MONEY TALKS, BIBLE SPEAKS *HOW TO SPEND $7 MILLION RELIGIOUSLY?

Marc Fisher Knight-Ridder
Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Thursday, September 4, 1986

The pastor of The Bible Speaks is Carl Stevens, 56, high school dropout and one-time bakery truck driver. He wears loud sport coats and a strawberry- blond toupee. He loves his worldwide flock so much he offered them free room and board forever.


Betsy Dayton Dovydenas, 33, is a millionaire heiress. She accepted Stevens as the anointed apostle of the Lord and gave him $7 million. Now she wants it back. Every penny. She sued The Bible Speaks. The Bible Speaks sued her, then filed to reorganize under the bankruptcy code. The heiress's suit, they say, is the work of the devil.


The Bible Speaks is no small-time, small-town country church.


From a lush, 88-acre estate in the rolling Berkshire hills, Carl Stevens runs a $2-million-a-year franchise network in 17 states and four Florida cities.


His fundamentalist Christian ministry has paid for mercy ships to the Caribbean and a shelter for drunks. The Bible Speaks runs a fleet of buses to bring street people to free lunch and Sunday services. Its 275 missionaries spread the gospel in 21 countries.


All of which costs money. And money is the subject about which The Bible Speaks doesn't have a lot to say.


After five days with a deprogrammer and long weeks of soul-searching, Betsy Dovydenas, heiress to a retail empire that includes B. Dalton bookstores, decided she had plenty to say. She wanted her fortune restored.


Which, taken literally, is not possible.


The cash, said Norman Roy Grutman, the New York lawyer hired to defend the church, is in the walls.


It is in the walls of the new, 1,500- seat chapel, once the hockey rink of a boys' school. It is in the walls of a $120,000 South Florida condo Stevens uses as a retreat. It is in the walls of the new swimming pool enjoyed by 700 Stevens Bible College students. And it is in the steel hull of La Gracia, a 118- foot freighter that carries food and evangelists from Florida to Haiti and Honduras.


There is no more money, Grutman said, and even if there were, the heiress couldn't get it back.


"This lady wasn't weak-minded or unduly influenced," Grutman said. "She gave with a knowing and generous heart."


To which Gordon Walker, lawyer for the heiress, said, baloney.


The case of Elizabeth Dovydenas vs. The Bible Speaks is one humdinger of a lawsuit.


Dovydenas grew up in the Midwest, daughter of one of five brothers who built the Dayton Hudson Corp., the nation's fifth-largest retailer, with $8.5 billion in sales last year. Her father, Wallace Dayton, was a Presbyterian minister in Minneapolis.


In the late '70s, she married Jonas Dovydenas, an Ivy Leaguer. Jonas, 48, and his wife moved from Chicago to Lenox in 1981. They wanted an idyllic home. For $700,000, they got Pine Needles, a 158-acre estate down the road from Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.


Jonas is a talented amateur photographer who has no job, seeks none and journeys to Afghanistan twice a year to take pictures of the guerrillas. He dresses in paramilitary garb, layers of olive and green, boots, a Harrison Ford wide-brim hat and a scraggly beard.


He speaks with a slight, alluring accent, a remnant of his native Lithuania. He and Betsy have two children, ages 6 and 3.


Soon after moving to Massachusetts, the couple began looking for a church. They heard about The Bible Speaks, saw its impressive campus down the road and attended services together. Soon Betsy was spending much of her time inside the church complex. She put the kids in the Bible school.


At the church, she met the woman who would become her closest friend, a woman who would accompany her to the post office, the bank, even to her stockbroker. She was Kathleen Hill, a plain woman of strong faith and modest means.


Betsy started giving money to The Bible Speaks; first, in small amounts, then larger.


Tree Aluisy, a Bible Speaks pastor in Florida, understands what happened: "You're head of a mission and somebody gives your church $50,000. Wouldn't you want to have lunch with her?"


Stevens and Hill did just that. Betsy gave Stevens $1,000 for his honeymoon. And another $10,000 for the pastor's personal travel fund.


In December 1984, Betsy gave $1 million to The Bible Speaks. Upon his return from one Afghanistan adventure, Jonas found out about the gift and wrote to Stevens. He asked him not to accept any more money from Betsy.


The church quotes that same letter to show that Betsy and Jonas knew what they were doing: Jonas said Betsy "consulted with me and we both agreed it was something she would go ahead with."


In the ensuing months, The Bible Speaks used Hill to extract millions more from Betsy, the couple said in the lawsuit.


The church put Betsy in touch with James Freed, a Dean Witter Reynolds stockbroker. She hired him. Freed is an accountant for The Bible Speaks. Freed did not return the Miami Herald's calls.


The couple said the church also told Betsy to write a new will, to hire a church lawyer, to rent a post office box so Betsy's folks would not find out what she was doing with her family stocks.


The Bible Speaks flatly denies exploiting Betsy or pressuring her. Every gift was a symbol of her devotion to the church.


Jonas gradually soured on The Bible Speaks. As Betsy became more and more involved, Jonas quit going to services. The couple drifted apart, even separated for a time.


The Bible Speaks "acted to alienate" Betsy from Jonas, the couple said. The church denies any hanky-panky.


In December, Betsy gave more than $5 million in one gift.


A few weeks later, Jonas returned from Afghanistan. He found it impossible to communicate with his wife, starry-eyed, unable to discuss The Bible Speaks rationally. Their 6-year- old son talked about demons.


People who saw her say Betsy was "on auto-pilot."


Jonas contacted Betsy's father. They hired a prominent deprogrammer, David Clark.


For five exhausting days, Clark talked. About the Bible. About Stevens. About the Rev. Jim Jones. He played her tapes of the mass suicide at Jonestown.


Betsy decided she had made an awful mistake.


Now it was lawyer time.


The heiress went for a good gray Boston lawyer, Gordon Walker.


The Bible Speaks went to the Rev. Jerry Falwell for advice.


Falwell said the toughest lawyer around was Norman Roy Grutman. Grutman takes all sides: He represented the Moral Majority in one case, Penthouse magazine in another and sued the Boston Globe for libel in a third.


Grutman is giving the church its money's worth, portraying The Bible Speaks as an authentic, beleaguered religion pushed to the verge of collapse by the heiress' suit.


Today, while everyone waits for the case to go to trial, Betsy Dayton Dovydenas is a shy, uneasy woman. For a time, she couldn't stand to read the Bible. Now she attends a Congregational church. In the mornings, she goes to exercise class. She declined to speak to the Herald.