(Published in the Texas Observer on Thursday, May 20, 2004)
It’s a warm spring Saturday in Burleson, and inside a tidy brick house on a tree-lined street in this Fort Worth suburb, a group of women are giggling over a pink penis-shaped vibrator. The women–old and young, mothers and daughters, friends and strangers–have gathered for some good old-fashioned girl talk and the slightly naughty fun of a Passion Party. It’s kind of like a Mary Kay party, with sex toys, oils, and accessories instead of eyeliners, foundation, and lipstick.
Passion Parties is a San Francisco-based company that has 3,200 consultants in the United States, raking in $20 million a year in business. There are 150 consultants in Texas and a handful of those live or work in Burleson, according to company officials. The goal of the company is to educate women about their sexuality, its promoters say. And sex toys aren’t new to Burleson either, according to long-time residents. Similar parties have been held in the county for at least 20 years.
The company’s consultant demonstrates how the vibrating penis works and passes it around. Some of the women blush as they touch it, and others make bawdy comments that inspire more titters. The giggling turns into hilarity when one of the women puts the vibrator on the carpet and it begins to wiggle its way across the room. The introduction of another product, peppermint-laced body cream, is greeted with more giggles as the women rub the cream on their hands, arms, and legs and exclaim over the tingling feeling it causes. “Ladies, just use your imagination,” the consultant urges. “Think how much fun it would be to hand your husband a jar of this stuff tonight.”
“I love it; I want it … I’ll buy it,” one young woman exclaims. As she bends over to peek at the sleeping baby in the carrier by her feet, she quips, “I just hope the pigs don’t show up and haul us outta here.”
The joke provokes loud laughter, but some of the women take a surreptitious look out the front window, just in case. Sex is a lot more than just fun and games in Johnson County these days.
Johnson County dubs itself “the county of character.” Many of its towns and cities are “cities of character.” An organization called the International Association of Character Cities (IACC) promotes the initiative. The IACC shares a 10-story building in Oklahoma City with Character First, the supplier of the millions of dollars of merchandising that it uses to advertise its message of character laced with evangelical overtones.
State Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth (R-Burleson) suggested to county officials that they join the Cities of Character Initiative (CCI). The goal of the CCI is to inspire people to adopt whatever character traits the self-appointed guardians of morality dictate. Each month, a different character trait is announced, publicized in city mail-outs, touted at city council meetings, and taught to the kids in the public schools. For example, Burleson’s character trait for May is attentiveness, defined in the city’s latest progress report as “showing the worth of a person or task by giving my undivided cooperation.”
While the character initiative can be seen as a relatively benign exercise in groupthink, it forms part of a wider campaign by a network of local religious conservatives who control much of the area’s Republican Party and, by extension, local government. After the war in Afghanistan, some folks in the county took to calling this circle the Talibaptists.
The activities of the Talibaptists have kept Johnson County in the news over the years. There was, for instance, the Satanist couple that tried to set up an on-line coven-supply business out of Cleburne, the county seat, during the Internet boom of the early 1990s. The Sunday after The Wall Street Journal ran a story about the satanic business, it was the subject of sermons in almost every church in the county. The couple was invited to leave town.
And there was the time in 1996, shortly after the grand opening of the new Burleson High School, that a group of parents asked the school district to install a giant pair of red gym shorts on the anatomically correct statue of an elk in the school’s foyer—lest the sight inspire their youngsters to have sex. That one made the Dallas/Fort Worth news. A year later, a small group of curse-averse residents demanded that the Burleson school board ban books and plays that contain “dirty words.” Among the would-be book banners: Arlene Wohlgemuth.
“I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird,” Wohlgemuth declared during one contentious school board meeting, “but, if it has those words in it, it doesn’t belong in our schools.”
None of this attention, however, quite prepared Johnson County for what happened when word got out that a Burleson mother had been arrested for selling a pair of penis-shaped dildos. If that wasn’t scandal enough, shortly thereafter a well-respected Republican Texas House candidate was exposed as a cross-dresser just days before the April primary runoff election.
If the Burleson Talibaptists have a spiritual leader, it’s Rev. Gloria Gillaspie. A small blonde woman with big hair and bright makeup in the Tammy Faye tradition, Gillaspie founded and preaches at Burleson’s Lighthouse Church (formerly known as Steppingstone Church). What is now a behemoth of yellow brick started out as a Christian teen club in the 1980s, and became one of the largest churches in the city.
Gillaspie also serves as pastor, political advisor, and unofficial campaign manager for Arlene Wohlgemuth, who is currently running for Congress in the newly drawn 17th Congressional District. (Calls for comment from Wohlgemuth for this story were not returned.) The pastor is the mother of Stuart Gillaspie, a Burleson city council member who regularly voices his concerns about the “moral issues” of the city. As the Observer went to press, he was campaigning for mayor for the May 15th municipal elections. Gillaspie’s son-in-law, Cory Smithee, was running for a seat on the council. Gillaspie insiders can be found currently serving on the council and school board as well as almost every Republican committee, city advisory board, and school program in Burleson, including the Chamber of Commerce.
“Gloria or Arlene, that’s a chicken-and-egg deal, isn’t it?” says Ken Shetter, who is running against Stuart Gillaspie for Burleson mayor. Shetter has invited the ire of Gillaspie’s crew of moralizers for his support of a May 15th referendum that would allow bars and restaurants in Burleson to serve alcohol.
The catalyst for the dildo scandal that is rocking Johnson County these days appears to have been Gillaspie’s daughter, Shanda Perkins. (A recent gag order by a local judge has largely silenced those involved, but when the story first broke, media outlets all over the world told the tale and had fun at Burleson’s expense.)
At the center of the storm are Joanne and Chris Webb. Their problems began at the Burleson Chamber of Commerce. Chris Webb was a homebuilder at the time. Despite being among the Chamber’s more tireless volunteers and evangelical Christians to boot, the Webbs apparently didn’t fit the image that Perkins and like-minded Chamber members decided the town’s residents ought to convey. What was their crime? Looking sexy and showing it off, driving a Mustang convertible, and (gasp!) public displays of affection.
Joanne, an attractive blonde with long, wavy hair and great legs, wears miniskirts most of the time. At 43, she looks good in them and likes to show it. Chris Webb is known to sport cutoff jean shorts with his work boots and sometimes can be spotted jogging on the streets of Burleson in Speedo swim trunks. The couple, who have been married for more than 20 years and have three kids, apparently find each other attractive and aren’t ashamed of it.
And as if wearing miniskirts and being cute weren’t enough, Joanne Webb did something really audacious in June 2003, when she became a Passion Party consultant and registered her new business with the Chamber—even planning an official ribbon cutting. Some members, including Perkins, complained to Chamber officials and boycotted the ceremony.
In December of that year, concerned about the city’s image and determined to keep the Webbs from looking too sexy, Perkins and other like-minded members petitioned the Chamber’s board to adopt a dress code for members that restricts skirt lengths to no more than three inches above the knee.
Perkins says she is not giving media interviews now because “I’m very active, politically, and I campaign for many candidates and I wouldn’t want this to reflect on them.” She is, she noted, Wohlgemuth’s campaign chairman for Burleson.
Gloria Gillaspie did not answer half a dozen messages for this story. Rev. Gillaspie did tell Reuters news service, however, that she has met and counseled some women who had talked to Webb about the products she sold. “It was causing problems with their marriages,” Gillaspie said.
The Webbs also were dropped from the membership of two Burleson churches, Gillaspie informed Reuters. “They didn’t want to comply with what was really Christian conduct and that is why they were asked to leave those churches,” she said.
In at least one of those cases, the pastor of the church—where Chris Webb had been a popular Sunday school teacher for eight years—told Joanne that either she had to tone down her clothes or the family would have to leave the church. They left.
According to Joanne Webb’s statements to the media, Perkins’ animosity toward her was well known. After some research, one self-appointed moralist found Chapter 43 of the Texas Criminal Code, in which a statute on indecency forbids the promotion of obscene material or devices. An anonymous complaint was then filed with the Burleson police department.
In a perverse imitation of a drug sting, two undercover cops from the STOP Drug Taskforce, posing as a married couple, met Webb at her husband’s office and asked about buying a couple of dildos. When Joanne described how the devices were used, she was busted. Webb was arrested two weeks later, police said, because she had violated state obscenity law. The offense, a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine, makes it illegal to sell dildos, et al., for sexual stimulation. Under the law, it is okay to sell them, as many stores do, as “novelties,” but not as devices for sexual pleasure.
Burleson Police Chief Tom Cowan, a born-again Christian himself, said the four-county task force carried out the raid at the instigation of the Burleson Police Department. When a complaint is made, it’s the department’s job to investigate, said Cowan. “Like we do with all criminal complaints, we just referred it to the county attorney’s office,” he said, indicating that he can’t say more because of the gag order imposed in the case.
Why would Johnson County Attorney Bill Moore prosecute such a thankless case, especially one that has the potential to make him a laughingstock among his peers on the bar? The explanation might go back to the 1980s, when Johnson County—until then 99 percent yellow-dog Democrat—was overcome by the Reagan Revolution. For the first time since Reconstruction, a Republican took office in the county courthouse. It wasn’t long before the GOP, including Wohlgemuth, had swept through the county like crickets in the springtime. It quickly became clear to the few remaining Democratic politicos that only by switching parties—and making nice with Wohlgemuth—could they save their political lives. Moore, the man who so eagerly agreed to prosecute Webb for selling the dildos, is one of those party switchers. He did not return calls asking for a comment on the case.
After her arrest, and determined not to go quietly, Webb contacted Fort Worth attorney BeAnn Sisemore. Sisemore, who has a reputation as a crusader, has vowed to appeal the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary, to overturn the law, which she believes is unconstitutional. As the case winds its way though the system, the Webbs, whose businesses have been harmed by the notoriety and a lackluster economy, are struggling to survive while keeping a low profile. Unlike the Satanists, they vow that they won’t be run out of town.
If anybody knows firsthand how the Webbs feel, it is Sam Walls.
Walls, a former Republican Party county chairman and a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, isn’t from Burleson. He hails from the Johnson County seat of Cleburne. He and his family have been involved in Republican Party politics in the county since Republicans were as common in Texas as penguins. Walls’ wife, Kay, is a former Cleburne school board member and, in 1999, was appointed by then-Governor George W. Bush to the North Texas Tollway Authority.
When Walls decided to run for the District 58 Texas House seat Wohlgemuth is vacating, he seemed to carry the right credentials—but not everybody agreed. Burleson realtor Rob Orr, Wohlgemuth’s pick as successor, signed to run against Walls. Cleburne attorney Scott Cain also entered the race.
The three-way contest led to a runoff between Walls and Orr. Walls was considered the frontrunner and almost sure to win the nomination. He received establishment endorsements from the likes of state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Lewisville), U.S. Rep. Kay Granger (R-Fort Worth), and Cleburne Mayor Tom Hazlewood.
However, Walls may have messed with the wrong people when he, along with some other well-heeled Johnson County Republicans and Independents, co-hosted a fundraiser for Wohlgemuth’s primary opponent in the congressional race, Dot Snyder of Waco.
About a week before the Walls-Orr runoff on April 13, a collection of photos began showing up in the county and in e-mails to news outlets from Dallas/Fort Worth to Austin. The photos show Walls, a tall, stately looking man, wearing understated makeup, bouffant wigs, jewelry, and expensive, conservative women’s outfits. In one of the photos, he looks strangely like his wife, Kay, who sports a big smile and the same hairstyle.
The photos were ignored by the Cleburne Times-Review, a sign of Walls’ status in town, but the Dallas/Fort Worth media hopped all over them, running story after story in the newspapers and on television. Soon the photos were posted on the Internet and Walls’ plight became fare for national news programs and even ABC’s The View.
The photos had been seized in 2001 by a company that confiscated a dilapidated single-wide trailer registered in Walls’ name from the Chalet City mobile home park in Crowley, just across the line in Tarrant County. Walls had missed two or three rent payments on the site, according to court records.
Tarrant County Deputy Constable Randall Groombridge says the mobile home was crammed with boxes of junk, including Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley memorabilia, as well as the photos of Walls. The boxes were inside the trailer when it was hauled off.
The management at the mobile home park has since changed. The mobile home transport company is also no longer in business. A woman who answered the phone at the mobile home park said there was no way to know where the trailer ended up.
According to constable Groombridge, the trailer and its contents would have been kept in storage for 30 days to give Walls time to pay his bill and reclaim them. After that, the haulers would have had the option to sell it.
There are various theories about how the photos made it to Johnson County. Some say a realtor friend of Rob Orr got them somehow and, discovering the identity of their subject, passed them on. Others say that someone who knew about the trailer and wanted to get their hands on what was inside triggered eviction. Whoever had them, it appears that person had been waiting for three years to release the pictures if the need arose.
One of the first places the photos wound up was on the desk of Johnson County Sheriff Bob Alford, another born-again Christian and a Wohlgemuth protégé. “I don’t remember the exact date I first saw them, but I didn’t have them,” Alford says. “I’ve been accused of releasing them and I know that’s what people are saying around town, but it wasn’t me.”
Alford said he prayed about the controversy and hopes that the county is getting beyond it. His conclusion, the sheriff said, was that cross-dressing is a “moral issue” that Walls will have to deal with. It may only be a coincidence that the sheriff’s brother-in-law, Rob Sheridan, another born-again pastor (this one without a church), was Rob Orr’s campaign manager. Sheridan is the owner of the e-mail address from which the photos to the media were sent.
In mid-April, before the primary, Alford called county GOP Treasurer Roy Giddens, a party elder, and asked him to a meeting at his office at the county jail, according to Giddens, who arrived to find the sheriff with Rev. Gloria Gillaspie. Wohlgemuth later told reporters that Alford had contacted her about the photos and that she asked Gillaspie to represent her at the meeting.
The sheriff pulled the photos out of a drawer and asked the others what they thought should be done with them, Giddens says. Alford said he was concerned with the political repercussions if the photos were released, Giddens relates. The party treasurer told the sheriff that the photos were nobody’s business.
Giddens blames the Orr campaign for spreading the story and believes Alford overstepped his bounds. “The big problem is that the sheriff has gotten involved in something that he shouldn’t have been involved in. Wearing women’s clothes is not illegal, for a candidate or anybody else,” Giddens says. “You have to wonder if a county-owned building is the right place to hold a partisan political meeting.”
When the local GOP chair tried to get Walls to resign, the candidate refused. Walls told the media he wouldn’t give into “blackmail.”
After the photos hit the media, Orr’s campaign began to question whether Walls’ “lifestyle issues” and “family values” made him a viable candidate—a not-so-subtle attempt to suggest that Walls is homosexual. Being gay is the kiss of death to a candidate in Johnson County.
Orr did not return calls for this story and has denied that he was trying to smear Walls. He has, however, in print, questioned the morality of cross-dressing. Wohlgemuth also has denied any involvement in the release of the photos. Insiders from both the Democratic and Republican parties, however, say that no Johnson County candidate or staffer who wants to stay in the loop would make such a bold move without her approval.
“This is classic Arlene,” says Earl Pierce, a former Democratic county chair.
The mayor of Cleburne, Tom Hazlewood, who dubs himself an Independent, believes that if it wasn’t Wohlgemuth herself, it was one of her supporters.
“It may have Arlene’s fingerprints, it may have the sheriff’s,” he says. “It may have both of them for all I know. The Republicans have had it [their way] for quite awhile now—and now, they’re messing in their own nest.”
Pierce and Hazlewood were among a group of Republican and Democratic Party honchos who joined with some of the county’s high rollers for an April meeting to air their disgust at dirty politics and discuss how to beat Wohlgemuth at the polls in November. The meeting was held at George Marti’s office in the former Marti Electronics plant in Cleburne.
“I can’t support Arlene for anything,” George Marti says. “She thinks the only ideas in the world worth listening to are her ideas. A politician should listen to his constituents and consider what they have to say. But she doesn’t do that.”
Marti, who started and still owns majority stock in K-CLE, the only radio station in Cleburne, once owned a clothing manufacturing company in addition to his electronics company. The inventor of the “marti,” a piece of equipment used by every radio station on earth to do remote radio broadcasts, he is probably Johnson County’s wealthiest resident. A former Wohlgemuth backer and financial benefactor, Marti says he’s grown weary of the brand of politics she’s brought to the county.
“This [incident with Walls] is the dirtiest bit of politics I’ve come across for many years,” Marti says. “She was calling the shots because Orr is her buddy. Orr’s campaign manager is the sheriff’s brother-in-law. That’s how the sheriff got involved. Arlene was behind it, mark my words.”
Marti, who has supported Republican candidates in recent years, says he is an Independent and vows to use his influence—and plenty of money—to help Democrat Chet Edwards of Waco win re-election over Wohlgemuth this time around. “I’ve spent my limit on [Wohlgemuth] before and I will spend my limit, too, on the Democratic candidate this time,” he says. There are plenty of well-heeled Republicans who feel the same way, he says.
“She wants to control all the Republicans in Johnson County, and, it seems to me, the Republican Party is pitting itself against Cleburne,” he believes, resurrecting a long-time feud between the city and Burleson, the two most populous parts of the county. “As a result, there’s a lot of Republicans out here who will vote for Chet Edwards on Election Day. He will raise a lot of money here, and it’ll be because of this.”
Until the general election on November 5, residents should hunker down and look out for mud, believes county Republican executive committee member Pauline Buckner. “It’s going to get pretty nasty,” she says. “I hate to say it, but there are already people digging up things that some will wish had stayed hidden.”On April 6, the day after the photos of Walls appeared in the local newspapers, the Republicans holed up in their headquarters across the street from the Johnson County Courthouse in Cleburne, trying to decide what to do about the revelations regarding their former chairman. Across the street, local Democrats in their headquarters were trying not to appear too gleeful.
“The Walls family never deserved this kind of treatment,” says Democratic Party Chair Gayle Ledbetter. “I’m glad it was the local Republicans doing this, not our good Democrats. We’re just not that mean.”
On April 13, Walls lost his primary bid to Rob Orr, who will face Democrat Greg Kauffman, a real estate manager, in November. Wohlgemuth won her race, beating Snyder by eight points. She will go up against veteran Congressman Chet Edwards (D-Waco) on the same day.
Meanwhile, Joanne Webb’s attorney, Joanne Sisemore, says she plans to file a federal lawsuit challenging Texas’ obscenity laws. The same right to privacy that was recently cited as the reason the court struck down Texas’ sodomy law applies to the sex toy law, she believes.
P.A. Humphrey is a freelance journalist who lives in Burleson and views Johnson County politics as a spectator sport.