But then a note of genuine darkness crept into Bell's world. On April 1 the 54-year-old host stunned listeners by announcing that he planned to retire at the end of the month to concentrate on a personal crisis—a declaration made no less surprising by the fact that he had mysteriously taken himself off the air for two weeks in 1998. But this time, Bell explained why: Three years ago his teenage son was the victim of a child molester. To make matters worse, Bell said, he had been falsely accused of molestation himself. "I now stand to be tainted for life," Bell told his listeners. "[It] has proven simply too much to bear."
Bell's troubles began on the night of May 16, 1997, when his son Art Bell IV, then 16 and living across town from his father in Pahrump, Nev., 63 miles northwest of Las Vegas, decided to spend the evening with friends. At the time, the younger Bell shared a house with his mother, Vickie Bell, while his father, Art III, lived nearby with his second wife, Ramona Bell. Friends say the broadcaster, a native Texan who worked at a dozen radio stations around the country before developing his show on paranormal phenomena in Las Vegas in the '80s, had moved to Pahrump in the early '90s partly to safeguard his privacy.
But both his privacy and peace of mind were shattered that May night. After several hours of drinking beer and smoking pot, Art IV accepted a lift from a substitute teacher at his school, Brian Lepley, then 32. According to court testimony, Lepley drove Bell to a remote location and sexually assaulted him. At Lepley's criminal trial in April '98, the boy testified against Lepley, who was found guilty of sexual assault and on several drug counts and sentenced to life behind bars.
By then, however, it had been discovered that Lepley was HIV-positive, and the younger Bell became suicidal. "[My son began] writing poetry about death, and giving away all of his possessions," the senior Bell said in a 1999 interview with Talkers Magazine, a trade journal of the talk-radio industry.
Then, in December 1997, rumors began circulating about the talk host himself. Ted Gunderson, a former FBI agent turned small-time radio host, and David Hinkson, a guest on Gunderson's show on WWCR in Nashville, alleged that Bell had paid hush money to cover up an arrest for child molestation in Nevada's Nye County—a claim unequivocally denied by authorities. "There is nothing on Art Bell and never has been," says Nye County D.A. Robert Beckett. Hinkson, it turns out, had tried without success to get on Bell's show in order to advertise a mineral supplement he was marketing.
Bell has said he received several death threats after the rumored charges against him became public and is suing Gunderson and Hinkson for slander. He also brought a $60 million suit in Los Angeles County, since settled out of court, against two men who circulated similar rumors on the Internet. Both of the L.A. respondents had appeared on Bell's show and had apparently become angry with the way he treated them.
Back in Pahrump, Bell has been sticking close to his cactus-strewn property, where he keeps a solar generator, two wind-power generators, a massive ham-radio antenna and a satellite dish. As to whether he will ever return to radio—and his millions of fans out there in the darkness—only time will tell. "How do you take back words, even though they are absolutely untrue?" asks Pahrump Sheriff Wade Lieseke Jr. of the accusations against his friend. "How do you get the bullet back after you've fired it?"
Vickie Bane in Pahrump
- Vickie Bane.
Considering that Art Bell is a wealthy former talk-radio host with some 4.75 million listeners nationwide, his choice of residence—a double-wide trailer set down in the far reaches of the Nevada desert—might seem a bit strange. But then, Bell is no stranger to strangeness. His Coast-to-Coast AM show—with its tales of UFOs, alien abductions and eerie conspiracies—was once late-night radio's X-Files equivalent.