Why I Stole a Televangelist's Safe
I broke into Mike Murdock's house—which was exactly how he planned it.
I was in the sacred hidden center of one of the prettiest dark empires man’s eyes were never meant to see. I was surrounded by everything that little old ladies’ and good Christians’ charitable donations could buy.illustration by Mark Thomas
Editor’s note: In 1998, Trey Smith was a student at Christ for the Nations in Dallas. His best friend at the time was the son of televangelist Mike Murdock, who heads a ministry in Fort Worth called the Wisdom Center. The Wisdom Center and Murdock were the subject of a series of investigative reports published by the Star-Telegram in 2003. At issue was Murdock’s financial stewardship of the nonprofit ministry. The newspaper, for instance, devoted several column inches to describing the many splendors of his 7-acre estate outside Argyle, Texas. Smith broke into that house, stole a safe, and, many years later, while serving time for another crime, wrote a book about his crime and his experiences with Murdock. He self-published Thieves in January (for more info: godinanutshell.com). The following excerpt, with minor edits, was taken from the book.
D Magazine made every effort to vet Smith’s story, conducting interviews with Smith, his parents, and a representative of a private security firm that aided in Smith’s eventual arrest on unrelated theft charges. The Trinity Foundation also proved helpful. (The Dallas-based watchdog of televangelists helped the Star-Telegram with its series in 2003.) Repeated requests for comment were left with a receptionist at the Wisdom Center and failed to generate a return call.
Six months studying at Christ for the Nations to be a good missionary, and yet there I was, drunk, high, and trying to push television evangelist Mike Murdock’s 600-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 whose hinges I had just pried off. 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 raiding the holy Dr. Murdock’s extensive porn collection.
Once, Jason pulled a $10,000 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 a trinket that expensive 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 nightclub 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 10 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 lie in waiting for a bigger chicken to get loose.
While I was a seminary student at Christ for the Nations, I considered Mike’s closet 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 been the guy who discovered 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 with it.
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 woken 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 a 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. I was no innocent duckling. I was no hero. I had become a dirty rotten scoundrel just like the rest of them.
Thus, I had driven down that 12-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 The Businessman’s Topical Bible: Mike Murdock.
I knew the gate code, 0714, which stands for Matthew 7:14 (“… small is the gate and narrow 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
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 might have disturbed were the families of birds in the branches above. With the good Dr. Murdock away on his annual holy 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.
“Oops. Sorry, Mike.” I couldn’t help but speak aloud. I could feel the shattering of expensive-looking ground lights that decorated the winding 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, a ministry Corvette, a 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 never meant to see. I was surrounded by everything that little old ladies’ and good Christians’ charitable donations could buy: numerous adobe buildings with Spanish tile roofs, hanging balconies, tennis courts, gymnasium, steaming saunas, indoor basketball court, enormous Jacuzzi, gazebo, waterfalls, exotic birds near the swimming pool, camels in their pens, llamas wandering the property, African reindeer grazing behind 20-foot fences. From a network of speakers in the trees, I could hear Mike Murdock’s own horrible singing and ear-piercing music.
I took my first steps up the concrete stairs that led to the glass patio. Yes, I was nervous. But there comes a point when you are too far in to turn back. For me, that point was when I first dreamed up this fragile little plan. Thinking back, it probably would have been a hundred times safer to rip off a dope dealer at gunpoint than to do what I was set to do with every step up those stone stairs. 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 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 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. 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 hammer, and a crowbar, I had come to test that theory. I knew the alarm system would be shut down for the entourage of housekeeping, animal-tending, and yard-grooming people who appear at the crack of dawn every morning. Making entrance to Hacienda de Paz, I walked through the entertainment room, past the theater-sized projection television screen, made it beyond a grand piano, and arrived at the first of three heavy doors with electronic locks and keypad entry systems—barriers beyond which lay the grand prize.
A side note: for all you folks out there buying security systems 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 No. 1 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 No. 2. Boom! There is nothing like a final touch with the bottom of a steel-toed boot. It left a 10.5-inch mark of evidence that, days later, would have detectives looking at the bottom of a lot of ministry employees’ shoes.
It was in that moment that I stepped into the bedroom of the great “You Can Make It” PTL theme song writer; regular 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 of more than 250 Christian books (most of them money-soliciting pamphlets), including Wisdom for Winning, Secrets of the Richest Man Who Ever Lived, The Widow’s Topical Bible, and The Sex Trap.
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. Not this close to the finish. In some degree of disbelief, I stood in front of the door that I had driven 200 miles to get to: the door of all doors.
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 5-foot-high stamp collection of every rare and unique piece of postage the mind can imagine. The second was a mountain of valuable coins, treasury notes, and the like. The third was a smorgasbord of hundreds and hundreds of pieces of gold, silver, and diamond jewelry.
Last—but certainly not least—was the only cabinet with locked drawers, a Pandora’s box of naughty secrets. Cabinet No. 4 was the grand collection of all the nudie pictures of young females Mike calls “private ministry staff.” In the locked drawers beneath all of his private photos was the mad flesh fest of pornography, especially girl-on-girl hardcore, paraphernalia, and little bottles of stuff to make the most sensitive of soft spots tingle.
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 or trash bags filled with sparkling trinkets. I had come for the big box in the back.