By Eric Marsh
Get out your popcorn, you are in for a wild read.
I was recently informed that the televangelist wannabe Eric Pryor was up to his old tricks again. Apparently this time he tried to prevent the Los Altos schools from celebrating Halloween. For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with Mr. Pryor I thought I'd put to paper my experience with him and his anti-Pagan crusade. I believe that this is also a commentary on at least some elements of the moral fitness of leaders in the big business known as "Christianity."
A televangelist by the name of Larry Lea was coming to town Halloween night and having a huge "crusade." Lea was said by man in the know to be the next big up and coming televangelist. He was personally groomed by Oral Roberts (Mr. 900-Foot-Jesus) for the role. As part of his act Lea often dressed up in military fatigues and spoke in militaristic terms. He was the guy who pretty much put the term "Spiritual Warfare" on the map. The use of military terms in a religious context concerned me and the "San Jose Mercury News" wrote an article about him that addressed the controversy raised by such language.
A few weeks before Halloween we received a mailing by a fellow who called himself Dr. Eric Pryor. "Dr." Pryor was trying to organize a counter protest against Lea, which sounded like a pretty decent idea. Janet and I were much too busy with the Witches Ball to do any follow up on this and when we received a call from "Dr." Pryor; I chatted with him on the phone for a while and got the impression that the guy was either a very high powered individual or a pretty big BS-er. He dropped a lot of "names" mostly from within the East Cost Pagan community, such as Leo Martello, Laurie Cabot, Herman Slater, Lady Sintana, and others. I invited Pryor to the Witches Ball and told him I would speak to him some more at that time.
When Eric Pryor showed up at the Halloween Witches Ball, his appearance was somewhat striking and pretty freakish. He was tall and very thin (almost gaunt). His hair was bleached blond and he wore a clergical collar with a pentagram on the front. He introduced his girlfriend as "Lady Trampoline." He wore black leather gloves and had a large silver "occult-style" ring on each finger. At this point I was pretty skeptical about him but then again Pagans can tend to be pretty weird sometimes so I decided that for the time I would give him the benefit of the doubt.
When Pryor described his plan to do a public ritual in San Francisco to protest Larry Lea's visit Janet and I decided to go along with it for a couple reasons. First of all I supported the idea of someone getting out there and saying that we don't want a bunch of militaristic fundamentalist loonies in the Bay Area, or anywhere else for that matter. The other reason was that Pryor had drawn a lot of media attention and as representatives of a Pagan organization we figured it would be a good idea to get some more mainstream appearing faces in front of the camera so that the general public would not identify all Pagans with Pryor's brand of freakishness. Trying to present a mainstream image to Paganism was one of the goals we were trying to achieve with BAPA (in fact, it was part of BAPA's charter). In fact, we had done an interview with the religion editor of the "San Jose Mercury News" just a few weeks earlier to further that goal.
The day of the ritual I brought my camcorder and helped Pryor set up. Janet had gone with him and his girlfriend to their apartment and described it as a mess. I video taped the ritual, which went pretty well at first. There were lots of press and probably about 50 people in robes. The ritual, as described to us, was to be pretty tame. Pryor had a figure candle when he said he was going to burn as a symbolic way of removing the negativity Lea was bringing to the city. He assured us he was only going to use the candle to banish the negativity and not in any way to harm Lea.
Things went well (and according to plan) until Pryor found that the figure candle would not light in the breeze. Instead, Pryor allowed people to take out their aggressions on the candle. This started with a few people swatting it with brooms to "sweep away" Lea's influences. The action with the brooms became more aggressive and then `Z' Buddapest used the opportunity to spend a minute or two on her soapbox. Finally Pryor cut the candle in two with his athame. This upset some people within the circle and they started to do a counter working to undo what they perceived as (and it really was) essentially a curse. This was all very exotic for the press and they missed the whole point (good). The story went international on CNN and made the lead of most local stations. It raised enough attention in the area that Halloween night there was a huge gay protest in front of the Christian crusade with a lot of people getting yelled at and a couple hit with eggs.
The day before Halloween a local TV talk show was interviewing Dick Bernal, the minister of Jubilee Christian Center (JCC), a large local Evangelical church, and some others. The subject was supposed to be exorcisms, which somehow came out of the "Spiritual Warfare" of Lea and company. At the last minute Eric Pryor managed to get himself onto the show. This no doubt was a great surprise to Bernal. Since the show dealt with exorcism the fundamentalistsdid their little act and Pryor came up with an "exorcism" that consisted of a lot of stabbing actions (in the air) with his athame. To be honest, it was quite an embarrassment.
Pastor Bernal, being the sharp character that he is, recognized an opportunity when he saw one. He invited Eric Pryor out for breakfast and over coffee invited him to the Lea event. He sent a limo to SF to pick up Eric and his live-in girl friend, Cassandra, and he put them up in a nice hotel, payed for their dinner, and (Eric told us later) gave him a couple of hundred dollars (Eric and Cassandra were living in near-poverty). At the Lea event Eric and Cassandra were given VIP seats in the center of the first row.
Halloween night was a circus. I wore slacks and a polo shirt so that I could get into the Larry Lea event. Outside there was a big protest with lots of people dressed up for the usual San Francisco Halloween celebration. There were a lot of partiers, signs, and a huge cross that used a penis for the upright beam. I went inside the auditorium and got some video and then went outside into the crowd. The crowd had their fun with the arriving Christians, and then the cops herded them off to the Castro district for the big Halloween bash. Eric Pryor did end up attending Lea's event and was treated like a king. After the event he was quoted in some brief TV interviews as saying that he was torn between Paganism and Christianity. Lea also video taped a one-on-one between himself and Pryor.
The next day Pryor called me from the hotel where he was staying, and Janet and I went to visit Cassandra and him. He bought us dinner from room service (at Bernal of JCC's expense) and explained that he was thinking of putting on "an act" of going over to the Christians so that he could go undercover and "get the dirt" on them. I was more skeptical than ever but figured it couldn't hurt to stay in the loop just to keep up with what was going on. That was the last we saw of Eric Pryor for a few weeks.
About this time Don Frew of the Covenant of the Goddess got into the act. I explained to Don what was going on and his biggest concern seemed to be that Pryor would make Pagans look bad with the Christian crowd. This was a legitimate concern, I must admit. By this time Pryor was making claims to the Christians that he was the leader of the Bay Area Pagan community and implied that he was a big national Pagan leader. (JCC was referring to him as the Witch King -- but we never knew whether Pryor claimed that or the church just chose the title on their own.) When Frew heard that Pryor planned to go undercover to get dirt on the Christians he contacted Dick Bernal at JCC to express his concerns that Pryor was not all he claimed to be. It soon became evident that Bernal (and Lea) were not so concerned with the truth as they were with appearances. I don't think that either of them cared who or what Eric Pryor was but rather what he could pass himself off as to Christian congregations.
I heard from Pryor again a few weeks later, after Thanksgiving. Eric called me and invited me to his wedding at JCC. I accepted and asked him if he would like me to video tape it for him. He said yes, and the day of his wedding I shot some footage. At the very end I shot a few seconds of Bernal and Pryor signing what appeared to be a wedding license. Pryor started to ask me if I would like to witness it but Bernal cut him off. After the wedding Pryor, Dick Bernal, the assistant Pastor (who was later convicted for child molestation) their wives, and some others went out for dinner.
At the dinner Pryor was pushing Bernal in regard to a number of "outreaches" including one to the Pagan community. He wanted to have a huge discussion between leaders of both communities, video tape the whole thing, and present it on Christian TV channels. He said that it would eliminate misunderstandings between the two groups and could open a line of dialog. I, in turn, told Bernal that if they wanted to open lines of dialog this was _not_ the way to do things. My suggestion was that a small group get together over coffee a few times to try to create some trust; only when trust was established could something like Pryor proposed work. I did say that I would try to get some local leaders in our community to meet with Bernal if that's what he wanted to do. He agreed and I started to make arrangements.
I pulled together a group that included Don Frew and Russell Williams representing COG, Janet Christian and Diana St. Martin representing BAPA, and Anodea Judith the president of the Church of All Worlds. I tried to just act as an arbitrator. The Pagans were mostly concerned that Bernal would actually believe Pryor's claims about himself and insisted that he not be included in this discussion. This got Pryor all upset but he had no choice but to go along with it. His girlfriend attended and I recorded the discussion. The Pagans in attendance said that they might be willing to consider a forum like Pryor proposed but only if Pryor was not involved in the project in any way. Bernal more or less poo-pooed our concerns and while he tried to act interested in what we had to say he didn't commit to anything.
As the result of this meeting Pryor went ballistic. He started to assert that the reason local Pagans would not support his video project was "self engrandizement" and went about trying to sell his idea to Pagan "names" in outer parts of the country. To counter this the then-leadership of BAPA went into high gear, contacting Pagans across the country. We wrote some articles describing the events that occurred up to that point. Lea Samul or COG wrote an excellent account of the whole Pryor incident. We still have copies available. During this period we spent a lot of time on the phone and spent a lot of money on postage. Eventually we got the word and Pryor's TV show never happened because no self-respecting Pagan would appear on it.
As part of this process we tried to find out just who this Eric Pryor was anyway. Nobody seemed to know much of anything about him or where he came from, although Herman Slater in New York, was able to tell us that he did know Eric Pryor. I sent a confidential letter to Bernal explaining this and Bernal immediately handed it over to Pryor. Pryor then sent me several rather bizarre faxes full of religious ravings as the result of this.
At about this time Pryor went on televangelist Larry Lea's program and agreed with Lea when asked if "a Pagan is as likely to shoot you as put a curse on you." Jubilee Christian Center also produced a video tape about Eric Pryor that they were selling for $20. What I recall most vividly about that video tape was that the security guys wearing dark sunglasses holding the crowd back while Pryor's occult books, artwork, drums, and altar implements were ritually burned in a large pile in the JCC parking lot looked like a cross between CIA and mobster. Pryor and several others even stomped up and down on the drums to break the drumheads. (I later discovered that Pryor had secreted away some of his ritual implements so that they would not be destroyed.)
During this period we were contacted by a producer for ABC TV's PrimeTime Live news program, who was doing a story about corrupt televangelists. This producer was curious about the events surrounding Lea's Halloween crusade. After telling all that we knew about the event, Janet mentioned that we were trying to research Pryor's background but could not come up with much. She also described how we had come up with a blank when trying to find the records of Pryor's marriage to Cassandra. Because I had video taped a few seconds of Pryor and Bernal signing what appeared to be a marriage certificate I sent a copy of the tape to the producer so that she could research the matter.
By this time we were getting the sense that the whole bunch, Lea, Bernal, Pryor and the rest of this televangelist crowd were pretty sleazy characters. What our PrimeTime Live contact came up with about the marriage confirmed this feeling.
The "marriage" had been a deliberate hoax. Eric Pryor was already married to a woman, and had some kids by that marriage. He had simply walked out on her one day (the classic "going out to get cigarettes and never coming back"). Because Bernal and Lea wanted to sell Eric Pryor on the Evangelical church circuit as "The Witch that Switched" they could not have him living "in sin" with his girlfriend. Knowing that Pryor was already married to another woman Bernal presided over a sham marriage for the sake of appearances. The next December the video tape I took of Pryor's marriage was shown on PrimeTime Live, along with evidence of other deceptions on the part of Lea. On top of everything else, Lea's father passed away at about this time. Taken together these events ended Lea's career as a major player among the televangelist crowd. Shortly thereafter Bernal explained his part in the sham to his congregation during a Sunday service. It didn't keep them from coming back though; some people have got to be terminally stupid.
The next time I saw Pryor was during an all day Christian event in a small public park in downtown San Jose. He was evidently developing his "act" that he hoped would make him a name on Christian TV one day. Eric's teeth had been straightened at JCC's expense and he was wearing a $400 suit (although Cassandra was still wearing "thrift store" quality clothes and army boots). They arrived in Bernal's stretch limo. Again, I recorded the whole event. Pryor did a lot of yelling about how he was going to "Kick Satan's butt" and tried to keep it comical. He also attacked Pagans a lot. I spoke briefly to Cassandra and told her that my only interest was that the truth be told regarding who Pryor was and his claims to be the former leader of Bay Area Pagans. In a brief moment of openness she told me that this all wasn't about truth, it was about the true God, the all mighty dollar. (I liked Cassandra; I think she was just a victim of her circumstances.)
Pryor next put together a presentation attempting to associate gays with Paganism. It was all pretty off-the-wall stuff that ended with a display of those gay sex toys that can be shown to a Christian congregation and some Pagan ritual implements. During the entire presentation while Pryor had his back turned to the audience so that he could operate a slide projector he had a guard wearing dark sunglasses standing with his arms crossed behind Pryor facing the audience. I have to wonder if this guard was supposed to throw himself in the way of any curses cast by Witches in the audience.
In the months that followed a number of things occurred. Pryor went to Salem with a video crew to try to get some footage of him confronting the "evil" in that town. He and his crowd accosted a young mother and forced her to kneel in front of him, his camera, and her child. For this and some other equally slimey actions the local police department sent him out of town with a warning that if he ever returned he could expect to stay for a while at city expense. He took his act to JCC south, an old bar that was converted to a church when the owner converted to Christianity. Pryor was wearing military fatigues and I was there with my camcorder. This time I video taped him spewing venom about how Pagans should not be allowed to commit such crimes as that of raising their children in their faith.
After a number of embarrassing incidents Pryor tried to improve his status by having the religion editor of the "San Jose Mercury News" write a story about him and his conversion. The only problem with this was that I had already discussed the matter with the man and had given him 30 pages of documentation regarding Pryor's past and his activities. When the article came out it shredded Pryor. After this when I sat in a Sunday service at JCC, Pryor was no longer given a seat among the church's dignitaries.
Two weeks after the San Jose Mercury article came out the author was found dead. The official cause of death was a heart attack.
Sometime around this time Janet and I received a video tape in the mail from someone back east who knew Pryor years earlier. The tape shows, among other things, Pryor having group homosexual intercourse, sitting on a bathroom floor shooting up heroin and then vomiting violenty into the toilet, dressed in drag and doing an obscene dance, and other bizarre images. We also spoke to his still-legal-wife, who had been trying to find him for years so that she could try to collect child support. She was living on food stamps and welfare, while Pryor lounged in the lap of church wealth and luxery.
Eventually Pryor's past started to catch up to him. It's possible that his contribution to the downfall of Larry Lea and subsequent damage to Bernal's ministry caused him to lose favor in Bernal's eyes. When I spoke to Pryor one time he indicated that Bernal was by this time considering him to be an idiot. Pryor started to drink (he was evidently a recovered alcoholic) and crying that Cassandra had taken their child and left him as justification. Evidently because I had always treated him honestly, Pryor called me. He was on a binge drunk, had a number of guns and was alluding to suicide. I convinced him to come to an AA meeting with me but he wouldn't leave his pistol behind so we ended up just driving around a while. Eventually Bernal spent the money to send him to a couple of Christian recovery programs, but Pryor could not take the discipline and left.
Pryor then started to slide in and out of periods of drunkenness. During a period of sobriety he was involved in an incident at Circle Sanctuary were Pryor and televangelist Jeff Fenholt lead some followers to protest the Pagan gathering there. I think that these things were probably more of an embarrassment to his mentor Bernal, than anything else. The last time I saw Eric Pryor he was on a 30 day drunk and talking about suicide. Always the con, he pulled some of his old Wiccan tools out of a chest and informed me that he was ready to come back to Paganism. Though he claimed this was because the Christians had treated him so badly, evidently this was because they were just getting tired of his behavior. I told him that this might not be a good decision on his part. After that I visited him a few times and then decided that perhaps if booze really kicked his butt far enough then he might do what it takes to get his life together.
After I last saw Eric Pryor, still curious I called JCC a few weeks later and was told that he was no longer associated with the church. When I'd talked to Pryor he had mentioned another, smaller area church. On a hunch I called the secretary there. She told me that the church's Pastor was very intererested in working one-on-one with Pryor because he was in such a sorry mess "as a result of his past involvement with that Satanism." I've got to give Eric credit for having an instinct of knowing where his next meal is coming from.
It impossible not to see the irony involved in the Eric Pryor affair. Pryor cast a curse on Larry Lea and those of his ilk. Consequently, as a Christian, Pryor was an element in Lea's downfall. Dick Bernal thought he would have a going (and growing) concern with Eric Pryor as the Witch that Switched but instead Eric Pryor became a growing concern of Dick Bernal. From here it looks as if Pryor may _be_ the curse that he cast at those others.
Life and death. Religion and sin. Greed, power, and deceit. Men falling in disgrace from the peak of their profession to obscurity. These are the reasons why the story of Eric Pryor is one of those fascinating true tales with all ] the elements of a tragedy in the greatest tradition of Western literature. Best of all, in this story all the characters deserve each other.
A religious morality tale for our own time; someone should write an opera about it.
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