Boasts, beliefs cast clergyman in stark relief

Reinvention - A congregation splinters over a rabbi with a past of ruses, redemption and a record

The Oregonian/July 30, 2006
By Steve Mayes

Milwaukie -- Rabbi Ari Crockett seemed to be an answered prayer to Portland-area Christians hungering to connect with the Jewish roots of their faith. A captivating speaker. A remarkable teacher. A man raised as a Jew who could twine the two religions and bring to life the Old Testament.

But something wasn't right.

Tammy Ovalle's doubts about Crockett began with flashes of anger he sometimes showed his wife and stepchildren. She noticed gaps in his Bible knowledge. Then late last year she found out that $7,000 in donations failed to reach an African relief program when a church check bounced, and she called the cops.

A church official blamed sloppy bookkeeping, and a criminal investigation by the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office ended in April, when Crockett and his wife gave the program a cashier's check for $8,385.72.

But Ovalle's doubts lingered.

After leaving Crockett's church, Ovalle and other former members began peeling back layers of Crockett's past and uncovered a life of deception and reinvention.

Rabbi Crockett isn't Jewish or the grandson of a highly respected rabbi. He never fought in Panama or Grenada, and he didn't lose his leg to a terrorist or a land mine. He doesn't know Steven Spielberg or Bill Gates. He was never a college professor, an international lawyer or a computer scientist. A secret code he once told investors would speed up the Internet consisted of numerical gibberish, including the Star of David and something that looks like a Burger King crown.

Not that he hasn't led an exciting life.

The spiritual leader of Milwaukie's Beth El Congregation, affiliated with an Ohio-based evangelical Christian denomination, has had seven wives. He's been a soldier and a bounty hunter. He's changed his name, escaped from a federal prison and spent time as an international fugitive.

In e-mails, statements and sermons, Crockett has acknowledged past mistakes as part of his story of personal reformation, but he declined repeated requests for interviews. Inside his church, revelations from his past have produced a bitter split.

In January, 32 former congregants and church staff filed a complaint with the Oregon Department of Justice, calling for an investigation of church finances. The case remains open.

Ovalle said she and other former church members are determined to oust Crockett from any position of trust: "It's our moral obligation to stop him," she said.

In April, opponents persuaded a local radio station to cancel his weekly broadcasts.

Eighty or more followers continue to worship at Crockett's church and to believe in his redemption. "Who you were yesterday is not what God cares about," said Ann Seregow, a Beth El spokeswoman. "It's what you do right now that matters." Timothy Ehrmantrout

Ari Crockett lived the first 32 years of his life as Timothy Wilton Ehrmantrout. He was born on Christmas Day 1962 in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, the son of Milo, a groundskeeper for the local electric company, and Judy, a homemaker.

A stepfather, Brian Campbell, said Ehrmantrout was raised Catholic and once served as an altar boy.

A detailed report prepared by a Montana probation officer describes Ehrmantrout's history from childhood, through 1995, when he changed his name to Dallas A. Crockett, and into 1997, when a federal judge considered the report in sentencing Crockett for fraud.

Crockett's parents separated when he was 12, and his mother twice sent him to Spokane-area homes for troubled youths, according to the report. After a brief teenage marriage, Crockett joined the U.S. Army. He served stateside as a chaplain's assistant, family members said.

He married Joy Alexander, the second of seven wives, in 1984, and during their nine-year marriage held several low-paying jobs.

Although prosperity eluded him, Crockett was a quick study and persuasive, Alexander said. "He can learn enough (about a subject) that he can fool the best of the best," Alexander said. "He could sell ants to a picnic."

Crockett's lower left leg was crushed in a 1985 motorcycle accident in Virginia and amputated in 1987, Alexander said.

Over the years, Crockett has given several accounts of how he lost the leg. He's claimed that he participated in the U.S. invasion of Grenada. During the action, Crockett said, a Cuban soldier shot him in the face and a land mine blew off part of his leg. A Department of Veterans Affairs inquiry determined in 1993 that Crockett "had no combat duty and when examined for separation from service, his left leg was normal."

In the early 1980s, Crockett briefly attended Liberty University, founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

"He claimed to be a Grenada hero," recalled Pastor David Heerspink, who was head of campus security in the 1980s. "He's a con artist and a habitual liar."

Cowboy singer

In the early 1990s, Crockett began reinventing himself, with progressively imaginative personas.

He became Taron Leigh James, a would-be country-western star, and married Brandy Davis, 18. In his handwritten promotional material, he claimed to be an Idaho cattle rancher's son and a rodeo competitor.

He asked Nashville veteran Woody Bowles to manage his career, claiming, Bowles said, to have a record contract with a company affiliated with director Steven Spielberg. Bowles, who's managed stars including the Judds and Terri Clark, contacted Spielberg's office and learned that Crockett was lying.

"I was all over it like a monkey on a cupcake," Bowles said, and "got him to admit" that there was no contract.

Brandy James told police she left Crockett after she learned he was using an alias. She accused him of ruining her credit and stealing money from her.

Soon after, he returned to the Northwest and began exploring new professions.

The Scottish lawyer

Back in Spokane, Crockett worked briefly as a bounty hunter and, in 1994, married his fourth wife, Kerry Kennedy, a Spokane bartender.

Kennedy's stepfather, Victor La Vanway, said Crockett claimed to have served as a military sniper during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. At one point, the story goes, Crockett had Saddam Hussein in his sights but was ordered not to fire.

"He couldn't open his mouth without lying," said La Vanway said.

La Vanway said that after his wife was threatened by Crockett, his family obtained a permanent restraining order.

Crockett and Kennedy moved to New Mexico, where they attended a Mormon church. Then, in 1996, they relocated to Helena, Mont., introducing themselves as Michael and Kasey McCleod.

The 1997 presentencing report detailed their activities:

Crockett set up shop as a lawyer, bragging that he had worked as an attorney for the Scottish government, while his wife did business as a psychiatrist and sex therapist. He later told federal investigators that he had bought a book that explained how to change identities and assume a new role.

In Helena, Crockett used bogus documents to obtain a bank loan, tried to borrow money on land he didn't own, and failed to pay for office equipment, jewelry and home furnishings, and his employees' wages, court records show. Among his creditors: Domino's Pizza, Pac-Rat Pawn and a woman hired to translate documents from English to German.

His legal career ended with a federal indictment. In March 1997, Crockett pleaded guilty to mail and bank fraud and was sentenced to 14 months in the Sheridan minimum-security federal prison, and ordered to pay $31,867 in restitution.

Later that year, Crockett informed his probation officer that he was considering a new career: computer science.

The Internet genius

In early 1998, Crockett started Think Technology in Spokane.

Federal court records, a June 1998 cease-and-desist order from Washington state and an executive summary for Think Technology's CompuShop outlined his foray into computer technology.

Crockett claimed to be a computer whiz who had worked at Microsoft and Apple, and held a Ph.D. in particle physics. He told prospective investors that he and an associate had developed software that could speed up the transfer of data over the Internet so fast that a full-length movie could be downloaded in five seconds.

"He said he was working the final bugs out of it and was looking for investors," said Dan Brailey, a Spokane resident who got in on the ground floor of what appeared to be an amazing opportunity. "He was running around in Armani suits," Brailey said. "Everyone believed he was this great miracle worker."

Washington state officials determined that Crockett collected more than $200,000 from investors. In addition, Crockett's mother and stepfather contributed $17,000 for startup costs.

The Internet scam violated terms of Crockett's federal parole and landed him back in Sheridan.

But not for long.

In November 1999, aided by his fifth wife, Jodie, Crockett escaped and fled to Mexico, Scotland, England and then Canada, according to the U.S. Marshals Service and court records.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, acting on a tip from a U.S. marshal, caught the couple at a Vancouver, B.C., coffeehouse where they used the Internet to keep in touch with relatives and friends.

Crockett went back to prison -- this time in Minnesota -- but served just four months. He received a reduced sentence for providing information about another Canadian inmate later charged in a Baltimore murder.

In 2000, Crockett moved to Oregon and enrolled at Portland State University.

Student and teacher

Crockett studied sociology at PSU, became a regular churchgoer and married his sixth wife, A'Dawn Northern, 22, a single mother.

He proved an able scholar, taking several graduate-level courses and acing most of his classes.

He also earned a reputation of fabricating claims of Jewish heritage. He told professors that his mother served in Israeli military intelligence and that he lost his leg in a terror attack in Israel committed by a 14-year-old Palestinian boy.

"This Jewish thing was something he picked up," said Robert Liebman, a PSU sociology professor and academic director of a Judaic studies program.

After a fallout with leaders of Kehilat Ari Yehudah, a Messianic Jewish congregation where he worshipped, Crockett married his seventh wife, Christine Brandon, and formed his own church.

Beth El Congregation is affiliated with the Church of God, General Conference, a Christian organization that has branched into the Hebrew Roots movement. Some of its churches study the Torah, celebrate Jewish holidays and refer to pastors as rabbis. Top church officials said they are familiar with aspects of Crockett's past and fully support him.

On a recent Saturday afternoon in Milwaukie, 40 cars were in the parking lot of the church where Beth El rents space. Inside, Taron Leigh James had traded his cowboy hat for a yarmulke. The one-time country music hopeful strapped on a black-and-white electric guitar and his Christian rock band kicked into gear.

Tammy Ovalle recalls the power of Crockett's appeal as a spiritual leader. But now she wonders whether Beth El isn't just another of Crockett's scams.

In a recent e-mail to his congregation, Crockett called Ovalle and other detractors "ravenous wolves."

Although Crockett declined to be interviewed for this story, he provided a brief written statement:

"Even since the earliest days of our ministry we have never hidden the fact that I had been a convicted criminal, in fact we promote it," Crockett wrote.

"Beth El is a place of second chances for all who have been damaged by bad choices in life. God has given me a second chance, and I wish to dedicate my life to living that out that chance and not just talking about it."

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