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By Charles Lam
Juiced With Jesus
Longtime TBN pastor Steve Galiher has already pleaded guilty to two felony DUIs, but his sentencing is on hold
Orange County Superior Court Judge Derek G. Johnson began a day of hearings in his Harbor Justice Center courtroom around 9 a.m. on Dec. 18, but Steve Galiher wasn’t there. Galiher had pleaded guilty to two felony counts of driving under the influence, each carrying a maximum sentence of three years in state prison, and today was Galiher’s sentencing day.
The son and wife of his victim were in attendance, front-row center, wearing black. They were there to see off Galiher, a longtime pastor with the Costa Mesa-based Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the world’s largest televangelical network. He had drunkenly crashed into David Rhodes’ car in April near his company’s gaudy headquarters, leaving the 70-year-old Vietnam veteran a mangled man who died six months later.
But Galiher was nowhere to be found. Other cases came before Johnson; Rhodes’ son, Tom—a comedian of note who has appeared frequently on Comedy Central and once had his own NBC sitcom—and his stepmother, Julifort, asked some of the lawyers inside the courtroom if any of them represented Galiher. None did.
Finally, Senior Deputy District Attorney Dan Hess approached the pair with bad news: Galiher wouldn’t appear that day, and Hess was going to ask Johnson to push Galiher’s sentencing back until January. They left the courtroom soon after.
But Galiher’s reprieve may be short-lived. Hess wouldn’t say why Galiher hadn’t showed or why he was requesting the pastor’s sentencing be delayed. When asked by the Weekly if the DA’s office might file manslaughter charges against Galiher, Hess wouldn’t say, though he added, “We reserve the legal right to file further charges. With any case, we are always gathering evidence.”
If that happens, it would be an apt coda for Galiher’s fall from grace. He was a rising star in the TBN galaxy, having been plucked from obscurity in Paducah, Kentucky, earlier this decade to be made head pastor of Trinity Music City, USA, a 30-acre estate outside Nashville once owned by country-music legend Conway Twitty that TBN transformed into a performance venue, recording studio and walking gardens, complete with re-creations of the Via Dolorosa and a 1 million-light Christmas display. From there, Galiher frequently hosted episodes of TBN’s signature program, Praise the Lord, and also appeared the past three years alongside TBN founders Paul and Jan Crouch and other major network personalities during their Praise-a-Thon fund-raisers. He had even hosted the Christian Country Music Awards alongside his wife, Lisa, from the facilities.
On April 26, about 10:20 p.m., Galiher was returning from a night of drinking at the Island Hotel at Fashion Island. The pastor was in town to tape appearances for TBN; four days earlier, he had appeared alongside Paul Crouch in Behind the Scenes, a program in which Crouch checks in with his ministers to let viewers know of their works while the two quote Scripture they claim proves to viewers that God will return a hundred-fold any donations they may give.
Galiher was driving more than 85 mph that night in his company-owned BMW, just an exit away on the northbound 73 freeway from TBN headquarters, when he rear-ended Tom and Julifort Rhodes’ Chrysler; the Rhodes’ car flipped over twice and skipped about 60 feet before resting upside-down on the freeway’s dirt embankment. Costa Mesa firefighters had to cut out the car’s driver-side door to free the injured couple. Julifort sustained bruises to her neck, back, chest and head; Tom suffered four broken ribs, a broken arm and leg, and deep cuts to his leg and hand, and pins were placed in his vertebrae at the hospital to stabilize his spine. Galiher emerged unscathed from his totaled BMW.
A California Highway Patrol report obtained by the Weekly shows that the officer on the scene tried to question Galiher about the crash but encountered a disoriented man who didn’t even know what time it was and kept repeating he was trying to get off at the Bear Street exit. The officer “smell[ed] a very strong odor of an alcoholic beverage coming from Galiher’s breath, and his eyes were red and bloodshot,” according to the document. When asked what he drank, the pastor admitted to only two glasses of red wine. Galiher was asked to take a couple of field sobriety tests, which the officer demonstrated how to do; the pastor failed them. Galiher was promptly arrested for two counts of driving under the influence and sent to the Santa Ana office of the Highway Patrol. A blood test administered there found Galiher’s actual blood-alcohol content (BAC) was 0.24, three times the legal limit for California drivers. He was then booked into the Orange County Men’s Jail.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas ratcheted up the charges to reflect the injuries the crash caused the Rhodeses. On May 22, in Orange County Superior Court, Galiher pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and causing injury, as well as DUI over 0.08 BAC causing injury—both felonies. He was freed on $100,000 bail and returned to Tennessee, where Johnson ordered him to undergo 90 days of rehab followed by house arrest until sentencing day. Galiher is still listed on TBN’s website as a part of the network, but a call to TBN Music City, USA’s church office was answered by a staffer who said Galiher hadn’t worked there for “months.” She wouldn’t elaborate or offer his current whereabouts. A call to TBN’s Costa Mesa headquarters wasn’t returned. An e-mail to Galiher’s TBN account—still listed as active—bounced back. His last public appearance for the station was in reruns that aired during this fall’s Praise-a-Thon.
David Rhodes, on the other hand, was bedridden for weeks after the crash and stayed in the hospital for three months. His family declined to speak with the Weekly, but friends recalled David as a retiree who had led an active lifestyle, regularly swimming and playing tennis. They claim Rhodes never regained his health after Galiher ran into him, constantly suffering during his recovery. Rhodes eventually contracted pneumonia and succumbed to the disease on Nov. 3. His family buried him Nov. 30 at Arlington National Cemetery, with full military honors.
Portions of this story first appeared on the Weekly’s Navel Gazing blog.