The only TV evangelist worth a damn wasn’t wearing any
of his whimsical hats three Sundays ago at the University Cathedral downtown.
He wasn’t waving his cigar around, wasn’t glaring at the congregation and demanding,
“Am I boring you?”
Dr. Gene Scott was sick. He’d just been driven from the hospital,
where edema was being sucked from his abdomen. He had cancer. Several years
ago he’d been diagnosed with it but declined treatment; to him the treatment
sounded worse than the disease. He’d said the Lord would take care of it, and
that seemed to work.
Now he sat onstage in his pajamas, not moving. Not moving at all,
his white-bearded, freckled face blank beneath white hair and translucent sunglasses.
No suit. Zippered red jogging jacket. Deck shoes. Alive?
And the joint was rocking, just like always. The painfully ornate
old prayer palace quaked along with a dozen musicians blasting gospel beat as
Scott’s wife, Melissa, the thin young beaut with the yard of dark ringlets,
sang. Though never in Melissa’s league, Dr. Scott also liked to warble. Not
A few other preachers did warm-ups and testimonials. One had a
strong singing voice and a nice old-pard way of husking the corn: “You
hear people say they’ve found Jesus. Well, Jesus wasn’t the one who was lost.”
It felt like an audition. But nobody’s gonna replace Gene Scott.
Ever caught his show? (Don’t worry, it’s still in reruns six days
a week on KDOC-TV, and on radio, plus eternally on the Web at www.drgenescott.com.)
If you’ve seen Scott preach/perform, you know he was different. In recent years
he toned down the props, didn’t even have phone banks. Just flashed the hot-line
number on the screen, alternating with a subtitle advertising his Ph.D. from
And that doctorate was no bull. Take it from a slob who’s done
hard time in the dead-languages graveyard: Scott was a serious philologist who
knew his alphas and omegas. He’d start with a scriptural passage, often written
on the whiteboard in two or three ancient languages: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac.
Yes, Syriac, the tongue of some of the oldest manuscripts. And he would
crack open his dictionaries and dig into the roots of words, tell you what kinds
of connotations they had — such-and-such didn’t just mean “flee,”
it meant “go and seek shelter,” that kind of thing. Often he would
totally bust the early translators, who had a tendency to make the text
fit their preconceived theologies: “It’s not in Jesus, it’s from
Scott told you what the testaments actually said, not what you
wished they said. He’d draw circles and arrows all over the place to illustrate
syntax and make comparisons. By the end of a show, his whiteboards looked like
abstract art. All the while, he’d be cracking dry jokes, talking the way a rancher
might explain breeding methodology. Guilt and hellfire? Not this cowboy.
“I could tell you a few things about sex,” he’d say,
leering over the top of his specs. He was an entertainer.
But now here was Scott, in his pajamas. All of us — the young
Annie Oakley in jeans, the middle-aged man in the bad sweater, the black professor,
the old Asian couple, over a thousand souls — were wondering if he was ever
going to move.
When he finally spoke, his voice at first was weak and parched.
“Did you notice the sheep on these pajamas?” he asked.
“They remind me of my flock.”
Not bad under the circumstances. He sat us down with the slightest
motion of a hand — we’d been mostly on our feet doing the praise/honor/testify
And Scott embarked on an abbreviated version of his instruction,
with Melissa writing on the board for him. (Her Greek is tidier than his, anyway.)
He laid a little Isaiah on us, about refuge and shelter. Gaining momentum, he
gave us a little John, and explained about the Greek verb pisteuo, which
means “I trust.”
“God doesn’t want you to be perfect,” he advised. “He
just wants you to trust in him.”
When he finished, Scott’s auxiliaries asked us to stand, close
our eyes and stretch out our arms, palms down, toward Dr. Gene and Melissa.
We were transferring energy to them, to give them strength and help Scott’s
good cells fight the cancer cells. It was weirder than singing “The Star-Spangled
Banner.” But what the hell.
Scott requested a reprise of “The Storm Is Passing Over,”
and Melissa sang it, nailing a long final note that had good wood behind it.
Four guys picked Scott up out of his desk chair, put him in his wheelchair and
rolled him off.
During the proceedings, a velvet bag for donations was passed
twice. I’m not a man of faith, and I’d never given a dime to a TV evangelist
before. This time, though, I gave more than a dime. And my wife can nag till
kingdom come, but I’ll never tell how much.
Under a steady downpour, one day before a 425-pound tiger is
fatally shot near the Reagan Library, Lieutenant Chris Long, an exhausted 25-year
vet of the California Department of Fish and Game, leads me down a muddy trail
on Day Creek Ranch in Thousand Oaks. We stop at a black nursery bucket. He lifts
it and unveils the first discovered track. It’s huge.
“This was no mountain lion,” says Long.
We walk on with our eyes peeled, and he points down to a thin veil of rainwater
streaming over a series of enormous paw prints; the cat’s stride is 51 inches
Suddenly in the chaparral above we see a flash of gold and then two camouflaged
trackers on ATVs, armed with tranquilizer guns and rifles, hauling ass. Long
runs to a clearing, lifts his binoculars and shrugs.
“Just dogs. The feds brought in trained lion dogs.”
“You have one Godzilla cat roaming around free,” Long was told when he contacted
USDA biologists after the first print was found and measured. Since then, Fish
and Game wardens have worked around the clock with expert federal trackers.
“The best in the business,” says Long.
But how could this happen in the first place?
North of Day Creek Ranch is a clump of tony homes and one double wide, leased
by a couple with a big-cat fetish. On January 31, Long tranquilized a 90-pound
Siberian lynx that led him to Abby and Emma Hedengran. The couple had 22 cats
altogether — nine lynx roamed free as indoor pets; there were servals and caracals
in plastic dog carriers, a snow leopard in a slightly larger cage and, in a
converted horse trailer, three African lions and two Bengal tigers. The animals
were permitted, but their storage was neither humane nor up to specification.
On February 9, Long gave the women 72 hours to remove the animals or face charges,
and by the 12th all 22 had been relocated.
That’s when it got spooky. On February 15, Luis Romo, Day Creek Ranch’s affable
caretaker, saw a wildcat’s tail disappear into the bush, exactly where I’m standing
with Long. The next day the cat was seen again — this time chasing a herd of
cattle to the doorstep of the Reagan Library. After that, five teams of expert
trackers began sniffing, snooping and slogging through the unrelenting rain.
They set traps and searched via helicopter equipped with an infrared detection
system. One local, would-be hero used live goats as bait. Didn’t work out so
well for the goats, but the coyotes loved it. The Hedengrans strangely deny
involvement, though they have an extra permit for a tiger, are the only ones
in the area who trade captive wildcats, and probably have over $50,000 invested
in the animal.
This isn’t the first time an exotic, carnivorous feline has prowled Thousand
Oaks. In the early ’60s, a black panther escaped from Jungleland, a wild animal
park and studio concession, home to MGM’s Leo the Lion. Eventually the panther
was found and killed.
As Long and I walk and search, I fear and somehow know that the same fate will
meet this scary, beautiful beast. The next day, in a ravine bordered by a school,
soccer field and shopping center, that’s exactly what happens. A tracker kills
the tiger with a powerful .338-caliber rifle.
For days I had wondered and worried about this animal who turned the suburbs
back into a wild savannah, and now, after two and a half weeks of freedom —
which must have been filled with exhilaration, confusion and fear — it was all
over with two quick shots from 200 yards.
“It was a sad day,” Long said later. “Sad for the tiger and for the person who
had to shoot it.”
The public outcry was fierce, but a spokeswoman from Fish and Game told journalists
around the world that had the trackers tranquilized the tiger, it might have
run, disoriented and pissed, into a populated area, and it takes 10 minutes
for the drugs to work.
“Most people think you can whip out a tranquilizer gun and shoot the thing,”
said Long, who also explained that weather and topographical conditions further
hampered efforts to tranquilize. “But that’s just not the case. It’s way more
involved than that.”
This week, a necropsy revealed that the tiger had been declawed and weighed
350 pounds, not 425 as reported in the original news stories. Fish and Game
continues to investigate the Hedengrans, and charges will likely be filed.
But that won't help a willful tiger who sought and found freedom, and
inevitably paid for his owners' sins.