Disgraced Dallas televangelist Robert Tilton has new life, third wife in Miami

The Dallas Morning News/may 28, 2009

An indication of just how far below the radar he flies nowadays came in February when a masked gunman invaded Tilton's beachfront mansion, and the Miami news media didn't even bother to report the incident.

In the go-go 1980s, after his evangelistic star had risen, a dramatic and potentially violent crime against Tilton would have made national news.

Tilton and his third wife, Maria, were not physically harmed and nothing was stolen. The Miami Police Department characterized the incident as a botched "robbery" that ended when the suspect got spooked and ran from the home.

But it also could have been an attempted kidnapping. The Tiltons' twin toddlers - daughters Elijah and Rebekah - were at home with their nanny when the man barged into the home.

Or perhaps the incident sprang from a glitch in Tilton's labyrinthine network of business dealings, which includes for-profit companies as well as worldwide church activities involving millions of dollars.

"To date, no one knows why [the incident happened] or for what reason," said Brooke Asiatico, a Richardson attorney who represents Tilton. "We want to be careful."

Police haven't made any arrests in the case. Asiatico said the Tiltons were traveling and were not available to be interviewed.

After the home invasion, the Tiltons moved out of their 8,000-square-foot Miami Beach mansion and into a South Beach high-rise with 24-hour security. They put the house on the market for $6.9 million.

Longtime Dallas-area residents will remember Tilton's Word of Faith Family Church in Farmers Branch. From the late 1970s until the mid-1990s, the church occupied a warehouse-sized building on the east side of Interstate 35E near the Valley View Lane exit.

Just north of the church, a towering grain silo became a landmark for interstate travelers. It was festooned with a colorful rainbow overlaid with the words "Jesus is Lord" and a permanent invitation to attend Tilton's church.

Today, Tilton plies his trade on a Web site called streamingfaith.com. On the daily one-hour program called Robert Tilton Live! he promotes his patented Success N Life gospel, which generally postulates that God will reward donors with blessings that far outstrip the amount of the check they send to pastors such as Tilton.

Like any minister, he says he will pray for his donors and ask God to relieve their problems. But he is careful not to promise that their donations will work a miracle such as curing a loved one's illness.

Mr. Tilton, whose Web site says he has authored 25 books, currently is offering a free edition of How to Pay Your Bills Supernaturally.

Tilton still appears on cable's Black Entertainment Network, or BET, at 3 a.m. Mondays with reruns or new editions of Success N Life.

Ole Anthony, an East Dallas preacher who has watchdogged Tilton for years, said he is not surprised the old television warrior climbed aboard the Web.

"It's just another way for him to keep making those outlandish promises," said Anthony, founder of the Trinity Foundation and archenemy of Tilton. "And to replenish his mailing list with fresh names and addresses."

Tilton, who will turn 63 on June 7, also continues to reinvent his personal life in Florida. He and his 49-year-old wife became the proud parents of Elijah and Rebekah in January 2008.

The couple presented the girls on Tilton's Web site in April and let viewers watch them scuttle around the television studio for a few minutes before launching into their "prosperity" sermon.

"Yes, Bob changes diapers," Maria told viewers.

Lower hair, profile

Tilton's style is subdued compared to the old days when he spoke in tongues and once talked about rats eating his brain.

He's toned down his evangicoiff; he's a little grayer; his tanned face a little craggier. But he still dresses well in suit and tie. He and his wife drive a black Range Rover, a black Mercedes Benz and a blue Bentley when in Miami.

Asiatico, Tilton's attorney, said last week that the home invasion has not driven her client into hiding. The Tiltons still fly around the country to preach at various churches and take care of their ministries, she said.

Tilton is senior pastor, president and chairman of the Word of Faith World Outreach Center Church in Las Vegas and holds the same title at a church of the same name in Miami, according to public records.

Anthony and his Trinity Foundation said they have obtained records showing that the Tiltons may have earned salaries totaling more than $1.2 million as church pastors in 2003. In a written statement, Asiatico said, "None of this information is accurate." But she didn't offer a specific salary number in rebuttal.

In addition to their church work, Tilton also owns a publishing company and several other for-profit businesses.

Records filed with the Nevada secretary of state's office in 2006 list Tilton as president, secretary, treasurer and director of Stella Vita International, a multi-level marketing operation that sells nutritional supplements.

Stella Vita appears to blend Tilton's prosperity message with network marketing. He has held a series of meetings to attract potential investors in Stella Vita. The "Prosperity Opportunity" meetings took on the flavor of tent revivals.

"I'm not so sure I see the difference," Tilton was quoted as saying in a 2006 news release. "Ever since I got rid of religion, I've had a party with God! And now we're all going to have a party with Stella Vita" - a quote that would make his lawyer wince.

Asiatico said Tilton has sought legal counsel and abided by all laws to ensure that tax-exempt church entities are not promoting Stella Vita products.

"It is not unusual for pastors to have investments and other sources of income separate and apart from their compensation as ministers of the Gospel," she said.

Prayer requests tossed

Word of Faith was a megachurch before the term was invented.

And by the late 1980s, Tilton was flying high as its leader. More important, his Success N Life television program and his satellite outreach to churches throughout the world were producing so much revenue that he was able to buy television airtime in at least 200 of the nation's 235 television markets.

Tilton's list of names and addresses, gold to mass marketers, swelled into the hundreds of thousands.

Anthony and his Trinity Foundation investigators estimated that Tilton and his enterprises were bringing in $70 million to $80 million a year in gross revenue. Then, in the space of one hour, Diane Sawyer and ABC News blew him away.

The evening of Nov. 21, 1991, ABC News aired a dramatic hidden-camera report that lifted the veil on Tilton's "fulfillment" operation in Tulsa, Okla.

Video showed workers opening donor letters and setting aside checks and cash for deposit. They entered donor names and addresses into a computer, which then spit out a form letter saying Tilton had received their prayer request and was now asking God to help them.

Investigators found many of the donor prayer requests in a Dumpster, according to the ABC report.

Marte Tilton, the evangelist's first wife, with whom he had four children, recalled watching the broadcast and described the experience in a memoir published in 2000.

"We sat motionless and speechless through the entire program," said Tilton's former wife, whom he divorced in 1993. "Overnight, we became objects of public ridicule and a flurry of lawsuits."

The television report was devastating because Tilton had promised his viewers he would prayerfully ask God to help them with specific problems.

The revelations prompted more than a dozen disgruntled donors to file lawsuits alleging that Tilton had engaged in fraud.

Tilton migrated to South Florida, where he had maintained a vacation home. After a short second marriage, he found Maria Hortensia Rodriguez, 13 years his junior, and embarked on his third marriage.

They built their dream home in 2003 - a five-bedroom, eight-bathroom, oceanfront palace on San Marco Island with a fabulous view of the Miami skyline.

Birthday terror

Tuesday, Feb. 3, was Maria Tilton's 49th birthday. She and her husband had returned home after a dinner out and were sitting in their backyard drinking wine, according to the police report.

At 9:20 p.m., a masked man dressed in black and wearing gloves confronted the couple with a large semiautomatic pistol.

He ordered them to go inside the house, placed them facedown on the floor and bound their wrists with plastic "flexi-cuffs."

The Tiltons' nanny was at home at the time.

The intruder became worried about the family poodles making noise in the backyard and ordered the nanny to bring the dogs indoors.

He followed her toward the door and Maria Tilton, noticing he had left the room, jumped up and ran screaming out the front door.

Police believe a second intruder may also have been in the house.

After Maria Tilton escaped, the gunman "called out the name 'John' twice" before running from the home, the police report said.

A passer-by found the hysterical woman running down the street and called 911.

Later, police found a ski mask and a plastic grip that appeared to have come loose from a handgun. Robert Tilton later told friends that he believed the gunman's pistol had been equipped with a silencer, but the police report made no mention of it.

A person familiar with the investigation, who asked not to be identified, said police observed that Tilton - who is no stranger to adversity and hardship - seemed to be calm after the incident.

"This wasn't Bob's first rodeo when it comes to big events," the person said.

Timeline: Robert Tilton

March 1976: Robert Tilton holds the first service at Word of Faith Family Church in Farmers Branch.

July 1981: Tilton establishes a satellite network to beam his sermons and teachings worldwide.

January 1988: Word of Faith church membership reaches an estimated 8,000.

October 1990: A USA Today story on Tilton says, "TV Minister's Star on the Rise."

November 1991: An ABC News expose devastates Tilton's church and television ministry.

April 1993: Viewership of Tilton's Success N Life television show falls 84 percent.

September 1993: Tilton pulls the plug on his TV ministry.

April 1997: Tilton moves to the Miami area and resurrects Success N Life on television.

April 1999: Word of Faith church, which had become a landmark on Interstate 35E, is sold.

May 2003: Tilton builds a $5 million home on the Miami Beach oceanfront.

June 2006: Tilton becomes president of Stella Vita International, which touts its nutritional supplements as a path to prosperity.

January 2008: Twin daughters born to Tilton and his third wife, Maria.

February 2009: Two masked men with handguns invade Tilton's home and briefly hold him and Maria hostage.

April 2009: Maria says she cannot go back to the beachfront home. It goes on the market for $6.9 million.

Source: Dallas Morning News research

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