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Etheredge's time on the stand spent on his faith

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010, at 12:05 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, Nov. 5, 2010, at 10:22 p.m.

Thomas Etheredge spent all day on the witness stand Wednesday, but Wild West World was never mentioned.

His testimony covered his youthful days of operating an award-winning newspaper route and later serving as a pastor at three small Baptist churches in Texas.

Meticulous detail was given on a chapter Etheredge wrote for a book. To help establish his travels and previous business experiences, an assortment of photos and a timeline of his passports were closely examined.

But as far as what he told or was required by law to tell investors in Wild West World about his past and his finances — the heart of why he is standing trial in Sedgwick County District Court on nine securities fraud charges — never came up.

Those topics should surface today, when the founder of the failed theme park returns to the witness stand.

Defense attorney Steve Joseph is expected to pick up where he left off Wednesday, after he had detailed Etheredge's life and business history through the late 1980s.

The prosecution has yet to begin its cross-examination of Etheredge.

A large chunk of Wednesday was spent contradicting what Etheredge's ex-wife, Debbie Taylor, said in testimony last week.

Because most of the investors in Wild West World attended church with Etheredge or were his pastors, his religious conversion has become an issue.

In his chapter for the book, "Real Men, Real Faith," Etheredge wrote that his conversion came while serving three years in prison for a 1987 conviction of securities fraud in Kansas.

Taylor testified last week that he had a conversion experience while in jail following a bad check conviction. She said he told her he had "gotten on his knees before God, that he had given his life back to God."

"Debbie was partially right," Etheredge said Wednesday. "She also left some things out.

"I was ashamed. I was a businessman. How did I let this happen? I probably said to her ... 'If you just give me one more chance, I'll be new.' "

Did you have a conversion experience as a result of that check charge? Joseph asked.

"Jail is a difficult place," Etheredge replied. "Most men turn to the Bible. In the course of that year being in jail, I have no doubt I read the Bible. I had determined in my mind I would do better. But I did not, emphatically, did not accept Jesus Christ."

The topic of Etheredge's health came up as soon as he took the stand in the morning.

Joseph began by asking Etheredge whether anything had happened to him while spending the last 10 months in the Sedgwick County Jail that would impair his recall.

Etheredge, 55, said he had developed Parkinson's disease. Last fall, he was also taken to the hospital with brain aneurysm.

Throughout the day, Etheredge had tremors in his left hand. At times he referred to notes.

His chapter in "Real Men, Real Faith" was the basis for much of his testimony. What he wrote and what was changed in the editing process was frequently brought up.

Etheredge said there were a number of errors in the book. He said that he didn't recall signing off on the final draft of the book, which was published in 2004.

The book's editor, former longtime Wichita pastor Gene Williams, testified earlier that he was sure Etheredge had given his OK on the final version.

"If you didn't see the final approve for the draft, why did you distribute this book to so many people after you read it?" Joseph asked.

"Mr. Joseph, one must understand, the 6 1/2 pages under my name has to do with the message," Etheredge said. "I wasn't preparing a legal brief. I was approached by Pastor Williams to tell one thing and one thing only: How I came to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Everything I wrote has to do with that message.

"I never dreamed it would be under this kind of scrutiny."

"Did you do research (before writing the chapter)?" Joseph asked.

"I didn't have to do research to tell how Jesus Christ changed my life," Etheredge said.

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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