04/20/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
The atmosphere was as charged as church that sweltering afternoon as Florida TV evangelist George Crossley huddled with his friend William Klinger, but the feeling was less than religious. As the pair stood outside a hangar at Orlando Sanford Airport on July 2, 1996, they were discussing how to handle Crossley's nemesis George "Butch" Waldo, whose behavior had become increasingly threatening. Waldo, himself a nonpracticing minister, was incensed over the affair Crossley had had with his wife, Madeline, and held him responsible for the breakup of his marriage. Now Waldo was on a crusade to drive Crossley off the air. Just that morning he had called during Crossley's radio talk show. "Your host...has been sleeping with my wife," he blurted out. "I'm through dealing with this p—-k," Crossley told Klinger. "I would be just thrilled to put a bullet right between his eyes."
Fortunately for Waldo, the conversation wasn't as private as Crossley assumed. Klinger, an ex-con, had been alarmed by his friend's attempts over the previous weeks to enlist him in a plot to firebomb Waldo's home and was wearing microphones duct-taped to each of his hips, courtesy of the Seminole County sheriff. Several hours later, Klinger introduced Crossley to Steve Martin, the purported hit man—actually an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. A wire and a hidden video camera captured the chilling 45-minute exchange that concluded with the minister giving Martin a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol worth $650 as payment for the agreed-upon hit. "He was very matter of fact," says Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger. "If you look at that videotape, you'd think the guy was a wise guy."
But not a wise man. Arrested the day after the meetings—"We wanted to give Crossley the opportunity to call Klinger and say, 'Wait a minute. This is all a big mistake,' " explains Sgt. Brent Davison of the sheriff's office—the preacher was sentenced in February to four years in prison. "We did sympathize with Mr. Crossley; the guy did harass him unmercifully," says Randy Darino, one of the six-member jury that rejected Crossley's defense that he had been entrapped and found him guilty of solicitation to commit murder. "But a normal person wouldn't resort to trying to hire a hit man."
Then again, Crossley has never been ordinary. A hard-drinking union organizer and weekend drag racer who became a book-burning Right-to-Lifer following his self-described "conversion" in 1975, the charismatic preacher, 57, has always defied easy stereotyping. Most recently, as a fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist, he was as much a champion of civil rights as he was a staunch opponent of abortion. "The Bible clearly teaches us we're not to be bigots," he explains.
Some critics, however, suspect him of cynicism. "He was a man I thought would sell his soul, so to speak, to be in front of a camera," says rival TV evangelist John Butler Book, 60, who counseled George Waldo for a year. Certainly Crossley, ordained a Southern Baptist minister in 1981, displayed a flair for the dramatic. In 1988 he led hundreds of pickets at Universal Studios' Orlando theme park to protest the release of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Yet even those he antagonized often found him disarming. "Consistently, undeniably likable—despite his wrongheaded views," according to Orlando Sentinel columnist Greg Dawson, Crossley became a popular media presence in central Florida. "George was born with a silver tongue in his mouth," says his wife, Agnes, 70, whom he persuaded to marry him in 1966 despite her conviction that she was too old for him. "He could talk the pennies off a dead man's eyes."
Crossley apparently had an equally potent effect on Madeline Waldo, now 51, a member of his Sunday school class at the Aloma Baptist Church in Winter Park, Fla. Both Crossley and Agnes blame the bespectacled blonde, a secretary and mother of four, for instigating the fateful affair. (Waldo, who admitted the relationship in an affidavit, has since declined comment.) "She was having problems with her husband harassing her, so she'd go to George and cry," says Agnes of Madeline, who in 1992 called police after her husband threatened to kill her. "George is a sucker for crying women."
Although Crossley maintains the affair didn't begin until early 1994, George Waldo believed otherwise. In October 1993, the distraught man—who says he had started suffering from depression two years earlier after being disabled while working as a hospital orderly—confronted Crossley. "I pleaded with him to quit seeing her," says Waldo, 54, who wrote two notes threatening Crossley. "He told me no one was going to tell him who he is or isn't going to see." Crossley gave the notes, which read in part, "One more conversation...One more lie...I'll kill you ... You're a sorry creep," to the sheriff. Although Waldo claimed he was only trying to scare Crossley, he eventually pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and was put on six months' probation.
But far from chastening Waldo, this incident only seemed to inflame him, even after his divorce from Madeline in June 1995 and the end of her affair with Crossley. Despite efforts by church leaders to mediate after Crossley confessed his sins to them and to Agnes later that year, Waldo began peppering Crossley's advertisers and management at the stations that carried his programs with demands for his removal. In May 1996 he also phoned Agnes, and her husband exploded. "Agnes had no responsibility for what took place," says Crossley. "I was going to beat the fire out of him."
Instead, Crossley began talking firebombing with Klinger, whom he had met in the late '80s when both worked for a Christian radio station in Orlando. "His personality just entraps you," says Klinger, 29, who maintains he still has "the highest regard for him in my heart." Klinger says he humored Crossley for weeks in hopes that he would calm down but ultimately concluded that "if I didn't go to the police, he was going to kill George Waldo."
The jury agreed. Before sentencing, Crossley begged Judge Seymour Benson for mercy, noting that Agnes was suffering from serious heart problems. But Assistant State Attorney Michele Mahaffey argued for the maximum 8½ years: "I find it very interesting that a man of God...has not acknowledged any wrongdoing on his part."
These days Crossley prays for the success of his appeal while dealing with the reality of life at Sanford's John E. Polk Correctional Facility. Although he is allowed only two showers and two outdoor exercise breaks a week, Crossley philosophically describes his current quarters as "a great place to witness for Christ." And just maybe, Crossley suggests, his trials might be among those mysterious ways in which the Lord works. After he gets out, Crossley predicts, the media coverage of his troubles will "cause me to have a million times the audience I had before."
Fannie Weinstein in Orlando