The Tragic History of Mike Warnke
By Jon Trott & Mike Hertenstein
Copyright 1992 by Jon Trott & Mike Hertenstein
The Syro-Chaldean Connection
During the Trinity '74-'75 school year began one of the strangest, and longest-running, chapters of the Mike Warnke story. Elijah Coady, an independent bishop in an Eastern Orthodox splinter group called the Syro-Chaldean Church, ordained Warnke a deacon.
Warnke had met Coady on the road, and expressed interest in the bishop's brand of independent Eastern Orthodoxy. Several Trinity students remember Bishop Coady's visit to Tulsa. A few were present when Coady ordained Warnke at a local church. "The bishop wore a strange hat, like a stack of pancakes," says Bill Fisher, who adds that Charles Dumcombe expressed some concerns about Coady. "Brother D told us to be cool. He'd gotten a real check in the spirit about the guy."
Another ordination was bestowed upon Warnke by Brother Duncombe on his graduation from Trinity in the spring of 1975. After graduation, Carolyn says Warnke made promises to her but would not be rushed. "He told me he was going to divorce Sue, that I should wait and be patient, that he needed to set up his escape."
Soon afterwards, Warnke did a show at The Happy Church in Denver, where he met Pastor Wally Hickey and his wife Marilyn. Mike and Sue Warnke decided to move to Denver with her two children, and Mike invited Bill Fisher and Carolyn to join him there. The entourage arrived in Denver in August of 1975, where Mike and Sue settled. Mike had promised Fisher and Carolyn jobs with Happy Church, but the jobs didn't materialize. Mike leased a 270-acre mountain retreat called Joy Ranch in Evergreen, Colorado. "Mike would go catch the plane in Denver, and I would keep the place together up there," notes Bill Fisher.
The relationship between Warnke and Happy Church is unclear. Bill Fisher says Mike was "a kind of evangelist for them," not on the payroll but working under Marilyn's Life for Laymen organization. An article in the Denver Post in October '75 identifies Warnke as "an evangelist with Life for Laymen, a Denver-based movement." The Hickey's refused to talk with us, but their spokesperson said Warnke and his wife attended the church during the seventies, primarily for counseling.
According to Carolyn, Warnke now began to push for a divorce from Sue. The Hickeys tried to reason with him. "Mike told them he and Sue would try to work it out," says Carolyn. "But he told me he wanted out of the marriage." Not long after the relationship was broken between Mike Warnke and The Happy Church.
In November 1975, Mike was invited to do a show at the Adam's Apple coffeehouse in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Christian artists Nancy Honeytree and Phil Keaggy were recording a concert that night. The tape kept rolling during Warnke's part of the show. A proposed Keaggy/Honeytree live album didn't materialize, but the Warnke tape found a buyer in Myrrh Records, a subsidiary of Word, Inc.
Another Christian artist Mike had done concerts with on the road was Randy Matthews. Randy, along with Wes Yoder, was co-owner of Dharma Artists Agency, a fledgling Christian management company based in Matthews' garage in Nashville. After talking with Matthews, Warnke and Carolyn flew to Nashville, where he signed with the company. "While Wes was signing Mike, he asked me to work with Dharma," says Carolyn. "Wes said he'd split my bookings down the middle, fifty-fifty. Mike said, 'I can't beat that. He may get half of me, but I get half of it back.' So I became a working member of the team."
During this time Brockport, NY, pastor Don Riling continued to befriend Warnke. He was growing more and more concerned over what was going on in Mike and Sue's marriage. "On several occasions Mike told me and my wife--crying and the whole bit--'Sue doesn't love me. She's kicked me out,'" Riling says. "Mike kept saying how all he wanted to be was a family man, to raise his two boys. I told him he'd have to choose between the road and his family." According to pastor Riling, Marilyn Hickey then visited the Rilings. "I asked Marilyn, 'Isn't there anything we can do to persuade Sue to go back to Mike?' Marilyn about fell out of her chair. She said, 'What are you talking about? Sue loves Mike. She wants to save their marriage. Mike is the one who wants to end it.' Then it was my turn to be surprised. All I'd known about the marriage problems before this was that Mike said Sue was cheating on him."
Riling flew to Denver in the late summer of 1976 on a desperate mission to try to save the marriage. On arriving, Riling said he found Mike had left Sue and the two children and had moved into an apartment with Carolyn. So Riling met with Sue. "She wanted to get back together with Mike. Sue said at one time she had dated another man, but she was plugged into Hickey's church and her attitude was 'I just want to be with my husband.' I think Mike saw it as his chance to dump Sue." (Carolyn told us that Mike had urged both Sue and herself to go out with others when he was away on the road. Finally, Carolyn says, Sue did go out once with her to a dance hall.)
After talking with Sue, Pastor Riling stayed with the Hickeys but spent most of his time with Mike and Carolyn. Riling got his information about Carolyn from Warnke: "Mike was out on the road, and he had supposedly led this gal Carolyn to Jesus. Before then, she had run these houses of ill repute. Mike told me he had to bring her home to help rehab her, and she lived right there with Sue."
During the visit, Riling didn't let up. "Every opportunity I could, I pleaded with Mike to go back to Sue--for the sake of his marriage, for the sake of his ministry. Mike wouldn't hear anything about leaving Carolyn." Riling was in a restaurant with Warnke when Mike told him Sue was being served with divorce papers that very moment. (The summons is dated August 20, 1976.) His mission a failure, the pastor returned to New York.
Upon receiving the divorce petition, Sue Warnke called Ron Winckler and George Wakeling, along with others, and asked for prayer, saying Mike had run off with another woman.
It was at this point that Dr. Walter Martin, a well-known counter-cult apologist and founder of Christian Research Institute (CRI), was asked to speak to Mike about his marriage difficulties. (Dr. Martin died in 1989.) Gretchen Passantino was Martin's senior research consultant at the time, in charge of CRI's research staff, and her duties included overseeing Walter Martin's travel arrangements.
"Dr. Martin had a speaking engagement near Denver and asked me to book a couple extra days so he could speak with Mike Warnke and his wife, Sue." says Gretchen. "When he got back, he took me aside. He said, 'I had this real difficult meeting with Mike and Sue Warnke. I hope what I did was enough.' Realizing that Mike was determined to leave the marriage, Dr. Martin had prayed and counseled with both of them, advising Mike he needed to leave the ministry."Mike & Carolyn in Music City