Saturday, September 24, 2005


Megachurch's Ex-Pastor To Join Zephyrhills Police

ZEPHYRHILLS, Florida - Ron Clark, the high-profile former pastor of a troubled Tampa megachurch, will hit the streets of this east Pasco city as a police officer next week.

Clark, 48, passed the department's background check, drug screen, physical agility test, psychological screen and oral interview. In his interview, he acknowledged a checkered personal history, Zephyrhills Police Chief Russell Barnes said.

"His files are clear," Barnes said.

In the summer of 2003, Clark's name grabbed headlines.

For 15 years, Clark led the once-thriving Church of the Living Water on Interstate 4, a nondenominational congregation whose members gave $2 million annually.

That summer, however, the church unraveled as Clark and his wife, Belinda, became embroiled in a bitter divorce.

The proceedings brought to light the church's hefty assets -- as well as the assets of the Clarks. The pair each drew salaries of $70,000 and owned a $500,000 horse farm in Dade City and a $275,000 rental home in Celebration, near Orlando, the case revealed.

Although the Clarks never were charged with illegal activity, the information from their divorce case disillusioned the congregation's almost 2,000 members. By October 2003, the church filed for bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, as the case drew publicity, Clark in July 2003 ended a nine-month stint with the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, where he was a reserve deputy and part-time chaplain.

Barnes said the Zephyrhills Police Department reviewed Clark's personnel files from that time and checked with the sheriff's internal affairs division. Clark's background check came back clear, Barnes said.

"The only red flags were the ones he gave us to go check out. They were maybe not red flags but cautionary flags," Barnes said.

Those flags had to do with Clark's financial history, the chief said.

"His bankruptcy came back. I've even had one of those. Situations happen."

Clark, who Barnes said lives in Dade City, could not be reached for comment Friday evening.

Starting salary for a police officer in Zephyrhills, a city with a year-round population of about 12,000, is $30,695.

City Manager Steve Spina, who signs off on new hires, said he signed Clark's hiring form but at the time did not realize who he was.

"It's a little surprising," Spina said.

"The only red flags were the ones he gave us to go check out."

See also, the never-ending chronicle of church-related crime.

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