear-piercing music to innocent forest creatures that must endure it twenty-four hours of every day.
It was amidst all of this orchestrated chaos that I took my first steps up the concrete stairs that lead to the glass patio; the door I would use to enter the grand hacienda of a man I never liked.
Yes, I was nervous. But there comes a point where you are too far in to turn back. For me, that was the point when I first dreamed this fragile little plan up.
Walking up those steps, I knew that these moments were about to change my life forever, for better or for worse. This was no-nonsense. This was serious. This was the real deal. To be honest, thinking back, it would probably be a hundred times safer to rip off a dope dealer at pistol point than to do exactly what I was set to do with every step up those stone stairs. This wasn't Mr. Rogers, nor was this anywhere near his neighborhood. Murdock was not a man who would play by the rules.
There is another side to the smiling, black-bearded face you might see holding a Bible through the pixels on your TV screen. There is a face behind that screen I have seen screaming in frenzied, violent rage more than once. There is a face I have seen covered in drool after beating the keys off of a grand piano with his bare fists. There is a face that has made my best friend, Jason Murdock, cry in pain, fear, and shame more times than I care to recall even as I type this page. There is a face that preys on the weak, thrives on the hopeless, takes from the sick and builds empires on the backs of the poor.
Before that night, the last time I had seen my best friend's father's face, he had told me that he was God. With a pair of rubber gloves, a household hammer, and a common crowbar, I had come to test that theory.
I knew the alarm system would be shut down for the entourage of housekeeping, animal tending, poop scooping and yard grooming people that appear at the crack of dawn every morning.
Making entrance to Hacienda de Paz, I walked through the entertainment room, past the theater-size projection television screen, made it beyond a grand piano and arrived at the first of three heavy doors with electronic locks and key pad entry systems; barriers beyond which lay the grand prize.
As a side note, for all of you folks out there trying to buy security to protect your precious things; big fancy locks and steel-plated doors work best when the hinges aren't on the outside.
Forty-five seconds, one screwdriver and a couple of dozen bangs of the hammer and door number one was ripped out of place like my life depended on it.
Tools still in hand, I made the short walk up the stairs to door number two.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Rip! Screech! Rip! Screech! Tear!
Boom! Nothing like a final touch with the bottom of a steel-toed boot; a ten and a half inch mark of evidence that, days later, would have detectives looking at the bottom of a lot of ministry employee's shoes.
It was in that moment that I stepped into the bedroom of the great "You Can Make It" PTL theme song writer, common guest on Christian stations such as TBN, CBN, INSP, and Daystar, host of the weekly television show "Wisdom Keys", founder of the Wisdom Center, and author more than 250 Christian books (most of them money soliciting pamplets), including: Wisdom for Winning, Secrets of the Richest Man Who Ever Lived, The Widow's Topical Bible Series and The Sex Trap.
Of all the times I'd been in that room, this occasion felt the most eerie, the most awkward and the most uncomfortable. On this occasion, unlike any before it, I was alone.
From the large second story balcony windows I could see a full sweep of the property--the animals, the pool, the gymnasium, and the tennis courts.
But I couldn't stop. I couldn't pause. I couldn't hesitate. Not now. Not this close to the finish.
In some degree of disbelief, I stood in front of the door that I had driven two hundred miles to get to: The door of all doors.
Playtime was over. I tore it open in less time than it would have taken to twist the handle.
There it was, nestled in the back just like I knew it would be. My hands trembled as I hung my crowbar on the back of my belt. I had dreamed of this moment, the pot of gold at the end of a very long, dark rainbow.
There were four massive cabinets in that closet.
The first was a five-foot high stamp collection of every rare and unique piece of postage the mind can imagine. The second was a literal mountain of valuable coins, treasury notes and the like. The third was a smorgasbord of hundreds and hundreds of 100% authentic pieces of gold, silver and diamond jewelry; watches, rings, necklaces and the sort.
Last, but certainly not least, was the only cabinet with tightly locked drawers, a Pandora's Box of naughty, naughty secrets and other such unmentionable things. Cabinet number four is the grand collection of all the cute nudie pictures of young females Mike may at times call "Private Ministry Staff." Of these, it seemed he personally enjoyed to display the juicy photos of his ex-mistress Gala the most.
In the locked drawers beneath all of his private photos and favorites was the mad flesh fest of pornography, especially lesbian and girl-on-girl hardcore, paraphernalia, and, dare I say, little bottles of stuff to make the most sensitive of soft spots tingle. There were things in those drawers that would make Marilyn Manson blush.
You may wonder how I know all this.
While I was in seminary school, Jason and I went in that closet every weekend for months. While Mike was away on his big jubilees to collect money from the Christian masses, we crawled all over that property like we owned it. We drove the cars. We invited girls. We drank hard. We played music loud. And we stole lots of little things we thought Mike wouldn't notice to finance our own playful lifestyles of whatever we thought up next. We were good at it, or at least we thought we were. Long story short, there wasn't a lock on that property I hadn't helped my best friend pick.
But, on this night, I hadn't come for bundles of porn; nor had I come to fill a half-dozen trash bags with sparkling trinkets. I had come for the big box in the back. I wanted the "X" that marked the spot. I wanted the contents of the square capsule that sat amidst all this dimly lit treasure. I wasn't here for the foreplay; I was here for the... well, you know what.
Sitting down just aside the safe, I rocked it from side to side just to feel its contents shift. Indeed, there were bundles of something moving in there, lots of bundles, perhaps time to retire in the tender years of my early twenties.
With every ounce of strength I possessed, I pushed that steel beast through Mike's bedroom to the first set of stairs.
I gripped that hunk of metal with both gloved hands, I knew full and well that this was where the really messy part would begin. But that was okay. I had already damaged a great many things on the way in, and I was far from finished.
With a smash like that of bursting concrete, it made impact with the beige tile flooring beneath. As I knocked plants and pricey looking lamp stands from my path, there was an ear-piercing grind of metal against rough marble.
Twisting, pulling and yanking, I maneuvered it out of the glass patio. Rolling it down a set of concrete steps from the pool, I popped the trunk. The hydraulic lift I had brought nearly gave way before the steel beast had a chance to test the strength of Jack's shocks.
Clunk! It slid in. The rear of the car lowered towards the pavement a significant and concerning number of inches. But the safe did fit perfectly, with even a little room to spare. I closed the trunk.
Wiping the sweat from my brow and brushing a colored bird from the door of the car, I smiled, bit my bottom lip, and took a seat behind the wheel.
"You're not out of this yet," I whispered to myself. "Surely it can't be that easy?"
As for the safe-stealing part of it, as hard to believe as it may be, it was that easy.
But Dr. Mike Murdock is not without his tricks, just as the devil is not without his wiles.
Going to the payphones in the back of a western style cowboy bar just outside Dallas, I made my call.
"Have you got it?" the voice asked.
"Yeah, I've got it. But with all that weight in the back, I don't know if the rear end of the car will survive."
"Who gives a damn about the car? This phone call is months in the making. Congratulations. Just get your ass back to Houston and your next stop can be Tahiti."
Walking past pool tables, lingering cigarette smoke and rednecks, I chugged down the last of a beer. Indeed, I was ready to drive home.
Two hundred cop-filled miles and it was now nearly sunrise.
With sparks from the now dragging rear end I pulled into the garage of my shadiest friend at the time, Jack Moates. He ran a chop shop, sold a little cocaine here and there and did some smalltime pimping. But, if you could overlook all of that, he was a really likeable guy.
Standing beside a dusty blonde girl with tracks on her arms, I opened the trunk.
In unison, Jack and I shook our heads and smiled.
"Well," he said, "why don't we cut the suspense and find out what's inside."
"Now, the deal is ten percent," I moved to make sure there would be no disagreement about our arrangement.
"Plus two thousand for the Cadillac." He raised his eyebrows with a serious look.
"Fine," I sighed. "Just get it open."
"Not a problem. Hey, Miguel!" he shouted across the garage. "I need you to come crack this box!"
"My guy with the safe-picking kit took the day off." He crossed his arms and chuckled. "So this will have to do."
The small, grease-covered Spanish man grabbed a gas-powered concrete jackhammer. With the roar of a motor, sparks and shards of metal were cast in every direction. I covered my eyes with a pair of dirty shop goggles.
In minutes the lock gave way.
Slowly, I stepped forward, knelt down, crossed my fingers, and put a single hand on the door to the safe. Taking in a deep breath, I opened the lid.
Leaning in close, my eyes widened and my jaw dropped.
Mike, if you are out there listening, this is the part of my story where you get to smile you son of a bitch.
Have you ever had a moment so devastating that you remember it every day just like it happened yesterday -- a moment that causes you to grit your teeth? A moment so dirty, low-down, horrible and nightmarish that it twists your gut every time you think about it?
For me, this was that moment.
In the world I'd been living in, I was a just another little snake in a pit full of snakes. And, in the snake world, all snakes are equal except one: the King Snake. He eats other snakes. I may not have been completely eaten, but damn it if I wasn't bit.
I could feel angry tears swelling in my eyes as I reached my shaky hands inside....
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