In the spring of 1989, fallen televangelist Jim Bakker and his overly made-up wife Tammy Faye found a brief haven from the press at “the Preacher’s compound” just up Yellow Bluff Road from Zibya Khaya. We found out about it when we came home one day. As we turned off the highway and slowly bumped down the hill of the graded, dusty and canopied road, we turned the corner and had to brake hard to avoid hitting the corner of a TV station van. The vehicle was joined by at least three others like it, each sporting a logo of a different TV station from the metro Orlando area.
The vans were crammed tightly together, nose-to-tail, between the road and the high hurricane fence that surrounded the expansive and well-manicured lakeside property that the locals called “the Preacher’s compound”, a retreat run by the pastor of a local church.
A large satellite dish perched dangerously near the roadside ditch, with fat black cables snaking along the ground to the nearest van. A guard stood with arms folded on the inside of the gated entry to the compound, and a crowd of people scurried around on the other side, pulling cables and brandishing hand-held microphones. Some people had video cameras perched on their shoulders, some were gripping 35mm cameras. All turned to stare at us as we slowly edged past. We could clearly read the eagerness and a kind of pent-up excitement in their faces and in the tension of their bodies.
“What the hell is going on?” we both asked in the same breath. It certainly looked like a media circus but why here, in the middle of nowhere, at a place where we hardly ever saw anything or anyone moving except the grounds-keeper who spent a lot of time on the tractor mower?
We were about to find out. No sooner had we closed our own gates, parked the car under the shed and gone inside the cabin, than Hansel started honking furiously up at the gate. A young fellow in a suit was trying to enter the property but Hansel was holding him off.
“Oh great,” Anni muttered, and headed down the drive toward the gate, calling to Hansel as she went. I stood at the screen door and watched as she shooed Hansel away with one of the old broomsticks we kept leaning against a nearby massive pine tree.
After a brief conversation with the young man, Anni let him onto the property and escorted him down the drive, keeping a hissing Hansel at bay with her broomstick.
Turns out the fellow was a reporter for an Orlando newspaper and wanted to use our phone to call in his breaking story. We unabashedly listened as he dictated his brief but intriguing tale.
In a nutshell, the somewhat famous televangelist Jim Bakker was awaiting trial on 24 Federal counts of fraud and conspiracy for stealing millions of dollars from PTL, the television ministry he founded. The Bakkers had been forced out of a rented house in North Carolina, where they had been taping “The Jim and Tammy Show”, and had somehow chosen this out-of-the-way place as somewhere to literally retreat to, but the media was hot on their heels.
After a few days, the Bakkers came out to the gate, where they gave short interviews through the fence to this or that TV station reporter. The text was always the same: Jim was innocent and a sobbing Tammy Faye would blubber her undying faith in his virtue.
It didn’t take long before our phone was ringing off the hinges as our family and friends called us, asking what it was like, had we met “those people”, had we been invited to sit in the audience as the televangelists renewed their weekly broadcasts from the communal rooms of the compound’s large cabin.
Like our neighbors up and down Yellow Bluff Road, we weren’t happy about this invasion into our quiet corner of the forest. As the days went by, dealing with people entering our property from the road and the lake, uninvited, became as annoying and cloying as the pall of dust thrown up by all the traffic up and down Yellow Bluff Road.
After letting in the young reporter, we refused all further requests. We tired of constantly walking down the drive to turn away yet another reporter or photographer or someone else who simply HAD to use our phone (remember this was before cellular phones) or, worse, one of our bathrooms! The topper was a couple of guys in a pickup truck pulling a bass boat, who had the gall to ask if they could drive down our lawn and launch their boat from the ramp in the back yard so that they could make some money from reporters who would pay for the opportunity to approach the Preacher’s compound from the water, on the off-chance of getting a few photos of the Bakkers.
We compared notes with the neighbors and they, too were aggravated at the invasion of their privacy and the need to constantly stand vigil over unwanted incursions onto their property. Of course, with all the media play, a couple of the neighbors admitted to being curious. Our pal Captain Jack knew the Preacher pretty well and so Jack strolled down to the compound one day and after chatting with one of the many faithful who had followed the Bakkers from N.C., Jack was invited to join in the next Saturday’s videotaping session, as a member of the “audience”.
We laughed when Jack asked us if we wanted to go with him to the session. We were certainly no fans of the Bakkers, or any other televangelist for that matter. We just wanted them and all those people who had followed them from N.C., and the reporters and TV vans to go away so that we could get a break from keeping a watchful eye out, and get back to our schedule of commuting daily from the forest and into our office in town.
After a couple of weeks, the TV vans and the satellite dish went away, the cars from NC. thinned out, and the dust finally settled onto the trees and brush lining Yellow Bluff Road.
One Saturday morning we were enjoying our coffees out on the porch when the peace and quiet was broken by Hansel’s frantic honking up at the gate. We both got up to look down the drive, where a scene of mayhem was unfolding.
Anni said “I got it”, and headed quickly down the drive. It was hard to see through the hurricane fenced gate but it looked to me like a group of 4 or 5 people were circling around, talking loudly, and doing their best to side-step and avoid Hansel’s relentless attack. Somehow he had gotten out of the gate and out on the road, where he was honking and hissing and flapping his wide wings as furiously as I’d ever seen him. That was one pissed-off gander!
In a couple of minutes, Anni had Hansel rounded up and back inside the fence. She had a short conversation with the group, and as they moved off down the road, she strolled down the drive, passing by a still-flustered Hansel, who was being cooed to by Gretel, a wise goose who had safely avoided the whole scene.
Anni laughed and shook her head while explaining that “That was the Bakkers, with their teenage kids”. No kidding! What the heck were they doing tangling with Hansel out in the road and how had Hansel slipped outside the fence in the first place?
It seems one of the Bakker’s kids had spotted the geese and wanted to pet them, so with the encouragement of their parents (!), they opened the gate and here came Hansel, head down and on the attack. After the dust had settled, the Bakkers sincerely apologized to Anni for causing the fracas. Anni made sure nobody had been bitten by Hansel, and in the course of the discussion she learned that the Bakkers apparently had a lot of waterfowl on some property somewhere, and the teens were used to handling the tame fowl. Unfortunately, Hansel was not as tame as anticipated!
Later, Jack came by and as he stepped into the cabin, he laughingly showed us his new t-shirt that sported a giant blob of dozens of different-colored splats and the text “I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall!” We all had a good laugh, then when we told him about the Hansel incident, he said it was a good thing Hansel hadn’t gone after Tammy Faye, or he would have ended up looking like the t-shirt!
The Bakkers’ eventual downfall and demise is a sad tale, but this wasn’t the only news story to come out of the Forest. The next year this little corner of the world once again made headlines as the scene where more than one victim of serial killer Eileen Wuornos had been found.
The Forest has a dark past and continues to attract what seems to be more than its fair share of weirdos, freak happenings, scary goings-on, and criminal activity. Here’s just a sample of its shady history: