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DENVER—Satanists and the demon-possessed show up frequently in Bob Larson's ministry, and they love to dial 1-800-821-TALK for apocalyptic showdowns with the energetic radio talk-show host. For two hours every day, via satellite from Denver, about 175 radio stations across the country carry Larson's slugfest with the supernatural, Talk-Back With Bob Larson.
"What do you want? Mr. Milquetoast?" he says in a promotional tape. "Hey, flip the dial. This is me, this is real, this is Talk-Back.
He blasts "white, middle-class, plush-pewed Christians"-many of whom pay his salary-if they don't share his courage or convictions in going eye-to-eye with evil.
Larson clearly understands the theology and moral teachings of Christianity. He can explain salvation through grace concisely, and he is an articulate advocate of evangelical views on such issues as abortion and sexual morality
But 13 past Larson associates interviewed for the story-nine speaking openly, four confidentially-challenge Larson's public image.
Larson Has refused to speak with the two writers of this story. Ten of his employees, both past and present, also declined to be interviewed, some citing a fear of retribution, others citing loyalty.
Current and former employees and other associates of Bob Larson Ministries portray a self-absorbed man who verbally and emotionally abuses employees and exaggerates the number of people he helps.
They tell of Larson watching a computer screen for a running tally of donations even as he counsels the distressed.
They tell of Larson exploiting the purported victims of satanic ritual abuse, whose often-horrific stories he rarely, if ever, verifies.
They tell of Larson demanding signed confidentiality agreements from employees, particularly those who help write his books.
Larson has refused to provide for this story evidence to support his theory of a nationwide cult that breeds babies for human sacrifices and rapes teenage girls in the name of Satan. Some who question him, he says, are sowing discord in the body of Christ and are intent on destroying his ministry.
Ramona Kotschwar of Culbertson, Neb., remembers that as a high school senior, Larson announced his plans "to become a doctor and make lots of money."
Larson never became a doctor-he dropped out of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln in 1964, about two years after graduation from high school-but he has made lots of money.
On Talk-Back, Larson frequently bemoans the ministry's financial condition. But in the years 1989-91, the ministry paid Larson salaries totaling $607,806, according to Internal Revenue Service records. In 1991, the ministry provided an expense account of $76,300, which is more than Billy Graham's salary. Larson's expense account was #35,750 in 1990, according to the records, which by law are open to public inspection.
Other records show that those totals do not include royalties from his 21 books and consulting fees paid to Larson by the Canadian arm of Bob Larson Ministries.
Bob Larson Ministries belongs to National Religious Broadcasters and is certified by EFICOM, the organization's Ethics and Financial Integrity Commission. But as a not-for-profit member of NRB, BLM has no choice in the matter. NRB bylaws require all non-profit members to be certified by EFICOM.
An EFICOM spokesman said only that Bob Larson Ministries is a member in good standing, and would not comment on whether EFICOM has received any complaints about Larson.
Bob and Kathryn J. Larson exchanged marriage vows in Hamilton, Ontario, on Jan. 23, 1968. Eighteen years later, in the same year Larson condemned divorce in his Book of Family Issues, the Larsons began receiving counseling for their troubled marriage. Four years later, Larson asked his wife of 22 years to move our of their home and initiated their divorce.
Records from the Larsons' divorce case are now sealed in the JeffersonCounty (Colo.) Courthouse. They were obtained legally prior to the seal order by a Colorado resident who provided them for this story. They offer a glimpse of Larson's lifestyle that the ministry's tax records don't reflect.
While the 1990 tax records show the ministry paid Larson $131,879 and allowed him an expense account of $35,750, Larson certified to the court under oath that his income in 1990 was $403,310.
Larson's papers in the divorce case also report that:
- The ministry provides an automobile, on which he pays personal income tax.
- The ministry pays a $1,876 monthly mortgage note and $350 per month for utilities from a housing allowance.
- Larson spends $1,000 of his own money per month for concerts, theater, sporting events, ski travel, and other recreation.
- Larson donates $1,339 per month to charities-roughly 4 percent of his reported income of $403,310.
When they divorced, the Larsons owned five pieces of real estate, including two in the Rocky Mountains, worth $539,200.
Between them, the Larsons owned more than $4,000 worth of porcelain, $13,000 worth of ivory, $8,000 in crystal and china, nearly $8,000 worth of carvings, $6,575 in jewelry, $3,000 in paintings, more than $4,000 in rugs and $8,000 worth of taxidermy.
The value of their marital assets at the time of the divorce was $1.4 million.
Larson pays his ex-wife $3,700 per month in alimony. Kathryn Larson contested that settlement, contending that her monthly expenses are $6,200. Larson fought her appeal successfully.
Larson recently announced his engagement to an employee of BLM.
Although Larson urges the hurting to call his radio program for comfort, screeners are instructed to make sure the callers want to talk about the day's subject. Former employee Tammy Brown, who answered the ministry's crisis-referral line and screened calls for Talk-Back, says she has hung up on weeping callers whose problem wasn't on the day's agenda.
"A desperate listener can find hope and help by dialing 1-800-821-TALK," Larson wrote in Satanism: The Seduction of America's Youth. But the toll-free number is answered only two hours each day during Talk-Back, and even then a desperate caller must get past screeners.
The ministry offers two other lines. The Communicator Club line, a toll-free line reserved for donors, is open ten hours per day, five days a week. The Compassion Connection's Hope Line, the line for helping the hurting, is open only four hours per day, five days a week, and it is a toll call.
Compassion Connection refers callers to other agencies, although many former employees say Larson listeners believe it offers counseling and crisis intervention. Some listeners who can't afford the long-distance cost call the toll-free donor line.
"We weren't allowed to talk to them, because it was an 800 line. We would be reprimanded if we were caught counseling. It cost the ministry money," said Charlene Erickson, who worked in BLM's donor services until last August, when she says she resigned.
"We had to give them the toll number to Compassion Connection. They weren't allowed to call that collect, either. They weren't allowed to get any free help from the ministry. They always had to pay for the phone call."
On more than one occasion, supervisors who thought an operator was spending too much time on the phone instructed the operator to hang up even on distraught callers, say Ms. Erickson and other former operators.
"I hated that part of the job, hanging up on someone who was suicidal," Ms. Erickson said.
At least once, an operator transferred a call to the referral line without getting caught." I went over the boundaries and gave it to a person in the Compassion Connection," said the woman, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.
She once refused a direct order to hang up on a caller, which she believes contributed to her dismissal a few weeks later.
Many operators who worked on the Hope Line were not trained in Christian counseling, Mrs. Brown says. "However, we had people calling with a gun to their head, and there's no way we could just give them another phone number," she said.
Mrs. Brown was frustrated because she could only refer troubled callers to a different agency. "Bob, over the air, would say, 'You call the Hope Line and you will feel love like you've never felt before.' And yet they [the supervisions] told us, 'Five minutes, max.'
"Compassion Connection, over the air, is made to sound like a wonderful, incredible, loving, life-changing experience," Mrs. Brown said. "In actuality, it's not. It's really cold and callous."
Raising money, in the words of a current BLM employee, is an art form. Larson's ministry survives on contributions, and former employees say the most sensational shows generate the most donations.
As recently as last fall, Larson's daily quota was $6,500 says Ms. Erickson.
While he's on the air, Larson keeps track of the contributions on a computer screen. When interest or donations have lagged, Larson has instructed operators to contact income-generating victims from previous shows, four former employees say. More than once, Larson told his audience that God prompted the person to call.
Larson expects screeners to prime callers for a dramatic encounter. "Bob would put them on hold and we would have to manipulate them, push them over the edge, so they could go back on the air with Talk-Back and be saved by Bob Larson," Mrs. Brown said. "We had to push until they said, 'OK, I need God.' We're not to do that, the Holy Spirit is. I felt like I was being used to make Bob more money."
Another source of income is a "re-air," as BLM staffers call it. Re-airs, broadcast while Larson is away from the ministry, are designed to sound live, say people who have helped produce them.
The producers review old shows and combine the best callers on one subject into one program. Larson records fresh "drop-in" breaks that suggest he is in the studio.
"We make it sound as live as possible," said one person who asked to remain anonymous. "When he does the drop-ins, we give him a tape and a listing of what the callers were before and after so he can blend his voice right in. It's become an art form. We're not trying to lie to the public, although the opening says, 'Live. Talk-Back.' I think they should cut out the 'live' part."
An employee says Larson used to inform audiences they were hearing a rebroadcast, but that hurt donations. Now BLM provides a disclaimer at the end of both hours that the program has been prerecorded. "We kind of whisper it, though," the employee said. "We don't shout it throughout the program, because our donations go way down if people find out they're listening to a tape."
"Financially, it's a pretty stupid thing" to identify a re-air prominently, the employee said
The disclaimers do not mention that the programs are compilations of several programs. "You can manipulate it any way you want," said another former BLM employee who asked to remain anonymous. "If you want 25 jerks, you can put in 25 jerks. Basically what you're doing is lying to people.
"The re-air evolved into generating more revenue than the live show," the source said. "It's a tough thing to do, because here we are trying to uphold our integrity, and we're being told it's OK because we have this little disclaimer. We've been in radio long enough to know that half the stations cover up the disclaimer anyway. They don't even air it."
On days when Larson wanted only callers who praised him and someone else called, says former screener Randy Johnson, he wouldn't allow them on the show. "Then they'd argue with me and I'd hang up on them."
Johnson didn't like doing that, he says. "There might be someone who called who sincerely needed help, but because a person's voice wasn't strong enough, because they didn't have enough emotional edge, they couldn't be on the show."
Although Larson does help some people, Mrs. Brown says, most are not helped. "The majority are given scare tactics, are manipulated, believe that there's a demon hiding behind every bush. If their car doesn't start, it's a demon. If they've got a cold, it's a demon. If their lights are flickering, oh my gosh, it's a demon."
Larson once used a softer touch on the demonic. "I do not go looking for demons and never publicly announce exorcism sessions," he wrote 19 years ago in Hell On Earth.
In August 1991 Larson advertised an upcoming exorcism for broadcast on Talk-Back. "Who is interfering: Come to attention!" Larson commanded one guttural voice coming from a young man named Adrian. "I loose the torment so you may speak. Speak!"
The character who speaks says 342 demons inhabit Adrian, including one "keeper of the wardrobe for the High Council or Lucifer" who "enjoys sacrificing children."
A similar tone prevails in Dead Air, Larson's 21st book and first novel. Dead Air is about a talk-show host who rescues a young girl from a satanic cult. Some reviewers have criticized the book for its graphic depictions of ritual abuse, all of which are based on true evens, Larson says.
Larson has lashed out at his external critics, portraying himself as a lone ranger who rushes in where those "plush-pewed Christians" fear to tread.
Now the questions come from a former insider.
Lori Boespflug was a vice president of BLM until Larson fired her in June 1992.Ms. Boespflug says she took over writing Dead Air at Chapter 11 when "writer's block" stymied Larson's creativity. Ms. Boespflug says she also rewrote much of the first 10 chapters. Dead Air has 26 chapters.
Larson in his acknowledgements thanks Ms. Boespflug, "who lent her literary talents and intuitive insights to make the scenes and characters come alive."
Nowhere else does Larson disclose the extent of Ms. Boesplug's work. In his contract with Thomas Nelson Publishers, Larson certifies that he is the sole author of the book.
But a letter to Larson from his New Orleans attorney suggests that Ms. Boespflug played a significant role.
"With the passing of each day, I become more and more concerned about your potential liability to Lori in connection with Dead Air and its sequels," William T. Abbott Jr. wrote to Larson on July 8, 1991.
"Assuming success, and knowing the role Lori has played, it would amaze me if she is not sufficiently astute to use this opportunity to both secure her financial future and to launch her own literary career."
Abbott recommended that Larson make Ms. Boespflug a researcher for the sequel to Dead Air, which is due out later this year. "You will be required to write more, but after all, it is you who will enjoy the benefits."
Abbott also suggested giving Ms. Boespflug a pen name and a percentage of profits.
Abbott, Larson's attorney for eight years, expressed surprise in an interview that his correspondence had been made public.
"How in the **** did you get that?" he asked. Of the relationship between Larson and Ms. Boespflug, he said only: "I think that was all resolved amicably.
Ms. Boespflug admits she signed an agreement forbidding her ever to seek credit for her role in Dead Air. Larson has asked at least one other BLM employee to sign a similar agreement. He later dismissed that employee.
Ms. Boespflug said she originally agreed to anonymity to head off false rumors about a sexual relationship with Larson, who was separated from his wife. Larson had agreed to help publish her writing at Thomas Nelson in exchange for her work, Ms. Boespflug says.
Ms. Boespflug resolved to tell her story, she says, after Larson caused a scene at her daughter's dance recital in June 1992.
After Ms. Boespflug admitted to Larson that she was living with her fiancé, according to a verbal harassment complaint she filed with the Golden (Colo.) Police Department, "Larson…became very upset and told Boespflug that she was fired. Larson also told Boespflug that he was going to make her life a living hell." The complaint also said Larson insulted Ms. Boespflug with vulgar language.
Nearly three weeks later, Ms. Boespflug told Patrol Officer Dean Chavez that Larson had not bothered her anymore, and she wanted to drop the charges.
Ms. Boespflug disputes Larson's assertion that the book is based on fact. The book's young victim is based on a real child, but the rest of the plot was her idea, Ms. Boespflug says.
"When I undertook working with Bob on Dead Air, I poured myself into it. Everything that I wrote came from thin air. It was from my imagination. I was raised by a cop, I was married for 13 years to a cop. So things that I learned through behavior, through criminals, through reading-all of the things that I compiled were from that arena."
Ms. Boespflug ways she worked closely with Thomas Nelson editor Janet Thoma, sometimes talking to her twice a day as the publication deadline approached. Ms. Boespflug says that she, Larson, and Ms. Thoma once met for dinner at the Hay-Adams Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Ms. Boespflug says the editor was "fully aware" of her contribution to Dead Air.
Ms. Thoma refused to answer questions and referred them to Thomas Nelson. Bruce Barbour, the company's publisher, refused to allow an interview with Ms. Thoma for this story. Ms. Thoma, he says, told him she never heard of Ms. Boespflug.
"The name didn't ring any bells," Barbour said, "She said all of the work she did on the manuscript was between she and Bob….As far as she knows, there was no Boespflug."
Ms. Boespflug, however, has correspondence to and from Thomas Nelson. One memo from Ms. Boespflug to Ms. Thoma includes several proposed titles for the novel. And Ms. Boespflug signed Larson's contract as a witness.
Although Larson refused an interview with the writers, he did tell World editors that they should consider Ms. Boespflug's testimony "tainted." But when pressed, he refused to provide any specifics, citing a "confidentiality agreement."
After Larson fired her, Ms. Boespflug says, she began questioning the ministry. The time had come, she says, to tell her story.
"I have to live with myself for the time I worked there," Ms. Boespflug said. "People would call me, and I would have to bite my tongue and smile and praise Bob for his ministry.
"Maybe, in a way, this is my way of cleansing my own soul."
When she wasn't witing Dead Air for Larson, Ms. Boespflug drafted his personal fund-raising letters. The letters are as gripping and graphic as some of the anecdotes in Larson's books:
"I watched them rip apart a newborn baby and take the heart while it was still beating," one letter has "Shelly" saying.
And the same letter presents Larson's novel as a weapon in the war against Satanists. "Go to a bookstore and purchase Dead Air. For the price of trick-or-treat candies, you can give your family more than sweets. You can offer them a chance to save people from sataism."
This is one of Ms. Boespflug's favorite letters: "It's almost dawn, and the sunrise is reflecting on my computer screen," it said over Larson's signature. "Watching the beauty of the dawn reminds me this a miraculous day the Lord has made."
Ms. Boespflug says she, not Larson, wrote that prose, and it was during normal business hours, not at first light.
While Larson used the tales of others to raise money, one of his biggest money-makers involved a kick to his head.
On Nov. 20, 1991, Larson's horse Breezy was sick. Larson went to the stables near Evergreen, Colol, where he boarded his horse. While he was there, another horse became entangled in barbed wire. When he attempted to free the horse, according to a fund-raising letter dated Jan. 27, 1992, the horse "reared up and came down on top of me. Her hoof grazed my skull, opening a huge gash."
Larson stayed home from work for a few days, and called in from his bed to address his Talk-Back audience. The show evoked much sympathy and money, former staffers say.
The fund-raising letter, which Ms. Boespflug wrote for Larson, opens dramatically:
"It's hard to believe just a few weeks ago I nearly died.
"I still remember lying in the emergency room, staring at a blood-splattered ceiling, doctors scurrying all around me."
Larson had been taken by helicopter from the mountains to the hospital, as he claims. And, said Henry Bushman, who boarded Larson's horse: "He was bleeding pretty good."
But Larson didn't even spend the night at Denver GeneralHospital. He was treated and released. Deborah Mellette, and administrative secretary with Air Life in Denver, say Larson was flown from the Evergreen area on Flight 59. His vital signs were checked at 11:05 p.m. The chopper landed at Denver General at 11:10 p.m. for a "hot unload," meaning the paramedics didn't wait for the blades to stop before removing Larson.
Emergency-room staffers examined Larson, stitched his laceration, and released him at 3 a.m., says Leslie Cheek, a spokeswoman for Denver General. "Oftentimes people spend 24 hours in our ER just being monitored," she said. "And he was only here for four hours.
"Had it been a severe head injury he would have been admitted.
Ms. Boespflug was at Larson's home later in the morning. "He looked a mess because, of course, he had been through emergency. He was most concerned because they had shaved part of his hair. He had a small bandage on the upper front side of his head. That was it.
"I've seen women who had babies who looked worse," Ms. Boespflug said.
Larson's critics say he offers horror stories without substantiation. Bob and Gretchen Passantino have for years asked Larson to provide corroborative evidence of satanic ritual abuse. (The Passantinos were consultants for Larson's Book of Cults and the authors of Witch Hunt also published by Thomas Nelson.) Jon Trott of Cornerstone magazine also has challenged Larson to provide such evidence. Larson refused several similar requests for this story.
His frequent response to others: What would satisfy your demand for evidence, a dismembered baby?
A few anecdotes from Satanism proved to be mixtures of fact and fiction
For example, he claims the Anti-Cruelty Society of Chicago prohibits adoptions of black cats at Halloween because it fears "the felines are being used in bloody rituals by self-proclaimed witches."
Jane Stern, director of the Anti-Cruelty Society, says the prohibition does exist, but because the cats always come back alive-not because they are killed. "People like to play with them at Halloween," she said. "They would use them as props, and then bring them back."
Ms. Stern says the Anti-Cruelty Society received one report six years ago that a black cat was found dead and may have bee killed in a ritual. That is the only such report the society has received, she says.
Also in Satanism, Larson describes his visit to a ward for dying AIDS babies in Harlem Hospital. "I watched one die. The breathing grew slower and slower…and then he was gone.
As he claims, Larson did tour Harlem Hospital with Margaret Heagarty, director of the pediatric AIDS ward.
But, the doctor says, Larson could not have watched a child's dying moments in her ward. "He might have seen some very sick children," she said. "But he certainly would not have been allowed; nor would I have countenanced a stranger to watch the death of a child."
Even people who once shared Larson's concerns about the occult have changed their beliefs.
In a Larson video called In the Name of Satan, Randy Emon of the Baldwin Park (Calif.) Police Department said satanism could become the crime of the '90s. "All of us have made some stupid errors, and I have made some big ones in this particular area," he now says. "I hope I can help backtrack and erase some of the wrongs.
"In my own heart, I know I was called from the Lord to minister to those hurting involved in the occult. I think the reason I was called into it was because of the position I've come to now: that a lot of it is fakery, trickery, and pure deception, and that a lot of satanism isn't going on."
Emon is convinced crimes occur in the name of Satan and satanic worship, but Larson is "going on a national conspiracy. There is not a national conspiracy, and I challenge Bob Larson right now to show me that (conspiracy)."
Emon informed Larson of his changed convictions by letter, and asked Larson to edit him out of the video. Bonnie Bell, a vice president of the ministry and an occasional guest host of Talk-Back, told Emon that BLM would do the editing, but at Emon's expense, which he says he could not afford.
Former employees say few, if any claims ever are investigated. The stories of first-time callers to Larson's talk show are broadcast with no verification.
"I suppose probably 50 percent of the fantastical stories people tell on my talk show are not true, and we know that," Larson himself said in a radio debate with Mrs. Passantino. "And we investigate it to the best of our ability and find out."
Mrs. Brown, formerly of the Hope Line, says Larson blows the satanic threat out of proportion. "Probably 5 percent of the people who called were real. Of course, you want to believe everyone, but it got to the point where instead of believing all the callers first, I didn't believe any of them. They had to convince me. We didn't see true evidence."
Larson's accounts of several episodes of his life show a pattern of exaggeration. He did, for instance, play in a rock band while in high school. But in his books, depicts the band's activities in lurid terms.
In The Day Music Died, Larson described one of the band's debauched concert sites: "On Sunday morning it was a church, but on Saturday night the pews were removed, our musical equipment was placed on the platform, and beer was dispensed in the basement as teenagers danced in the sanctuary."
During intermission, Larson wrote, teenagers went to their cars in the parking lot "for the release of sex tensions stimulated by the dancing."
Keyboard player Sharla Turman Logan says the band did play in a church, but laughs at Larson's recollections and remembers those dances differently. The church gig was a family gathering in a small community. "Little kids all the way up to old people, they would be dancing. It was quite a good time."
Larson has also written that his band played to capacity audiences in Atlantic City. That's true, Mrs. Logan says, but there's more to the story. The father of the band's drummer was an officer in the Lions Club, Mrs. Logan says, and he booked them a date for the group's national convention in Atlantic City.
Larson also has overstated his medical accomplishments. His book Rock and Roll: The Devil's Diversion says he "gave up the medical profession to enter the ministry."
His college career actually ended in September 1964. Vickie Kontos, records librarian at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, says Larson transferred there from McCookJunior College in September 1963, and left the university in September 1964 without graduating. He never enrolled in the university's medical school at Omaha, according to the registrar's office there.
Although some of Larson's callers have their problems, BLM employees must deal with stresses of their own. Some describe their former boss as mercurial, a perfectionist who throws tantrums when something doesn't suit him.
As head of the ministry, former employees say, Larson provided no spiritual leadership other than pronouncing a blessing over pizza at their monthly staff meetings.
Lawyer Bill Abbott says that in the eight years he worked for Larson-"I've been very close to him"-his former client never discussed his faith.
"I don't know that he discusses religious views with anyone. He might, he might not, but in eight years, we never did. Is that an issue?
Abbott says religious views should be an issue only when a BLM employee is involved in the content of Larson's programs or literature. "If they had radically different religious views, probably they would not work out well," he said.
Ms. Bopespflug, who was involved in the content of Larson's literature, volunteers that she is not a born-again Christian.
Abbott described Larson as a private person and a work addict. "He is not a people kind of person," Abbott said. "He doesn't smoke. He doesn't drink…He just works-listens to football games occasionally."
Mrs. Brown says Larson never asked her whether she was a Christian. "He'd go out and save the world. They (the staff) would really be turned off with Christianity because of what they saw there. There was a lot of hypocrisy…A lot of the staff had their own hurts, but he doesn't care. He just wants to fund-raise, make his money, and make sure that there are people on the donor lines at all times. We don't matter."