The Tragic History of Mike Warnke
By Jon Trott & Mike Hertenstein
Copyright 1992 by Jon Trott & Mike Hertenstein
Mike & Carolyn in Music City
Harmony magazine was the Christian music magazine in the mid-seventies, and in September of 1976, Mike Warnke was on the cover. During this era, Mike relocated to what was becoming the center of the contemporary Christian music business. Jesus music began to be shaped by the powerful influence of Nashville, country music capital and home of the Gospel Music Association (GMA). The "music" part was welcomed in Music City. As for Jesus, insiders there have a saying: "Nashville has changed more Christians than Christians have changed Nashville."
Mike and Carolyn pulled into town with a U-Haul trailer. "Mike and I moved into an apartment together," says Carolyn. "Once we'd moved in, Mike went and bought cases of whiskey, different wines, and beer." At the time, of course, Warnke was still married to Sue. Among their Nashville Christian music friends, the only ones to protest Mike and Carolyn's living arrangements was a couple they had met on the road, Mike and Karen Johnson.
Though many of our readers may be unacquainted with Mike Johnson, he was a Jesus music pioneer, starting his first Christian band in 1968. According to many Jesus music historians, Johnson never received recognition equal to the dues he paid and the miles he and Karen logged on the coffeehouse and church basement circuit.
When Mike Warnke came to town with Carolyn, Karen Johnson wanted to know what was going on. "We said, 'Hey, what about Sue?' Mike told us, 'She's running around on me.' I called Sue, and she said that wasn't true. She said Mike found this other woman and he wanted to marry her. And the only way you could get a divorce in the Christian community was to say somebody had been unfaithful."
Out of their concern, the Johnsons orchestrated another meeting with mutual acquaintance Don Riling. "We thought Mike Warnke was a mess and wanted him to get help," says Karen. "Don Riling was the only pastor that Warnke opened up to and submitted to in any form. He was like a father figure to Mike." Mike Johnson told the Rilings that Warnke had asked him to be best man in his wedding with Carolyn. "We pushed for a meeting," says Karen Johnson. "Wes set it up. Don Riling flew to Nashville."
The meeting was held at the Dharma offices. Riling, Mike Johnson, Wes Yoder, and Mike and Carolyn were there. "You'd have never guessed that this was a meeting of Christians," says Riling. "Mike and Carolyn were swearing the whole time, and they must have gone through a whole pack of cigarettes." The meeting went on for hours in an effort to get everything out on the table with Warnke. "He moped around, saying his life was a mess," says Riling. "I tried to convince him to go back to Sue and save his ministry."
At one point in the meeting, Carolyn brought up Warnke's continuing affair with the woman at Riling's church in Brockport. "Mike was still involved with her," says Carolyn. Pastor Riling was struck by the bizarreness of the situation: "I'm sitting there listening to this woman Warnke was committing adultery with talk about how Mike was cheating on her."
As the meeting bogged down, Riling took Wes Yoder aside and tried to make him understand the gravity of the situation. "Wes wouldn't deal with it," says Riling. "He knew Mike Warnke had a problem, but Wes was young and inexperienced. Wes said to Mike, 'Do whatever you want to. Stay with this woman. Go back to your wife. It's okay. I'm behind you, because we have to keep the ministry going.' Mike Johnson was horrified by this," says Riling.
Carolyn says she also gave Wes advice: "I thought Mike was being sanctimonious and Don Riling was a joke. Wes came to me and said, 'What's going on?' I said, 'Look, the guy's a joke. He's trying to get his paws on Mike, but you've got him signed and if you don't keep him it's your fault,' So it was really us against them."
Wes Yoder says of those days, "I should have run Warnke out of town when he first showed up with Carolyn. I was stupid. I didn't miss it. I just didn't know what to do about it. I was sinful in allowing him to use me as a cloak of decency for what he was doing. The Lord doesn't bless in things like that." Karen Johnson forgives Wes for his part in the debacle, saying, "Here he was, this young guy trying to be a part of Christian music, and he's involved with all these crazy people.
Carolyn says the meeting accomplished nothing. "Nobody I ever met who was around or who was connected with Mike Warnke in any way ever had any effect on him." The day after the meeting, Mike Johnson left Dharma. His path then began to lead downward by degrees. It was also after this meeting, says Carolyn, that Mike initiated her in what he called an Indian ceremony. "We were at a motel, and he said, 'I'll show you how much I love you.' He took a pocket knife and cut his wrist, and cut mine, and mixed our blood. He said, 'Now we are one.' He gave himself the name Many Horses--because I was part American Indian."
Bill Fisher said, "Mike told me he got the name Many Horses from an Indian medicine man." Bill Fisher told us, explaining the Indian identity as one of Warnke's many "mojos": "Mike would personify himself as various characters at times. Mike had his Indian mojo, or sometimes he'd be a Scotsman, or Jewish, or a Catholic priest, Or Jeremiah Johnson, or black--he wanted to think he had black blood because Andre Crouch told him he had soul."Downhill into the Bigtime