Nobody covers dirt better than Jeff Testerman, the Tampa Bay Times’ veteran investigative reporter, says Creative Loafing Magazine. Why is he now being accused of being a “fabulist”? What is a fabulist? a liar, especially a person who invents elaborate, dishonest stories. When you are finished with this story, you will probably understand why. Now remember this is only one story of many written by Jeff Testerman over the years for the Times that have proven to be full of fabrications and exaggerations. Some of the stories put Testerman in court defending his stories before a jury and judge.
Testerman is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist has made a career by digging deeply into issues of public interest often involving political corruption or corporate wrongdoing. However, Testerman known for his over-ambitious reporting, has been accused of embellishing and even fabricating his stories to sell newspapers. The Tampa Bay Times, who employees Testerman is known to many in the Tampa Bay area for yellow journalism in the style of the National Enquirer. A prime example from their archive is the “embarrassment of winning a 1985 Pulitzer Prize for an “investigation” of a local sheriff who was later exonerated by the court. Who needs facts when you can make them up, many of Testerman’s co-workers would say! The Times and Testerman have both been accused of violating the code of conduct for journalism, which is to report news events and issues accurately and fairly, not manufacture it.
Over the years, the Times has resorted to questionable tactics that are even unethical and illegal, say journalism and legal experts in order to sell newspapers. Jeff Testerman has been Tampa Bay Times leading investigative reporter for many years. His penchant for getting the “scope” has led him in the the ‘weeds” on many occasions and even landed him in court defending himself from libel as in the case of the Seminole Indian Tribe. Now some excuse his “over-ambitious” techniques as the price for getting “big stories of corruption in the community! However, for every accurate story their have been others that were proven to be nothing more than Testerman’s ability to include some facts in his story to lend credibility to the conclusions he has drawn that are not only proven to be wrong but in some cases nothing more that slander. One Times employee who knows Testerman said, “if Jeff said it, they probably did it and if he got the facts wrong, they probably deserved it anyway!”
The problem is not when Jeff Testerman or other Times reporters get a story right but how many people have been hurt when he gets it wrong? In one of several libel cases brought against Testerman, he was caught fabricating sources and entire stories. However, the Times did not fact checking Testerman stories and printed them anyway. Testerman’s style is to write every story as if he was “god”. He would become policeman, judge and executioner of his subjects as he wrote with absolute impunity. He had the reputation of being a journalist with a grasp on all the facts. He often drew conclusions about the story that later proved false. However, Mr. Testerman was an award-winning reporter who never backed down from his assumptions even when he is proven wrong. Our search of the Time archive could not find one retraction made by Testerman in the years that he has worked for them. Testerman seems to be so sure of himself that he will rarely us the word “alleged” but rather writes his stories with impunity. In person he can be a snake charmer or an ass. When Testerman’s writes a story, one would wonder why bother having a hearing or trial, after all, the all knowing Jeffry Testerman has spoken! This classless reprobate gives readers assurance that guilt is certain and the case should be closed. After all, Testerman is always right and there is no need for a trial, just get the rope and “lynch them”!
In one such series of stories written through out 2003, Mr. Testerman had investigated the “divorce of
one of Tampa Bay’s most popular pastors, Ron Clark of the mega sized Living Water Church located on I-4 across from the fair grounds. Testerman stories made the headlines of the Times as he reported that Clark had “embezzled funds and hid the money offshore”! He reported he had evidence that Clark even had plans to flee prosecution and “flee to the jungles of Africa”. The fact is Testerman was “creating a story” that simply had no facts to support it. The truth is Clark was investigated by IRS because of Testerman’s stories . Testerman does not tell you that his source for the story was Clark’s wife who used the made up story to try and gain an advantage in a custody battle with her husband. After a year of being investigated by the criminal division of the IRS, Clark was cleared of any wrongdoing and Testerman’s source for the story, Belinda Clark was convicted of perjury. In addition, Clark obtained full and permanent custody of both minor children in part due to Belinda Clark’s perjured testimony. Once again neither the Times or Testerman failed to print a retraction or correction to his scurrilous stories.
Another bold headline story written by Testerman indicated that Clark had been accused of domestic violence by his estranged wife, Belinda Clark. Testerman took the “scope” he obtained from Belinda and wove it into a story that the reader would have naturally assumed that Clark would go to jail. Testerman’s story ends there. He fails to inform his readers that a hearing was held in Pasco County before Judge Linda Babb and that Clark that the allegations did not result in any charges and Clark was cleared of any wrongdoing. The judge ruled that Belinda and her witnesses lacked “candor” and her story seemed to change each time she testified. However, Testerman knowing the outcome of the hearing continued to repeat that Clark had been accused of domestic violence in other stories but never mentioned that no charges were ever filed in the case. This is the Testerman style, he seems to believe that if he says something enough times that it will become true. He never admitted in his articles that his assumptions about Clark were proven to be baseless and without merit. Did that bother Testerman, probably not.
Testerman’s portrayal of Belinda Clark as the victim seemed to sell newspapers. Their is nothing more outlandish than a preachers wife accusing him of wrongdoing! It seemed to be apparent to Testerman that this was just an old fashion divorce by an unfaithful wife but that story does not sell newspapers. However, by making the wife a victim of violence mixed with accusations of thousands of dollars stolen from a church and you got front page news.
The truth that came out in sworn testimony but was never printed in the paper was Belinda Clark was having an old fashion torrid sexual affair with a convict turned minister named Daryl Ackers. Both
Belinda and Ackers worked at the Carpenters Home Church with Pastor Karl D. Strader. Belinda was the principal of the church school and Ackers was the prison and visitation minister. Belinda was hiding her affair in order to get an advantage in the divorce and custody hearings. She wanted to get $4,000 a month in permanent alimony, keep custody of their two minor children along with several thousand dollars in child support. Her efforts backfired on her and her lover Daryl Ackers was caught selling narcotics and had to testify in his prison orange jumpsuit and shackles. His testimony confirmed their drug fueled love affair. He asked Belinda to wait for him to get out of prison to marry him. He was carried out of court professing his deep love for her. You think this would have been salacious enough to make the paper but it didn’t. Why you might ask? Testerman had already made Clark out the villain in his story and was not wiling to admit his assumptions were wrong.
In the end, Testerman stopped reporting on the Clark’s when Judge Linda Babb charged the source of his stories with perjury. A fact that was printed by the Times rival newspaper the Tampa Tribune. Belinda Clark was convicted of conspiring together with her sister-in-law, Linda Clark-Gestrin (Clark’s sister) to deceive the court by fabricating stories and coordinating their testimony for nearly a year. Both Mrs. Clark and Gestrin were implicated in “suborning perjury” which resulted in a trial and conviction of Belinda Clark where she was sentenced to one year in jail but later the judge suspended the sentence since it was her first criminal conviction.
Apparently Belinda Clark’s conviction for perjury in a Pasco County Court had a dramatic affect on her claim for permanent alimony and custody of the Clark’s two minor children. Belinda lost custody to her husband of both minor children along with nearly $2000.00 a month child support. Florida courts rarely gives a husband “sole custody” of minor children. In addition, Belinda was ordered to pay child support for their care.
In the matter of permanent alimony, court records indicated that she could have received up to $4,000.00 per month but the Judge ruled that she was entitled to no alimony. apparently, Pastor Clark was forced to file for divorce when Belinda, his of 25 years ran off with the Clark’s minor children after her sexual affair with a convict turned minister turned convict again, became public Florida does not have “legal separation” and there is no legal way for one parent to get custody of minor children from another parent except after filing for a divorce. Clark said in court that he was forced to file and try to get custody of the children when he did not see them for months. Once Clark filed the divorce papers, his wife, Belinda started her accusations of wrongdoing against her husband.
Pastor Clark later testified in court that he did not want a divorce and hoped he could reconcile with his wife. He stated “She is the first and only girl I have ever loved”. He went to say “I could forgive her of the affairs but when she took the children away for months and I knew when the children told me what they were seeing their mom and boyfriend doing, I knew that I had to file the divorce and try to get them home.”
Evidently, Pastor Clark’s fears about his children’s welfare were founded in truth. In court testimony it became evident that Belinda was having an affair with a convicted con man and drug dealer Reverend Daryl Akers. Akers, was a convicted felon who reportedly “got religion in a Florida prison”. Subsequent to his release, he was hired by the Reverend Karl Strader and his son . Reverend Stephen Strader to be the outreach minister for the church.
Reverend Karl Strader is the pastor of the 10,000 seat Carpenters Home Church which was one of the
largest churches in America during the 1990’s but has since collapsed and is only a few hundred people. The demise of the church was caused in large part by the The Reverend Strader’s son, Daniel Strader age 37, who defrauded many hundreds of the churches senior members of millions of dollars in an fraudulent investment scheme. He plead innocent but was convicted 238 felony counts and sentenced to 45 years in prison in August 1995. The evil and wicked deeds of Dan Strader and his 238 counts of theft, fraud and racketeering have haunted Carpenter’s Home Church in Lakeland for years.
Apparently Rev. Strader had hired Daryl Ackers to do visitation in the prisons and homes of the members. Ackers was a convicted felon who found religion while in prison. In addition, Strader had asked Belinda Clark to come serve as the principal of the large school located at the church. While attending a staff meeting Ackers and Clark met one another and a sexual affair ensued. After months of secret meetings in seedy hotels the affair became public. Belinda Clark’s husband, Pastor Ron Clark was pastor of one of Tampa’s largest churches called Living Water. He was forced to file for divorce in order to get custody of the couples two minor children who had disappeared with their mother and her boyfriend. This resulted in a very public and messy divorce that made it into the local papers. A year long battle in the court ensued. Clark obtained a “bifurcated divorce” after within a few months of filing the paperwork. However, the custody and alimony issues were not settled for many months.
Judge Babb stated in her final ruling in the custody battle that “no evidence” was ever presented to the court to substantiate their outlandish accusations made against Dr. Ronald Clark by his now ex-wife and his sister, Linda Gestrin. The fact that both Belinda and Mrs. Gestrin had made up the stories about Pastor Clark and Belinda’s conviction for perjury committed in the case also had a dramatic affect on the judge’s ruling. Belinda’s claim for permanent alimony of nearly $4,000 per month was denied by the court. As for custody of the Clark’s two minor children, the judge ruled in favor of Pastor Clark and gave him “permanent custody” of both children even though Florida courts seem to always rule in favor of the wife. In addition, Belinda forfeited about $2000.00 a month child support and was also ordered to pay child support for their care. The judge had already granted Pastor Clark a “bifurcated divorce” around August 2003 but had reserved on the matters of alimony and custody until nearly a year later.
Also contained in the judges final ruling was that much of Belinda Clark’s testimony and that of Pastor Ron Clark’s sister, Linda Clark Gestrin’s testimony was not considered by the judge as truthful or credible. Belinda Clark paid a high price for her lying to the court. One person who was in the courtroom when the ruling was given said ” I wonder if she would have had that affair if she would have known what it was going to cost her?” Testerman did not report any of the judge’s decision to the public.
Finally, after a year-long criminal investigation by the IRS was suddenly closed by the Justice
Department when the only witnesses, Belinda Clark and Linda Clark-Gestrin, with any information about the alleged wrong doing by either Clark or the Living Water Church board of trustees were accused of Perjury. Testerman was provided with a copy from the United States Justice Department to Dr. Clark indicating that the case was closed but chose not to report write an article about that fact. It is apparent that Testerman and the Times probably did not report the way this who story ended to the readers since the Times had printed so many articles for the past year and a half “accusing and implicating Clark of criminal wrongdoing”.
The truth true about the Clark’s divorce probably would not have garnered the “headlines” or got Mr. Testerman another nomination for a “Pulitzer Prize” if he had written the real story. Belinda Clark had an “old fashion sexual affair and she got caught. All she wanted to do was cover her moral failure by making her husband the story and it almost worked”. said Pastor Clark’s lawyer, renowned Tampa attorney, Arnie Levine said in a TV news interview when asked about the Clark’s divorce. Levine went on to say ” I am satisfied that anyone who is interested in the truth would come to the same conclusions as the judge in this case”. How many other stories that were written by Mr. Jeff Testerman over his illustrious career were true? No one will ever know.