Preach of trust

Since 1968, the followers of the Reverend Roger Rudin had let him run their lives. But after his sudden death last month, the stunned congregation discovered they'd been pawns in a cruel game of deceit, hypocrisy and kinky sex.

But during this entire period, Rudin continued to preach on Sundays at the Upper Room Fellowship, which by now had moved to a Glendale building.

There's also the 1991 document on file at the local HUD office which adds to the mystery of where Rudin actually lived.

The document says that a Glendale real estate agent became suspicious when he saw that expensive cars were parked at a HUD-sponsored home which was supposed to be part of a special program for leasing properties to the homeless. A federal inspector checked out the complaint, wrote down the license-plate numbers of the cars, and found out who owned them: Roger Rudin and Rick Raney.

That information launched a substantial investigation, which determined that a year earlier, Rudin had successfully applied for a HUD contract allowing his church to administer several properties in the program for the homeless. Instead, the investigation found, Rudin had simply put himself, members of his church's board, and other worshipers into all but two of the 12 houses.

HUD evicted the entire group in 1992.
"Nothing he ever said means anything to me. It hurts. We were robots," says Rebekah Lucas. She and her sister Ruth Stevens try to explain how, despite the many signs and rumors, they had never let their faith in Rudin be shaken. For one thing, both grew up in the church and had known no other.

"We were told going to church was like a marriage, and going to another church would be like committing adultery," Stevens says. "We were conditioned to believe that we would lose everything--our salvation, our life--if we left the church."

"I can't believe we believed all that. It's disgusting," Lucas interjects.
"I realized that Rudin really did have a lot of mind control over them," says John, a church member who attended the Upper Room Fellowship for a few years in the 1990s and who asked that his last name not be used. John was a rarity, a man who was allowed to join the church even though he had no relatives who were members.

John says he never bought the idea that Rudin was a prophet, but by the mid-1990s, Rudin's message had softened considerably and was less strident.

Rudin had had revelations, starting in about 1991 according to various members, that sex was now acceptable between married couples, that homosexuality should be viewed with tolerance (earlier he had denounced it) and that gambling was no longer on the list of proscribed activities.

In fact, gambling would soon become a sacrament. Rudin gambled heavily himself, and eagerly handed out astrological readings to his followers, encouraging them to play the slot machines when their signs were favorable. He demanded that they share whatever they won with him.

John noticed that the small church seemed to need an inordinate amount of money. Two and sometimes three different offerings would be made during a Sunday service. "This was an ongoing thing, every week, the asking for money. Why does this little church need such a big budget?" John wondered.

"Rudin would tell them that if they gave him a certain amount, he'd give them private time and special readings--$100 would give you 15 minutes alone with him. I thought it was strange. I thought a preacher should be giving his time away for free," John says.

At least twice in 1996, John and others say, Rudin claimed to have lost an entire Sunday's collections, each totaling about $3,000. Once, he claimed to have been robbed. The other time he apologized for his own forgetfulness: He had put the collections on top of his car and then had sped off.

"I thought, why does he have the money anyway? Why isn't it going into a bank account?" John says. One Sunday, after giving his offering in the form of a check, John received a phone call that night from a check-cashing business asking to confirm that he had written it. "He wasn't putting it into the bank," John says in disgust. Shortly afterward, he stopped going.

Rudin's ministry continued to unravel in 1996. Evicted from the Glendale building for failure to pay rent, the church moved to a chapel in a West Camelback wedding mall.

The most significant event that year for Stevens and Lucas: Rudin's failure to show up at the funeral of their uncle. They said it was shocking; the congregation was small, and deaths did not occur often. There was no back-up minister to their prophet--how could there be? And no one seemed to know where Rudin was, not even his wife, Patricia.

It was a mystery until, a year later, Rebekah Lucas made her search for documents at the county courthouse. That's when she learned about Rudin's 1995 and 1996 arrests for cocaine and methamphetamine possession.

On May 16, 1995, Rudin had been arrested by the Phoenix Police Department for passing a bad check; when he was searched, two baggies of cocaine and methamphetamine were found pinned to the inside of his coat pocket.

According to a presentence report, Rudin claimed that 500 people made up his congregation (about 10 times the true amount), that his monthly income was $1,300 (records recovered from the trash bin show that six years earlier he had grossed about $6,000 a month), and claimed that the drugs belonged to Michael Watkins, a man he was counseling (rather than his lover, with whom he shared a house), and from whom he had seized the drugs in an intervention.

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