THE DEVIL MADE HIM DO IT
Fiery talk-show host Bob Larson has spent most of his career battling Satan. But over the past several years, he also has been under attack from a growing number of more corporeal opponents, who charge him with sins such as the financial exploitation of radio listeners by his Lakewood-based Bob Larson Ministries (BLM). And none of his critics has been more persistent than Evergreen resident Ken Smith.
A 36-year-old certified public accountant currently attending law school at the University of Denver, Smith has made a virtual second career out of assembling allegations--most of them negative--about Larson. He has written a number of articles attacking BLM that are available to subscribers of Internet, a computer bulletin board, and he recently filed a lawsuit against Larson in Jefferson County District Court. In the suit, Smith, acting as his own attorney, charges that during an early 1993 episode of Talk-Back Larson made several false and harmful statements about him--statements that even Smith acknowledges did not include the use of his name. Smith also says that Larson slandered him during exchanges that took place when they both were guests on radio programs broadcast on two stations--one in Florida, the other in Kansas--later that same year. Smith has a personal style that couldn't be more different from Larson's: He is soft-spoken and deliberate, whereas Larson, while debating callers on his regular radio program (Talk-Back is heard locally from 2 to 4 p.m. weekdays on KQXI-AM/1550), is explosive and argumentative, and sounds thrilled whenever he has an opportunity to engage in mouth-to-mouth combat on topics ranging from rock music to Satanic ritual abuse. Nevertheless, Smith, in his own mild-mannered way, seems no likelier to back away from a scrap than Larson. "I'm outmanned and outgunned," Smith says, "but I'm going to fight the good fight."
Larson, through the law firm of Hopper and Kanouff, has formally denied Smith's allegations and has filed a counterclaim accusing Smith of "a smear campaign, on the air, through the mails and on computer interactive networks." Larson's counterclaim also contends that Smith's suit was filed to harass Larson, as well as to obtain private documents and financial records that Smith wants to include in a book about Larson.
Beyond these court papers, Larson has not offered a response to Smith's suit; neither his attorneys nor any BLM representative will comment about it, or any other topic. But during his most recent Talk-Back broadcasts, Larson frequently has complained about a severe decline in donations and in the number of radio stations across the country that air his program. Meanwhile, BLM has dropped its membership in National Religious Broadcasters, an organization that serves as a watchdog for media evangelists, even as a major Christian publication is preparing another expose on the ministry.
For a time, Smith admits, he was planning to pen an opus about Larson--"It was going to be called Grand Lar$ony, with a dollar sign for the `s,'" he notes--but he vows that he has since discarded the idea. Furthermore, he dismisses the motives ascribed to him by Larson's lawyers. He says he filed the suit "because my reputation means something to me--and what Bob Larson has done has hurt my reputation."
Smith says he initially became interested in Christian talk radio during the Eighties, when he was living in California. He enjoyed drawing the personalities into philosophical debates both on and off the air and eventually forged an adversarial but friendly relationship with John Stewart, a lawyer and host of a nationally syndicated Christian program. "He was doing his own kind of policing by calling people and forcing them to support their contentions," Stewart says. "But I found that this was motivated by a true desire to get people to rethink their values, rather than his having an ax to grind."
Among Smith's strong opinions is his belief that the stories in the Bible should not simply be taken on faith. He has written a thus-far-unpublished book called The Curse of Thomas that attempts to determine if the resurrection of Jesus actually took place; he concludes that there is insufficient evidence that it did. The book features two pages about the methods by which he says media ministers can use unprovable beliefs to further their own monetary goals. As an example, he cites Bob Larson.
In the early Nineties, Smith moved to Colorado and heard Larson for the first time. He later discussed Talk-Back with Stewart, who told Smith that he recently had received a copy of court records filed in relation to divorce proceedings involving Larson and his then-wife, Kathryn. The records contained provocative financial information; for instance, Larson was shown to have made more than $400,000 in 1990 alone. Upon receiving a copy of the transcripts from Stewart, Smith called Larson on the air to ask him about the figures. He says he was quickly cut off and transferred to a receptionist, with whom he left his name and telephone number. The next day, Smith claims, he was contacted by a BLM attorney, who asked about his interest in the divorce. "I told him to write me a letter," Smith says, "and the one I received threatened a lawsuit."
This might have been the end of his interest, Smith says, had he not received a phone call from Lori Boespflug, a BLM vice president who told him that she wrote much of Larson's best-selling novel, Dead Air, but was never credited or compensated for her efforts. Shortly thereafter, Boespflug, who was fired from BLM in June 1992, sued Larson. Stewart, who represented Boespflug, says that as part of an out-of-court settlement, his client agreed not to publicly discuss her time at the ministry.
Energized by Boespflug's claim, Smith began to gather more data about Larson. In October 1992, at the height of his immersion in all things Bob, Smith had what he says was his first and only face-to-face meeting with Larson, at a Mark Russell concert both attended. "I talked to him for about 45 minutes and figured my job was done," Smith says.
But Smith changed his mind, he says, after receiving a confidential BLM memo regarding the report of a private investigator hired to poke into his background, and hearing a Talk-Back broadcast made soon after the appearance of a damning article about Larson, published in World, a national Christian magazine, in January 1993. During that program, Larson said that one of the people leading the attack against his ministry was "an avowed atheist" who was harassing him. Larson also charged his unnamed enemies with threatening his life and the lives of his elderly parents.
When asked how anyone could possibly know that the "avowed atheist" was him, Smith, who calls himself "a deist," says, "I am known in the Christian community, and it's known that I was working on the Larson story. It was like saying my name without saying my name. And I do know that there are certain people involved in the Larson investigation who won't talk to me because they believe I'm an atheist." Smith adds that during the Florida and Kansas radio programs, aired in July 1993, Larson referred to him directly as a stalker (a charge apparently based on the encounter at the concert, which Smith swears was a coincidence), a liar and a member of a group that was involved in computer theft and had threatened to set fire to his property and kill him.
Smith contends that each of these statements is slanderous and has contributed to his losing favor with other Larson critics. For whatever reason, at least one of the latter is wary of Smith. Bob Cannella, a discharged BLM employee who in 1993 filed a still-pending complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging the ministry with discrimination, says of Smith, "He has piles of good information, but he has made it his vocation to go after Larson. You're better off not associating with him."
Larson's lawyers are attempting to paint Smith in a similar light. Their motion to dismiss the lawsuit supports the contention that Smith is trying to smear Larson by quoting an article called "Twenty Questions: Ken Smith Talks Back." In it, Smith, essentially interviewing himself, boasts that he and his followers have inflicted considerable damage to Larson's career, and adds that "the biggest waves are yet to come."
The vitriol that drips from Smith's articles and pamphlets about BLM apparently has led Larson's lawyers to describe Smith's actions as systematic efforts to discredit Bob Larson Ministries. But Smith is the last person to admit that he's obsessed with bringing Larson to his knees. In spite of the sheer volume of material he has compiled, he insists that he would be more than pleased if his conflict with Larson would simply cease to exist. Still, he's not willing to wave the white flag. "This is going to go away on his terms or on my terms," he says. "And I'm not going to let it go away on his terms.
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