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.Sitting down beside the safe, I rocked it from side to side to feel its contents shift. Indeed, there were bundles of something moving in there, lots of bundles, perhaps enough 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 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 marble. Twisting, pulling, and yanking, I maneuvered the safe off the patio and rolled 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.
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 my plan, 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 pay phones in the back of a cowboy bar 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.
===Slowly, I stepped forward, knelt down, and put a single hand on the door to the safe. Taking in a deep breath, I opened it. Mike Murdock, if you are out there, this is the part of my story where you get to smile, you son of a bitch.!==
With sparks flying 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 small-time pimping. If you could overlook all of that, he was a really likeable guy.
Standing beside a dusty blond 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 10 percent,” I said, making 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 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, and put a single hand on the door to the safe. Taking in a deep breath, I opened it. Leaning in close, my eyes widened and my jaw dropped.
Mike Murdock, if you are out there, 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 so horrible and nightmarish that it twists your gut every time you think about it? For me, this was that moment.
I could feel angry tears swelling in my eyes as I reached my shaky hands inside. With unstable fingers, I pulled out two stacks of plain, white, run-of-the-mill copy paper that had been cut and bundled like bank notes. There were hundreds of fake bundles.
“Wow! Now that’s a real ass-kicking!” Jack exclaimed. “What kind of sick bastard actually takes the time to cut and wrap enough notebook paper to make it feel like a safe full of money? My god, that’s twisted.”
“God didn’t do this, Jack.” My voice trembled. “Mike Murdock did.” I screamed with blood-boiling anger. “Son of a bitch!”
I dug my fingers deep into the cast-iron box like a frantic animal. Viciously clawing toward the bottom, I sent slivers of paper airborne in an explosion of rage. I clutched stacks of rubber band-bound paper in each hand.
“I swear to you, Jack,” I seethed, “I absolutely swear to you, as God is my witness, I will not—”
“Wait, wait. What’s that?” He pointed to the bottom.
Reaching in, I pulled out a folded piece of ministry letterhead with three two-dollar bills clipped to it. I opened it and read the text beneath the logo. My jaws were clenched so hard it made my head hurt.
“What does it say, man?” Jack asked as I slowly crumpled the note into a tight ball with my fist.
“He always wins.” I shivered with anger. “The son of a bitch always wins. It was a red herring. It was all one great big red herring. I just got beat by Christian television’s favorite jackass. I’ll never get a second chance. Never. I will never get a second chance at that closet.”
My head fell into my hands.
“He knew somebody would take that safe one day, and I fell for it,” I said. “I could have come back here with pockets full of gold coins. I could have come back here with two arms full of stamps. I could have come back here with three pillowcases full of diamond rings. But instead I went for the very thing he wanted me to take, the very thing he knew that Jason, or one of Jason’s ragtag, dope-fiend, white-trash friends would one day steal.”
I looked up into his eyes.
“Today, I just became that white-trash loser. So not only am I broke, but I’m sure within hours I’ll be high on the suspect list for whatever police agency starts working Mike’s insurance claim. I just stole an empty safe to help that asshole buy his own television network. I’m screwed.”
“Well, you’re not broke.” Jack gave a sideways smirk. “You’ve got six bucks.”
“Is there anything about this moment that makes you think I’m in the mood for jokes!” I snapped.
“You still haven’t told me what the note says.”
“This note?” I paused to hold up the crumpled piece of paper. “It’s a personal message from Mr. ‘I Don’t Ever Lose.’ It’s two sentences. It says: ‘You are an answer to a prayer. Thank you for your time, your efforts, and your generous contribution to this ministry. Mike Murdock.’ ”
I tossed it back into the destroyed safe. “Does it really say that?” he asked.
“Read it yourself. Listen, is my car still here?”
“Of course it is. It’s right where you left it. More than that—don’t worry about the Cadillac or the shocks.”
“Oh, you can trust me, Jack,” I barked. “I wasn’t spending a bit of my time worried about the shocks on your Cadillac. I am about to be man-hunted, Jack. Do you think Mike Murdock is going to claim that safe was empty? Do think he’s going to just let this go? God knows how much money he’s about to claim he lost.
“I know this guy,” I went on. “He planned for that safe to get stolen even before I started planning to steal it. He plays to win. And in this hand of cards, I got nothing. In fact, I’ve got less than nothing. Nothing looks like a lot compared to what I’ve got. I don’t think you understand the gravity of this for me, Jack. I can’t just go home and pretend none of this ever happened. I can’t go home for a long, long time—maybe ever.”
“Look, I know everything is twisted and sideways.” He spoke slowly and then took in a deep breath. “Maybe it’s twisted beyond repair. But I do know one thing. A strong shot of coke might do you some good. After a traumatic experience like this here, I know I’m going to have one. And, Trey, you can stay a few days to ride this thing out if you need to. Hell, I could use a little honest help here and there.”
When it comes to cocaine and a needle, if your body isn’t ready, it can be intense. My blood mixed with the yellow-stained liquid just before the plunger went in. A thousand pounds of hate lifted temporarily from my shoulders just as I felt the numbing rush begin. I imagined the devil and Mike Murdock sitting together on a park bench, laughing. It was a big shot, maybe a little too big. My eyes fluttered closed. I didn’t care anymore.
I spent about two weeks helping Jack make crack cocaine for the Mexicans and collecting rent from whores after all their Johns had finished with them. In light of recent events, the television was usually tuned to Christian stations. One morning, I woke up with two prostitutes asking me if Jack could front them another hit. The TV was on. Mike Murdock was on it.
“I’ve been robbed!” he said. “Someone stole God’s money! That money was for the ministry! That money was for the children! I need your help to replace this!”
He was speaking to the whole world, plus me. He was using those same lying, manipulative eyes I had come to hate. Of all the things he said, he didn’t say the one thing I wanted to hear most. He didn’t give the amount that had been stolen.
It was in that moment that I knew something had to give. I’d had enough depression. I’d had enough paranoia and suffering. If I was going to end up in handcuffs, it wasn’t going to be while decaying one day at a time in the stench of Jack’s hellhole. I may have been well on the road to becoming a junkie, but I didn’t have to be the junkie selling dope to prostitutes on Jack’s couch.
“Merry Christmas,” I said to the whores as I dropped some crack into the palms of their dirty little hands.
Walking over to the cupboard, I opened a bottle of Parmesan cheese. I pulled out 2 ounces of coke that were stashed there. It’s not that I didn’t like Jack. But at that moment, I felt I had to make an important decision, a decision between 2 ounces of cocaine and my friendship with him.
The cocaine won. That was 13 years ago.
Getting in my car, I wasn’t really sure what to do next. In fact, there was only one thing I was sure of: Houston wasn’t safe. Hell, Texas wasn’t safe. It was time for me to go away. It was time for me to begin running.