In the end, it was all just a pack of lies.
Self-proclaimed evangelist John 3:16 Cook arrived in St. Petersburg in 1971, and exploited the weak and vulnerable, just as he had done in Oklahoma City and Memphis.
The son of carnies, Cook was a smooth talker – the sort who could sell refrigerators to Eskimos, as the old saying went. He wore brightly-colored suits, shiny shoes and gaudy jewelry, and his (dyed) jet-black hair was combed into a high pompadour. He was loud, charismatic and impossible to avoid.
He self-righteously preached sobriety as the way to salvation. After establishing a dozen “missions” for the city’s drunk, drug-addled and destitute, however, Cook began to rub people the wrong way. For him, “telling it like it is” meant insulting city and church leaders, and anyone questioning his legitimacy. Once the accusations, and the lawsuits, began – mistreatment of his charges, stealing their Social Security checks, guns, “deplorable” conditions – his fall from grace was assured.
On a drunken driving spree in 1976, Cook took out five gas pumps at two stations on opposite sides of 34th Street South. Three years later, his empire in shambles, he was convicted of embezzlement and ordered to leave Florida altogether.
From Junk to Jesus
His “sermons” always included the following talking points:
Cook had been a Hollywood stuntman named Sonny Austin, appearing in more than 60 movies. “I’ve been kicked around by John Wayne, slapped around by Lee Marvin, spat upon by Glenn Ford,” the story went. “I was usually a motorcycle delinquent, a hot rod, a bum. I never got to hug the girl and ride off into the sunset. About the only thing I ever got to hug was a horse – and usually the wrong end of a horse.”
His concept of hell was to be back living his pre-Christian, materialistic life: “I bought Cadillacs off of the showroom floors. I had one car that had beer in it – cold, running beer. I’ve had swimming pools in my back yard, tailor-made suits in my closets. Jewels! I’ve dated and been married to some of the most famous women in the world. I’ve dined in the palace of kings.”
His movie career, he’d declare, foundered because of his alcoholism, which led to a “one hundred dollar a day” heroin habit. “I went from beer to vodka to pills to cough syrup to marijuana,” he’d yell, “right up the line to sniffing it and then mainlining it.” He unashamedly displayed the needle tracks on his arms.
He knew he’d hit rock bottom when he and his starlet wife Pamela, high on pills and booze, forgot that their 3-month-old son was sleeping in the bed between them. They found the infant dead next morning, suffocated. Sonny survived his later suicide attempt; Pamela did not.
Because his insides were all “eaten up” by venereal disease – a holdover from his wicked past – he could no longer father children.
When he began to preach, in St. Petersburg Baptist and Methodist churches, John 3:16 Cook was an instant hit. Here was a tough guy redeemed, a sinner unafraid to bow down before the Lord, admit his many sins and beg for forgiveness.
Why, if a guy would lip off to me six months ago, I’d bite his nose off and spit it in his face. And now I pray for him. I love him. It’s hard to love a man sometimes that spits on ya, like the other day when I was witnessing to a man, he spat on me. But Jesus was spat upon too, so I considered it a privilege and told him thank you. And he said ‘Brother, I don’t know what you’re selling, but let me have some!’ I said I’m not selling it, I’m giving it away! Salvation – to live in eternity with Jesus Christ.
From the album And God Gave Me a Fix/From Junk to Jesus/The John 3:16 Cook Story
Listen to John 3:16 preach:
His real name was Jack Milton Cooke; his father was a traveling-carnival hypnotist known as the Great Lucerne. Jess and Sonya Cooke had performed together in vaudeville, as “Cook and Cook.” In the 1930s and ’40s John was the oldest of four sons traveling with Mom and Dad from one city to the next.
As “Dano Vance,” he wrestled alligators, worked the peep shows and did whatever else it took to make a buck. One of sideshow acts was as “The Swamp Angel,” a Gollum-like “gillman” painted blue and standing halfway submerged in a dimly-lit pool of water. As a child, he explained to his marks, he’d become lost in the swamp and survived by eating small animals. He’d grown gills and fins.
The finale, “feeding time,” consisted of Cook-the-gillman waving a bloody, decapitated chicken over his head as he howled and writhed in the water. The folks screamed like crazy.
His “conversion,” Cook claimed, happened in Pitcher, Oklahoma, a mining town northeast of Oklahoma City. It was there that he was re-born as a preacher and added the 3:16 to his name, after a well-known Bible verse: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son …
His earliest sermons focused on teenagers and the dangers of drugs – kids, don’t end up like Sonny Austin, he’d scream from the pulpit – and he started counseling young people in groups and one-on-one.
Things turned sour in 1970 after he took up with Zane Holder, the wife of the man producing his record albums. Because of testimony in the subsequent divorce and child custody cases, Cook was expelled from his home church, on the grounds of adultery.
John and Zane turned up in Memphis, Tennessee. He told the same stories in his church “revivals” there – the stuntman, the starlets and the swimming pools, the drugs, the dead baby.
The pastor at First Baptist Church, Cook once claimed, had short-changed him on his share of money from the collection plate.
“I had 150 professions of faith,” he told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I got peanuts. The man took up a big offering and he didn’t give it to me, see. I didn’t get my love offering.”
Other churches complained about his abrasive personality, his questionable backstory.
A reporter then called Cook’s previous wife, Ann, in California, who said that not only was the story about heroin addiction a fabrication, but that Cook got the track marks from a carnival act, in which he would hypnotize himself and stick needles in his arms, never once flinching.
“He’s the best con man there is,” the ex-wife said matter-of-factly.
She’d never heard the name Sonny Austin (checks with the Stuntman’s Association and the Screen Actors Guild came up empty, too).
The reporter also fact-checked Cook’s story about smothering his infant son, and the suicide of his wife Pamela, by contacting the Mississippi town where he claimed it happened. No records of the events, or those persons, were found.
Not long after the story was published, John and Zane – who was six months pregnant – left for Florida.
Soup, Soap and Hope
In his first St. Petersburg Times interview, July 22, 1971, Cook defended his past, calling ex-wife Ann “no good” and that Commercial Appeal story “a bunch of lies.”
His goal, he told the reporter, was to steer kids away from drugs and alcohol, and into the waiting arms of the Lord.
“I’m still in a type of show business,” Cook said, “but I’m not acting now. Sure, I use my acting ability to help me preach. I’ll do anything I can to draw people to church to hear the word. If I had to dress up like a gorilla I would.”
The Times loved John 3:16 Cook. He always made for good copy. And Cook clearly loved the sound of his own voice; he could always be counted on to say something outrageous. They called him “The flamboyant Skid Row preacher.”
His sights set on bigger fish, and a bigger payout, he quickly moved past offering prayer and consult to troubled teens. The first John 3:16 Cook mission opened that fall, in a ramshackle house next to Faith Temple, one of the churches where he regularly spoke. He formed a “God Squad” of followers, and together they’d visit the downtown bars at closing time to offer the “derelicts,” as alcoholic vagrants were called in those days, a mattress to sleep on.
By February there were five leased missions, each painted red, white and blue and promising “Soup, Soap and Hope,” with 262 men – plus women and children from broken homes, who needed somewhere to stay – divided between them.
Genesis Eve Whitmore, born in St. Petersburg in 1974, is the youngest of John and Zane’s two daughters. Her earliest memories are of her parents’ screaming matches, of her father’s excessive drinking at home, and the glow of his cigarette as he read her bedtime Bible stories in the dark.
And what she refers to as his “random acts of rage.”
Now an artist living in the Orlando area, Whitmore says she’s “lucky to be one of the children that survived his parenting.” She doesn’t speak to Trinity Love, her older sister, who lives in Oklahoma.
Whitmore recalls being plopped down in front of a black-and-white TV in one of the missions, and being left in the residents’ care while her parents were out at some church, with John speechifying.
She didn’t fully understand that her father was a scam artist until she was an adult. “I’ve studied how narcissists think, because I don’t ever want to become one,” she explains. “If reality does not bend to how a narcissist wants it to, they change it.”
However, she says, “I do believe that God was calling him, but he just didn’t want to, and he fought it,” she says. “He had these moments where he would genuinely help people, but part of me wonders if that wasn’t his guilt making him realize what he was doing in bright flashes of self-realization.
“For the most part, he was an actor and he played his part. He had big dreams – he wanted to be famous, and he had big plans but he never enacted them.”
Cook did succeed in setting himself up as a flag-waver for morality, picketing adult theaters and book stores (and harassing patrons as they exited), calling for a “Decency Day” where no one used bad language, and tapping the city for money every chance he got. His operating budget, he declared, came from his speaking fees, from donations, and from the coffers of the John 3:16 thrift stores (“Recycled Goods By Recycled Hoods!”) downtown.
The city helped him out … for a while. Then they began hitting Cook’s properties with building, safety and health code violations. Cook would lash out in the media, and from the pulpit, claiming he was being “persecuted.”
John 3:16 Cook’s missions for alcoholics were blamed Thursday for the hordes of derelicts on downtown streets that police chief Mack M. Vines says has his department “stymied.”
St. Petersburg Times/Feb. 21, 1975
“The reason they really hated him was because he was taking St. Pete’s dirty underwear and showing it to them,” offers former Times reporter Peter Gallagher. “And saying ‘what are you gonna do about it?’”
Gallagher, who interviewed the talkative evangelist numerous times, suggests that – particularly in the early years – Cook was actually providing a service.
“Back then, if someone needed a home for the night, there was nobody around, maybe a cop that might know something,” Gallagher says. “Today, you can dial 211 and they’ll send you to a Navigator, who makes it their business to know where rooms are available for an older person or a mother and children.
“But he was on the street. Anybody that needed something, they would go to John 3:16, and he could find them a place for the night. If they were hungry he could find them some food. He was a one-person Navigator.”
During Cook’s unsuccessful 1975 bid for mayor, questions were raised about the missions’ finances. And the bloom came permanently off the rose.
Three former employees, including Cook’s brother Reno, told the media that “troublesome drunks” were regularly taken away and “dumped” – left without clothes or cash – on lonely rural roads.
Cook denied the accusation, along with claims that he and Zane routinely cashed his tenants’ incoming Social Security checks, and removed money from the men’s pants while they were passed out or asleep.
He did confess to demanding $3 per person, per night to flop at his flophouses.
In July, he pled guilty to fire code violations at five of them. After the hearing, he accused Mayor Charles Schuh of trying to shut him down. “He’s nothing but a fat mama’s boy,” Cook told reporters. “I’d like to punch him so hard my fist would go up to here.” He clutched his elbow.
In October, City Council voted to cut off his city funding.
TUESDAY IN THE CATALYST: Part Two