San Jose Mercury News
December 14 1991
Eric Pryor, a onetime pagan, now preaches Pentecostalism and slams his former calling - but doubts about his fund-raising, his sincerity and his morality abound.
The man hasn't always been what he appears to be.
He called himself the High Priest of San Francisco's New Earth Temple - even though the pagan temple in question was nothing more than his dismal Tenderloin appartment.
He re-enacted an "exorcism" on Channel 5's "People Are Talking" show - but the woman he supposedly freed of demonic beings was actually his live-in girl-friend. (She called him a "doctor." He isn't.)
Then, after organizing a 1990 "public cursing" of televangelist Larry Lea, he suddenly and inexplicably converted to born-again Christianity. Now he's selling himself as "the witch who switched" and finds himself in the middle of a dispute between the pagans and the Pentecostals.
He is Eric J. Pryor, age 32, a native of Suffren, N.Y., who grew up in Woodstock. He has a long criminal record - something he willingly admits - and has reportedly bragged about cheating people out of their money. "I never said I was a saint," he says.
He has, indeed, dabbled in witchcraft for much of his life. But his latest incarnation is that of a preacher, garbed in Army fatigues, who conducts his "Christian Gladiator Ministries" out of San Jose's Jubilee Christian Center.
It was quite a tale of salvation and spiritual renewal - a made-for-TV movie, at least - until Nov. 21.
That night, ABC News reporter Diane Sawyer anchored an investigative report on the network's "Prime Time Live" exposing fraudulent televangelists who manipulate their followers into giving them millions of dollars.
One of the show's targets was Larry Lea's Texas ministry, and Sawyer raised serious questions about Pryor's reputed conversion and the TV preacher's role in it.
Pryor "was never a major leader of the pagans," she said, citing his "long arrest record" and contending that the supposed conversion "was accompanied by wining, dining and money."
The program also showed a tape of Pryor seeming to marry Sandra, his girlfriend, with the Rev. Dick Bernal of the Jubilee Christian Center performing the ceremony - even though Pryor was, and still is, married to another woman.
So, who is this Eric Pryor? Born-again bigamist? Spiritual con artist? Or a misunderstood convert to fundamentalism whose enemies are out to get him?
The latter is the role Pryor is playing most recently. Sitting in a back room Tuesday afternoon at the Jubilee Christian Center, a large charismatic church claiming 5,000 congregants, Pryor makes his case. On this day, the tall, gaunt, decidedly pale Pryor is wearing a sleek suite and tie. His formerly long, bleached-blond hair is trimmed, neatly combed back and dyed red.
Efforts 'to shut me up'
"I'm out to expose the fraud in the pagan community," he says, contending that he is incensed at the accusations. He charges that the network expose' made use of questionable material gathered by Bay Area pagans "to shut me up."
Bernal explains the conversion process this way: He met Pryor on that Halloween 1990 "People Are Talking" show, and their conversation continued at the hotel coffee shop next door. Then he offered Pryor transportation money.
"Wining, dining and money?" Bernal asks, referring to the ABC expose'. "I gave him coffee, nachos and cab fare."
The "PrimeTime Live" report also cited a Herb Caen column in the San Francisco Chronicle saying Pryor made $100,000 last year. Pryor vigorously denies it, maintaining that he's only virtually penniless. His only sources of income, he says, are "love offerings" from the church and people moved my his preaching - as well as sales of "From Pagan to Pentecost," a $25 video version of his purported transformation. He gets $3 in royalties per sale.
Pryor also says he spends one day a month passing out money to homeless people and inviting them to listen as he spreads the word. "I do this because I've been there and I care," he tells them, "and this is my way of serving the Lord I call king of my life, Jesus."
As Pryor is making his case, Bernal enters the room to offer his support. At the same time, however, the minister clearly is taken aback by Pryor's flashy attire, extravagant jewelry and Rolex watch. "You're supposed to be penniless," Bernal says with a chuckle, "and you're sitting here dressed like a riverboat gambler."
Later, Pryor explains that his watch, gold chains, and bejeweled rings - some real and some fake - are all simply more "love offerings."
The church has helped Pryor somewhat. It did find him a Santa Clara apartment, Bernal says, insisting it was necessary to move him out of San Francisco in response to death threats. Bernal also provides him with a small income - $500 a month on top of his $600 monthly Social Security check, "but the money didn't come until after he was converted." (Larry Lea has said on the ABC show that Pryor was given $1,000 a month; his has since corrected that figure to $500.)
Explaining the questionable marriage ceremony is a bit trickier, however.
Before Pryor and his girlfriend Sandra, could be accepted into Bernal's church, they had to get married, says the minister - but Pryor was quick to say that his wife, Nicole, had left him and he had no idea if he was still legally married. On the advice of the church's lawyer therefore, Bernal says the ceremony was merely "a little spiritual ceremony, not a civil ceremony."
If it appears more serious than that to ABC viewers, the minister suggests, it's the fault of the women in the church, who let it get out of hand. Thus the tux, the wedding gown, the flowers and the marriage license that they appeared to be signing. "My wife and some of the girls got involved," says Bernal. "They wanted to make it special."
Bay Area pagans willingly agree they have been digging up dirt on Pryor's background. They also conceded that they passed on much of the damaging material used on the ABC broadcast.
"I know that he has said thing that are not true," says Don Frew, public information officer for the Covenant of the Goddess, a well-established pagan group. Frew produces a registered letter he sent to bernal warning that Pryor may be out to con the pagans, the Christians or the world - and is not to be trusted. He says Bernal never responded to the letter.
"I received the letter," Bernal says now."To me it typified the paranoia of the pagan community. They seemed to be looking for things that aren't there. Eric`s conversion was real."
"The purpose of our doing what was done on this was not to get Eric Pryor," says Eric Marsh, spokesman for Bay Area Pagan Assemblies (BAPA) - an organization made up of low-key practitioners of Wicca, a nature-loving, goddess-worshipping sect, and various New Age spiritualists.
"We had someone here who was working through falsehood to give pagans a black eye," says Marsh. "That continues to be our reason for following this thing though and documenting it."
Marsh is a Wiccan, and thus is particularly miffed at Pryor for casting hurtful spells, pretending to perform exorcisms and engaging in other seemingly sinister rituals.
"He stirred up a frenzy of media attention," says Marsh, "but he was talking about hexes and curses - things that you simply don't do. He claimed to be Wiccan, but he was not really involved in the Wiccan community."
Marsh says the televised "exorcism" ritual was "something we have never seen before - and it was also terrible P.R." Marsh also recalls - and tapes of TV newscasts confirm - that Pryor performed a bit of public voodoo, using a black candle as Larry Lea's effigy, and cutting it in half with a knife.
"We were not supposed to be doing anything negative," Marsh complains. "Claiming the effigy is equivelant to Larry Lea was completely unethical and also serious bad juju. Other people started counter-magic as soon as that happened.
The "good" witches say they feared Pryor was a fraud at worse, and real trouble no matter what. "If (Larry Lea) slips off the stage and breaks his legs or something it is his own karma," Pryor said on one TV newscast.
Now, the reborn-again Pryor rails against pagans and gays in the same frightening manner he had used to curse fundamentalist Christians. In June, he spoke at a fundamentalist church in Cameron Park, and the local newspaper qouted him as saying, "My goal is to destroy Satanism, humanism, paganism, druidism and the practice of homosexuality in our lifetime."
"I would ask and even beg of Mr. Pryor that he produce any information he can" about local pagans and their practices, responds Frew. "He hasn't been on the inside of any major group. He has been on the fringes, but he has never been a central player."
As evidence, Frew cites letters from pagan leaders Pryor claims to have known but who either can't remember him or recall him as something of a fringe character. In response, Pryor simply says he was a low-profile witch until he stepped forward to organize the anti-Lea protest.
"What do the pagans have against Eric?" asks Bernal, the Christian fundametalist preacher. "He has made it public that it is now his calling in life to tell the world that witchcraft can lead to drug abuse, alcoholism, murder..."
"...and self-mutilation," Pryor adds eagerly.
Recently, Pryor was guest speaker at an Assembly of God church in Peoria, Ill., and the local paper reported straightforwardly that he preached about making big money also being God's work: "There is nothing spiritual about poverty. The Lord commands you to prosper."
He is also qouted as saying "tens of thousands across the country" once practiced paganism under his leadership.
It may not be reality, but it played in Peoria.
As of the end of this year, Larry Lea Ministries' TV program will be going off the air for an indefinate period of time. This is the result of an expose' by ABC's Prime Time Live.
Last Saturday the San Jose Mercury News did an article on Eric Pryor. It appears that he may step out of the limelight as a result of this expose'. Both the Eric Pryor expose' and the Larry Lea expose' have damaged Jubilee Christian Center, a large Bay Area church that is closely connected with both Pryor and Lea. JCC may yet fall as the result of the exposure of unethical activities by its Pastor.