The Rev. Jerry Wayne Cox cuts an imposing figure on the Washington Parish landscape — bigger, even, than the gorilla and other huge statues that dot the landscape of his $2 million estate.
The Pentecostal preacher is folksy and charismatic, and he has a devoted flock at his Franklinton church, Faith Tabernacle.
But he’s also someone whom people can be afraid to cross, according to some former parishioners and friends of those who have left the tightly knit congregation of about 300.
“You think of him as a great friend, a great guy to be around, very charismatic, musically talented,” said Chad Thomas, who used to belong to Faith Tabernacle but is now assistant pastor at another church.
But Cox holds a powerful sway over his congregation. “It’s all Old Testament and the judgment of the Old Testament,” Thomas said. “He uses control and fear over his people.”
Hubert Fabacher, a Folsom resident who has close friends who have left the flock, says that members are badgered and pressured to give money. And according to Thomas, no one in the congregation is informed about how much the church on Nobles Cemetery Road brings in or how much money Cox is paid.
“Money is the root of his problem,” Thomas said.
Money is also at the root of the federal charges that Cox now faces.
The 72-year-old preacher was arraigned Thursday in federal court in New Orleans, where he pleaded not guilty to a single count of structuring financial transactions in order to evade federal reporting requirements.
The not-guilty plea was a formality. His attorney, Eddie Castaing, said that Cox intends to plead guilty.
“He fully intends to tell the truth because that is his Christian duty,” Castaing said.
Cox deposited a $70,000 check into a bank account in 2011, according to court documents, and then over a three-week period withdrew amounts under $10,000, the threshold for banks to report transactions to the FBI.
The withdrawals were part of a pattern of illegal activity that involved more than $100,000 over a 12-month period, the government alleges.
Friendship with Reed
Cox’s legal problems have attracted attention in part because of his close friendship with Walter Reed, the longtime former district attorney of the 22nd Judicial District, who in April was hit with a raft of federal charges.
Lawyers for both Reed and Cox are adamant that the preacher’s alleged wrongdoing has nothing to do with Reed.
What cooperation Cox is providing to investigators in return for his plea deal should be clearer after he pleads guilty.
But the powerful pastor’s association with the once-formidable district attorney is likely what brought him to the attention of the federal authorities. Reed’s attorney, Rick Simmons, said that everyone who is close to his client is falling under scrutiny.
Reed used Cox to get referrals for personal-injury cases he took on the side, an arrangement that’s outlined both in a letter the then-district attorney sent out to other Pentecostal pastors and in a magazine interview in which he boasted of getting a $2.4 million settlement for the survivors of two women killed in a wreck with an 18-wheeler.
In that article, Reed called Cox “one of my best friends in life,” and joked that it seemed like his legal work for members of Faith Tabernacle “was a full-time job.”
Reed’s campaign finance reports show he donated $25,000 from his campaign war chest to the church’s building fund, a transaction that may prove intriguing to federal authorities. If they believe Reed made that payment as some kind of “finder’s fee” or commission for the legal work Cox steered to him, but that he did not honestly characterize it as such in his campaign reports, prosecutors could incorporate the payment into their case against Reed.
Simmons has said it was simply a charitable donation.
According to some critics, Cox’s tight relationship with Reed is part of what made the pastor a force to be reckoned with.
Roger Magee, a former member, claims that Cox told him at a meeting in Arkansas, where Magee had moved, that Reed would go after Magee if he ever returned to Washington Parish. Cox made the threat, according to a lawsuit filed by Magee last year, because he and Reed were upset that Magee had been talking to the FBI about them.
Magee’s suit claims that threat was fulfilled when he was arrested during a 2014 visit to relatives on a charge of failing to pay child support. He was held in jail for nearly 100 days on what his family was told was a “DA hold,” the suit says.
Reed was released from Magee’s lawsuit on Thursday. U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle agreed with Simmons that Magee had failed to state a valid claim for action against the former district attorney.
But the other plaintiffs, including Cox, Washington Parish Sheriff Randy “Country” Seal and others, have not been dismissed. And while Reed is no longer being sued, Magee continues to say that the former district attorney acted as the muscle for Cox, an assessment that other critics share.
Sway over his flock
Within the church, Cox was not hesitant to use other threats to keep people in line, former members say. When Magee decided to leave Faith Tabernacle, he said, Cox told him God was going to kill his children.
Thomas said he was given a similar warning. “You’re going to lose everything you’ve got as a punishment for disobeying him,” Thomas said Cox told him.
To some, any bad things that happened after such a threat seemed like the fulfillment of a prophecy, he said.
And then there was the ostracism. Relatives still in the church turn away from those who have left, Thomas said. He recalled a friend who had stood next to him to pray many times. “He looked at me like he didn’t know me. I’m dead to him,” he said.
He and others point to the sway that Cox has over his flock. Thomas said the preacher even helps to arrange marriages. He said Cox told a story from his pulpit about suggesting a possible match for a young man who replied, “I’ll like her if you want me to like her.”
Magee said Cox held meetings with the men in the church to give them advice on how to satisfy their wives in the bedroom.
At a service Tuesday night, however, the controlling Cox described by critics was nowhere to be seen. Dressed in a suit, his face wreathed with smiles, Cox addressed a congregation full of families, many with babies and young children, about efforts to improve the unaccredited school on the church’s grounds.
Cox stressed the importance of education in the sanctuary, which is awash in gold trim and adorned by a painting that shows Daniel in the lions’ den. He pointed out that his own schooling ended at ninth grade, and he urged any children who wanted to go to school to see him after services.
He was relaxed and jovial as he led prayers for a man with cancer and threw $100 into a challenge to see who could bring the most visitors to the church in the next four weeks.
Several times he asked his congregation to pray for him but didn’t give a reason why.
Riches, imagined or real
Cox’s affable demeanor was on display Thursday, too, as he introduced his wife and son-in-law to an FBI agent — apparently one of those working on his case — in a corridor of the Hale Boggs Federal Building.
Thomas said Cox has an “over-the-top” personality that he believes masks insecurity.
He recounted a story Cox tells about himself: of taking his bicycle to his father’s mechanic shop as a boy to paint it black, and then riding it all over town. He then painted it red and did the same thing. That was followed by another coat of paint and another ride.
“I wanted them to think I had a bicycle for every day of the week,” Cox recounted, according to Thomas.
Where he once sought to affect an appearance of riches he didn’t have, he seems to have achieved the real thing in adulthood. His home, on La. 25, screams of wealth. The deed values it at just over $2 million. Reportedly, Cox donated it to the church, making the home tax-exempt. Most of the 300 acres surrounding it have a land-use exemption for timber production, according to the Washington Parish assessor, meaning it is taxed at $30 an acre.
Faith Tabernacle also seems a beacon of prosperity in its country setting, with a lighted fountain in front, a McDonald’s playground and statues of lions — a favorite motif for Cox. Behind the church are trailers that Magee says are occupied by members.
A nearby cemetery with a large black headstone includes a rendering of a small frame church and the new Faith Tabernacle. Below the name Cox, in capital letters, the tombstone reads: “Dreams Come True.”
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.