This is one of my favorite “war stories” from journalism.
It took place at the end of 1994 and continued into 1995, and involves televangelist and Christian Broadcasting Network founder Marion G. “Pat” Robertson, a mansion he built on a mountain north of Roanoke, and the extreme efforts he took to keep The Roanoke Times from taking a picture of it.
It also involves the National Enquirer and one of its ace reporters, the late, great David Duffy. He was one of the most extraordinary characters I’ve met in this business (mostly, we’re a hideously boring lot). But we’ll get to that part a bit later.
I and my wife and our (then) three kids moved to Roanoke from Annapolis in June 1994, when I started my new job as the City Hall reporter for The Roanoke Times. A few months after we arrived, Donna and I got away for a few nights up in Bath County, (i.e. Deeds Country) at a bed and breakfast in Warm Springs. It is a bit more than a 2-hour drive north of Roanoke.
This was in October of 1994, and Bath County at that time had zero stoplights, a population of about 5,100, gorgeous mountains and valleys, and the grand old hotel and golf resort known as The Homestead, in Hot Springs. (Donna and I were back there in September — nothing in Bath has changed). More than 80 percent of the county is national forest. Here is a map.
One morning at this B&B during breakfast, another guest mentioned a strange conversation he had overheard the day before during lunch at a local cafe. Two volunteer firefighters were talking about how they’d had to go up to the top of Warm Springs Mountain a couple of nights earlier because they’d received calls about a ‘glow’ up there – a possible fire.
Now Warm Springs Mountain tops out at around 4,000 feet above sea level, and it’s a long damn mountain. There is only one way to get up it on a paved road. That is, more or less, on the southern end. The town of Warm Springs is on the northern end of that mountain. So it’s a long drive up there. First you have to head south down the valley along U.S. 220 for about 12 miles, THEN you start up the mountain. And then it’s 2-3 more miles to the top, where the potential fire was sighted.
It turned out to be no fire. Instead, some construction workers had left lights on at a construction site, and that caused the glow. It was a big mansion someone was building, and boy, those firefighters were peeved. Because this was not the first time those dumb workers had left those construction lights on.
It was at this point that our gracious hostess, the owner of the B&B, spoke up.
“You know whose mansion that is, don’t you?” she asked.
“Whose?” we said.
“It’s Pat Robertson’s,” she replied. “He traded his place at The Homestead for some land up on the mountain and he’s building a great big house there.”
My reporter’s ears pricked up because it sounded like there might be a neat little story there. And so when Donna and I got back to Roanoke and I got back to the newspaper, I pitched some editors on letting me look into it.
Even though it was off my then-beat, that area wasn’t any other reporter’s beat, either. So they were willing to let me see what I could find out, in my spare time — of course, City Hall was my priority.
So over the next couple months I pulled the building permit for that house — it was listed at 11,000+ square feet, not including the kidney-shaped pool, the separate changing house, and the 2,000-square-foot guard shack.
The garage itself was 1,100 square feet — bigger all by itself than three-bedroom townhomes the Roanoke Redevelopment & Housing Authority was rehabbing for low-income renters at the time.
I got some other permit — perhaps for the septic system (I can’t quite recall).
All of this was situated on 25 acres Pat had bought and/or traded for (can’t remember that sale price). But the value of the construction, in 1994 dollars, was around $1.2 million, excluding the land.
Because Bath County was 2 hours away, another way I reported the story was a bunch of phone calls. I didn’t know anybody up there, and I couldn’t really drive 2 hours up there and start knocking on doors, because that is not “spare time” reporting. So I grabbed the newsroom copy of the Bath County phone book. And every now when I had a little downtime, I’d pick a name at random and cold-call somebody in it from my desk in the newsroom.
You might be surprised at the kind of information a little charm and phone moxie can turn up.
Bath County, you see, is made up of a bunch of very rich people who either live there or have large and grand weekend homes, and a whole lot of blue-collar types who work two and three jobs to make ends meet. Few of the rich folks have listed numbers, but LOTS of the other folks do. And they were the ones I found myself talking to.
Lots of people I called had a cousin, or a brother, or a neighbor who had worked on that mansion. And most of them were free with names and phone numbers of those folks. So it didn’t take me too long to get a pretty good idea of this place, even though I had never been there.
Late December rolled around, and my editor started breathing down my back for this story — because that is one thing editors are real good at (I was one for many years). But we had no picture of the place, and it would be journalistic heresy to do a story of this nature with no picture. Besides that, I had not yet talked to Pat.
So I picked up the phone again — and called 411information.
I have no idea whether this is still true, but back then I quickly learned that 2 or 3 different small phone companies provided the service up there. That was unusual — I had to call different operators to look up phone numbers.
My first pass, asking for “Pat Robertson” turned up zilch. Then I realized that “Pat” was a nickname — his real name is Marion G. Robertson. So I tried that name. No luck again.
So I made a third pass, asking for M. G. Robertson. And it was on the second call for that name that I struck pay dirt.
“I have an M.G. Robertson listed at Higher Ground,” the operator said. “There are two phone number, a listed one and an unlisted one.”
“I’ll take that listed one,” I told her. And she gave me the number, which I promptly called.
“Hello?” said a male voice on the other end.
“Pat Robertson, please,” I said.
“Uh, uh, who is calling?” the man on the other end said. I recognized that voice, it was Pat himself!
“Mr. Robertson!” I said. “How are you today, sir. Dan Casey from The Roanoke Times here.”
“Hello. What can I do for you?” Robertson said.
“Well, Mr. Robertson,” I began, “I’m a reporter here at the newspaper, and I’m doing a story on the house you have built up there. I’ve heard many wonderful things about it, and a photographer and I are coming up there tomorrow, and we’d be real pleased if you could show us around so we could get some real nice pictures.”
(The reporter whose desk was next to me was listening in, and he was balled up in laughter listening to my end of this conversation).
“How did you get this phone number?” Robertson asked.
“Well, Mr. Robertson, we have our ways, you know,” I replied. “I don’t really like to talk about those. What I’d rather talk about is your house, and some pictures.”
“I’m afraid that’s going to be impossible,” Robertson said. “This is a rather remote, private place I come with my family. We don’t want any pictures.”
He and I chatted for about 10 minutes, about what how he relaxed there (hiking trials on the mountain), how often he visited (about once a month), and stuff like that. I already knew that he flew in on a private jet, to Ingalls Field (now Bath County Airport), which is on top of that mountain about a 5-minute drive from his place. It’s the highest-elevation airport east of the Mississippi, and it has an enormous runway – big enough to land a 727.
“What is the news value in this house?” Robertson asked. That was a fair question, I thought.
“Mr. Robertson,” I said, “you’re a former presidential candidate. And you’re vacationing in our back yard. I think our readers would be interested in that. It’s nothing personal; I can assure you that if Jesse Jackson had a house up there on the mountain, our readers would be interested in that, too.”
More than once during our conversation, Pat had described the place as “like a little beach house, on the Outer Banks.” I laughed a bit under my breath when he said that, because I already knew it was more than 5 times bigger than my 4-bedroom home. So I picked up the building permit.
“You described it as a little beach house,” I said. “How many bedrooms does it have?” (The answer was 6 or 8 — I can’t recall exactly — but it was right there on the building permit).
“Uh, I’m afraid I’m going to have to cut this conversation short,” Robertson said politely. “Good bye.”
I hung up the phone and burst into laughter; so did the reporter next to me.
I had a strong hunch that the next day, going up there with a photographer, was going to be a whole lot of fun.