In the 1960 film Elmer Gantry, Burt Lancaster plays a charismatic, silver-tongued salesman who uses evangelism as a way to fleece religious suckers of their money. It does not end well for Brother Gantry, as his lies are exposed, and the members of his flock turn on him.
On an undated cassette delivered to Peter Gallagher of the St. Petersburg Times, John 3:16 Cook – addressing the journalist by name – rambled for an hour about religion, his unorthodox methods, his financial troubles and the reasons he believed city fathers were out to get him.
He also compared his fame to that of Elvis Presley, and cued up a recording of Elvis singing “My Way.”
“Those two people over there, pushing a grocery cart, are they talking good or talking bad about me?” Cook mused before shutting off the recorder. “Or saying look at that clown, there’s that Elmer Gantry!
“Well, call me what you want, just spell the name right, John 3:16. And look it up in your Bible.”
The wages of sin
On March 16, 1976, a Tuesday afternoon, Cook’s 1975 Cadillac Eldorado plowed into a gas pump at a Sunoco station on 34th Street South, flinging it 60 feet across 15th Avenue into a Fina station. Cook then accelerated and drove across the median and over the curb into an Amoco station, knocking out the overhead canopy and obliterating four more gas pumps, which exploded. A fire began as gasoline spread across the concrete.
The station owner and another man helped a wild-eyed Cook get out of his car; he immediately ran.
Arrested shirtless at his Maximo Moorings home shortly afterward, the heavily-tattooed evangelist, who at first denied his involvement in the incident, registered a blood alcohol level of .310.
He was ordered to pay $15,000 in damages, and put on two years’ probation.
“I’ve been down in the dumps lately,” Cook said, explaining that he’d consumed a bottle of vodka because one of his most trusted “apostles” had robbed his home and stolen one of his cars.
But he remained defiant. “This ain’t going to hurt me bad,” Cook declared. “I know God’s forgiven me. I don’t care what John Q. Public thinks.”
But it was only the beginning.
A downtown John 3:16 mission is taking steps to get rid of cockroaches in the kitchen and urine-soaked mattresses after inspectors found the rooming house in “deplorable” condition.
Tampa Tribune/July 30, 1976
Skid row evangelist John 3:16 Cook was found innocent last night of the armed robbery of his former right hand man Larry Schwartz last November.
Tampa Tribune/April 8, 1977
A second robbery charge against flamboyant skid row evangelist John 3:16 Cook was dismissed yesterday.
Tampa Tribune/April 22, 1977
Pinellas County taxpayers – without having anything to say about it – have contributed more than $1,400 to the legal defense fund of mission house evangelist John 3:16 Cook … “You better believe Pinellas County owes me something,” Cook said. “They’re the ones who dragged me through the gutter. And they’re going to pay, too.”
St. Petersburg Times/April 24, 1977
Cook’s 23-year-old son David Vance Guthrie had mental issues – his half-sister Genesis believes he was autistic before anyone knew the word. He also had a drug habit and a lengthy criminal record, and in 1976 had been sexually assaulted by fellow inmates in a Jacksonville jail. With Cook’s help, Guthrie sued and was awarded a settlement of $75,000, half of which was used to pay his legal and medical bills. A year later he was still behind bars, serving a lengthy term for armed robbery.
The remaining $37,000 was placed in the hands of Guthrie’s legal guardian – John 3:16 Cook.
And it disappeared.
An arrest warrant was issued in May, 1978. Cook, who claimed to be on a cross-country speaking tour with former cowboy star Lash LaRue – a born-again Christian and reformed alcoholic with whom Cook had formed a symbiotic friendship – denied the charges and blithely told the Times in a phone interview he’d come back to town when his tour ended.
Charged with grand theft, grand larceny and failure to appear on a warrant, Cook was apprehended in Oklahoma and returned to St. Petersburg in handcuffs.
He was broke, he told a reporter, and the missions were either gone or going fast. Pushing 50, he decided to stop wearing the flashy clothes, and washed the dye out of his hair. His glasses were broken.
“I was trying to kill myself when I ran over those gas pumps, sure,” he said. “It was too much, I couldn’t cope with it. It was 24 hours a day. The missions gotta feed offa ya.”
On the eve of Cook’s trial, April 23, 1979, David Vance Guthrie – brought to town to testify – hanged himself in his Pinellas County jail cell.
On a cassette tape introduced as evidence, Cook – recording a late-night audio letter to Zane – confessed to stealing the money from his son. “I started withdrawing a lot to pull the mission out of debt,” he said. “There’s less than a hundred dollars left in the account … no way I can account for it.”
He was also heard explaining how he’d attempted to kill Guthrie, whom he and Zane called Filchie, with an overdose of drugs. “He must have the constitution of an ox,” Cook said on the recording. “If I could find some insulin to do it that wouldn’t leave a trace, don’t believe I wouldn’t do it.”
Still, he bawled and shook during his son’s eulogy, calling him a “beautiful kid,” and declaring that David “has got to be in heaven ‘cause he’s been in hell ever since he was born.”
Following the graveside ceremony, an elderly woman approached Cook in a sweet voice: “Rev. Cook, I’ve followed your ministry for years. I’m so sorry …” Cook interrupted her, stared hard into her eyes, and replied: “If they put me in jail, I won’t eat the food nor drink the water. I’ll drink the toilet water. I won’t last five minutes in prison. I’m a dead man. I’ll swallow my tongue if I have to. I’ll kill myself. I can’t do five minutes in prison.” The lady was shocked. A friend, one of the few who will be seen publicly with John 3:16 Cook these days, pulled the hard-breathing Cook away.
St. Petersburg Times/May 2, 1979
From the same story (by Peter Gallagher):
On the trial’s first day, during the laborious jury selection, Cook vomited three times (once bolting from the courtroom groaning loudly), defecated in his trousers, and attacked me during a seizure in a courthouse bathroom.
On May 8, Cook abruptly pled guilty to stealing his son’s money. Circuit court Judge Harry Fogle ordered him to leave the state for five years, and forbade him from evangelizing for profit. If he complied, the criminal charges would be expunged from his record.
“Frankly, the state of Florida has had enough of Mr. Cook,” prosecutor Bernard McCabe said.
In typically dramatic fashion, Cook told reporter Gallagher that he couldn’t help himself from preaching. “I’ll be back,” he said. “Some bastard’s gonna walk up and he’s gonna curse in front of my wife, and I’m gonna call him on it. Then they’ll bring me back to St. Petersburg.
“Then I’ll be in prison. Then I’ll be dead.”
Cook, his wife and their two daughters left the state in a camper. According to Genesis, they slept in National Parks. To bring in money, John and Zane would work a traveling carnival every now and then.
Eventually, her parents split, and Zane and the girls moved into a house in a suburb of Oklahoma City. “He told me he divorced my mother after she slept with Lash LaRue,” says Genesis. “I don’t know how true that is.”
Except for a phone call every Christmas (“my mother would scream at him until he went away”) Genesis had little contact with Dad in her teenage years.
Cook re-emerged in 1983, living with a woman named Annette on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia, within spitting distance of the Florida border. He was hustling a line of organic dog shampoos, and told a Tampa Tribune writer he was planning to change his name again, to John K-9 Cook.
Annette, he declared, had given up her half of a $1 million inheritance to marry him. In fact, they wed before Cook’s divorce from Zane was final.
(Explains Genesis: “My dad’s thing was that he would find – using his exact words – a ‘rich broad,’ and mooch off of her till she got sick of him. When he visited me once in Oklahoma, I remember in the hotel room there was this woman that just kept giving him money, and she just looked disgusted by my presence. Because I was proof of a previous marriage. He would just float from woman to woman who had money.”)
He also confessed to a reporter that Sonny Austin, the Hollywood stuntman, had been a complete fabrication.
His court-ordered exile ended in May, 1984, and Cook – now sporting a priest’s collar and a humble black coat – headed straight for Miami Beach. There, the owner of an abandoned porno theater let him use the place for “services” and a shelter for South Beach street people. The broken Washington Street marquee read Soup, Soap and Hope – Rated G. Cook, Annette and their three poodles slept in a back room.
But fire inspectors declared the building unsafe, and the second coming roadshow continued to Charlotte, N.C., where Cook briefly took over yet another X-rated palace.
While preaching in Charlotte, Cook was accused in a Miami courtroom of supplying a gun to 25-year-old Charles Griffith, who’d used it the previous June to kill his 3-year-old daughter as she lay brain-dead in a hospital ICU following a freak accident. Cook, the distraught father’s “spiritual advisor,” was also accused of smuggling marijuana into the Dade County Jail for him.
Prosecutors told the Miami Herald they were unable to locate Cook. He was never questioned and never testified.
He next turned up in Las Vegas. Cook arrived in 1986 and drove a taxi, still wearing his bogus priest uniform, and happily bantered with the local media. He then set up a “Soup, Soap and Hope” shelter for the city’s homeless, almost immediately getting on the wrong side of city leaders. The shelter, called Pride Village, was shuttered within two years for numerous code violations.
He then painted an old mail truck with religious slogans and took his act on the road, dispensing hot dogs, Kool-Aid and other necessities to Las Vegas unfortunates.
As a mobile “street preacher,” he openly criticized local politicians and clergy, and blasted the Salvation Army and other charities. He also revived the stories about Sonny Austin, the dead baby and his harrowing journey “From Junk to Jesus.”
In a 1988 Las Vegas Sun poll, four out of every five readers said they wanted Cook to leave town.
That was the year he married Marissa McKennedy, a self-proclaimed “witch” who wrote a monthly astrology column for an entertainment magazine, in a ceremony broadcast live on Vegas radio.
John 3:16 and “Magickal Marissa” enjoyed a few good years as the Robin Hoods of Sin City, soliciting donations of food and money from the affluent to help the afflicted. They survived on his Social Security, VA checks from his Korean War service and the goodness of strangers.
Constantly complaining, criticizing and begging for donations, they also managed to become burrs under the saddle of city government. Cook even ran for mayor in 2005; the Sun dutifully reported that he was under a court order to pay his ex-wife Zane $23,660 in back child support.
The couple separated briefly in 2010 – he had “abandoned” and left her with no money, Marissa told a reporter. “He was the biggest con man I ever met,” she said. “Once a carny, always a carny.”
Rheumatoid arthritis crippled his legs, and his lungs were shriveled from decades of chain-smoking. Emphysema became lung cancer, and lung cancer killed John 3:16 Cook on Aug. 11, 2012. He was 80, give or take. Nobody knows for sure.
Genesis Whitmore remembers the last time she saw her father. It was around 2003 – she was 29 at the time – and she visited him and Marissa in their run-down trailer full of cats, ashtrays, religious pamphlets and scrapbooks of news clippings.
It was, she says, an awkward reunion.
“Every story he told ended with the phrase ‘And I’m gonna make a million dollars.’ He needed to get on to his latest get-rich-quick scheme, which had worked so well in the past.
“He told me about this big plan he had to publish a book, called Faith, Lies and Bullshit, and the “t” in Bullshit was going to be a cross.”
Read Part One here.