Melodyland was one of the Southern California centers of the charismatic renewal movement then sweeping the Church. The ex-addicts and others who ran the Hotline were among the original Jesus People, part of a new youth counterculture uniquely compatible with the charismatics. Both preferred informal gatherings and a vital, experience-oriented faith. The culturally conservative Melodyland crowd thus understood when the exuberant young hippies suggested "getting high on Jesus."
Both groups majored on the theme of acceptance. The mainstream church was sadly out of touch with the needs of counterculture youth and, even more sadly, unwilling by and large to reach out to them. But Pentecostal denominations such as the Assemblies of God seemed to grasp what God was doing among children of the sixties. Uncritically, without attacking the cultural preferences of the young, many charismatics and Pentecostals shamed their mainstream peers by being (in Paul's words) all things to all men.
But as with nearly all revivals, there were problems with the newly revived. The mix of uncritical acceptance plus emphasis on experience was easily taken too far. It opened the door for various cults among the Jesus People; it also opened the door for those with fascinating though unprovable conversion stories.
"A lot of people came to the Hotline and told their drug testimonies," says Ron Winckler, a leader there. "Mike Warnke came with the added attraction of the Satanist experience, which was a big hit with the Full Gospel Businessmen and charismatics. The times were right for that sort of testimony.
Hotline speaker Dick Handley and friends in Crestline had introduced Mike Warnke to the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Through Handley, Warnke met Dave Balsiger, a writer who had done promo work for Melodyland and now was media director for charismatic evangelist Morris Cerullo.
After starting a youth ministry in San Diego, Cerullo had come in contact with kids dabbling with the occult and decided to write a book on the subject. Balsiger was assigned the job. It was during this time he met Mike Warnke and enlisted his aid. The book was to be called Witchcraft Never Looked Better. They also created a specially outfitted trailer, purchased to house "research materials" such as voodoo oil, graveyard dust, and fortune-telling spray. The vehicle, dubbed the "Witch-mobile," was to be unveiled at an upcoming Morris Cerullo convention, The Seventh Deeper Life Conference.
Cerullo's vision, Warnke's story, and Balsiger's media talents combined to make the January 1972 meeting a smash. A twelve-page tabloid on Cerullo was inserted into the San Diego Evening Tribune. Warnke and the Witchmobile were introduced to the media at a press conference, and at the Saturday night youth rally.
Christianity Today covered the event, noting that Cerullo "bore down heavily on the theme that satanic forces are loose in the nation." Mike Warnke, who gave a seminar on the occult, was one of the newsmen's favorites.
After the January 1972 conference, Warnke and Balsiger parted with Cerullo and decided to write a book together about Mike's Satanist experience. We asked Dave Balsiger about evidence for the story told in the book. Was he concerned about that? "Oh, yes." And what was the evidence Mike offered for The Satan Seller's fifteen-hundred-member cult; the all-powerful Illuminati, the intricate rituals complete with various knives, candles, books, and robe? "Mike took me to some of the sites." (The reader should recall that Mike's experiences had allegedly occurred six years before the book was written.) "I saw where there had been a fire started. And there were some indications of cultic writings and graffiti."
During the first half of 1972, Warnke had been working hard (with the help of Morris Cerullo's organization) to get out of the navy so he could go full-time into the ministry. "I helped him write letters," recalls Cerullo staffer Jean Jolly, "and I got him out of the navy." On June 2, Warnke was granted an early discharge on conscientious-objector basis.
As soon as he got out, Mike sent a letter to Morris Cerullo's headquarters and said we were forbidden to use his name or his material," recalls George Eckeroth, who headed Jolly's department. "And Balsiger left Cerullo around the same time."
Mike launched his ministry under the banner "Alpha Omega Outreach." In mid-June, Warnke went to Explo '72 in Dallas, a sort of Campus Crusade version of Woodstock attended by over eighty thousand. Guideposts was running a feature on Warnke's story. and his book was due in the fall.The Satan Seller a Best-seller