Two days before the date his boss had predicted as the Apocalypse, Matt Tuter made an auspicious decision: He canceled the skywriters.
Family Radio, the Oakland-based evangelical network run by Harold Camping, had already spent more than $5 million on 5,000 billboards announcing Judgment Day -- May 21, 2011 -- according to tax documents. Now, Tuter said, he feared that the airplanes, which were to inscribe the warnings in the skies above major U.S. cities, were one expense too many for a business operating as if there really would be no tomorrow.
Two years later, Camping's predictive powers have been thoroughly discredited. But the financial reckoning that Tuter foresaw for Family Radio may be coming soon, according to public financial documents and current and former high-level Family Radio employees who spoke to this newspaper.
Among the indicators:
Former and current insiders allege the situation may be even worse than it appears, claiming donations have dropped almost 70 percent since the Rapture prediction proved incorrect, leading to numerous layoffs of longtime Family Radio staff members. Those insiders say the nonprofit mishandled the sales of the stations, reaping far less than they were worth, and is on the hook for millions of dollars to devotees who have loaned them money over the years. Since the failed prediction, at least two letters have been sent to the California Attorney General's Office requesting an investigation into the station sales and Family Radio's handling of donations. The office does not confirm or deny investigations.
"You eliminate those three (FM stations) and, ultimately, the rest of it dies," said Tuter, a 55-year-old San Leandro resident and longtime right-hand man to Camping, who was fired last year. "I believe they are killing it off."
Not everyone predicts Family Radio's demise, however. Board member Tom Evans, who has taken over day-to-day operations since Camping suffered a stroke in June 2011, said Family Radio is hurting like any other nonprofit in this slow-to-rebound economy. But it is not closing, and the financial problems aren't nearly as serious as some allege, said the trustee, who instead envisions a downsized, more efficient ministry emerging.
"Sufficient funds were in the bank and, thankfully, we didn't spend everything (on May 21, 2011)," he said. "But it did force us to make quick changes."
At least some of those changes had an air of desperation: In a November letter to his followers posted on the Family Radio website, Camping wrote: "Either we sell (our biggest radio station) or go off the air completely." And Evans acknowledged the bridge loans, while insisting the nonprofit is not insolvent.
Camping, who hasn't been able to conduct his "Open Forum" radio show since suffering his stroke, still shows up for work and is involved in the nonprofit's operations, Evans said. The 91-year-old president was not available to comment for this story.
Tuter says Camping had long been telling him that when he dies, he wants the Oakland-based nonprofit to die with him. The ailing evangelist may get his wish.
Family Radio, founded more than a half-century ago, built itself into a powerful religious ministry with 66 full-service radio stations, more than 100 FM broadcast relay stations and a handful of television stations across the country. Fourteen shortwave transmitters allowed broadcasts to Africa, Russia and elsewhere in the world.
Its stations had no commercials, providing 24-hour, seven-days-a-week Christian programming in 30 languages -- including hymns, Bible teachings and gospel talk shows -- with Camping's "Open Forum" program airing every weeknight for 90 minutes. The nonprofit paid its bills through donors' philanthropy, amassing $216.4 million in donations from 1997 through 2011, according to tax returns (2012 totals are not yet available). On its website and during broadcasts, listeners were told how to donate.
Camping became more engrossed with predictions of Judgment Day as the years passed, espousing multiple possibilities before ultimately focusing on May 21, 2011, as the highly publicized date. Contributions spiked, with stories surfacing across the country of followers donating their life savings, as Family Radio spent prodigiously to publicize the end of the world. Evans said it was a "buyer beware" scenario.
"We spent a significant amount and we didn't hide it. We were very open and the whole world knew what we were doing," Evans said. "None of us have any regrets." However, Evans said, in some cases where donors could show financial hardship, Family Radio has reimbursed up to half the value of their contributions.
The free spending before May 21 combined with the drop in donations thereafter has left a shell of a nonprofit two years later. Earlier this year, Family Radio sold the last of its three powerhouse East Coast FM stations -- WFME in Newark-New York City, WFSI in Annapolis, Md.-Washington, D.C., and WKDN in Philadelphia -- the nonprofit's cash cows. The New York station was sold to Cumulus Media in January for $40 million, the Philadelphia station went the previous month for $22.5 million to Merlin Media, and the Annapolis station was sold to CBS in November for $8.5 million.
Family Radio kept most of its significantly smaller radio stations and other assets -- even buying some smaller stations -- but has trimmed the on-air staff and cut its international schedule by 80 percent, sources said.
The programming remains similar, although they run only edited repeats of Camping's "Open Forum," with occasional brief live Bible study lessons by the founder. Still, in November, Family Radio posted a special message from Camping on its website about the WFME sale:
"Many listeners have heard news of this sale and are very concerned that it signals the demise of Family Radio. But, let me reassure you -- nothing could be further from the truth."
But some observers say the sale of the big three stations -- especially WFME, which served 14 million listeners -- is a disaster for the network.
Each of the stations was sold to a secular operator. Evans acknowledged Camping had a long-standing policy against selling radio stations to other religious organizations, saying such sales would "create confusion." But after these sales, Evans said, the board voted to reverse the policy -- with Camping's blessing.
To replace the FM stations sold, Evans said, Family Radio picked up AM stations, including Philadelphia's WKDN 950 AM. But critics call the AM station a "dog" with coverage problems and high overhead costs.
Another challenge for Family Radio is that over the years it has taken a large number of loans -- one estimate puts the amount at $22 million -- from devotees, exchanging them for promissory notes that pledge to use the money to "proclaim the gospel of the Lord."
On its 2011 tax return, Family Radio lists $35.1 million in liabilities, but does not specify how much is owed toward the promissory notes. Evans would not say. However, he said, "The biggest concern of Harold and the rest of the board, if Family Radio went out of business, would be to pay off the promissory note holders."
While some critics are surprised there have not been lawsuits or more complaints, others are not.
"People that follow religious groups think it's almost an affront against God to file a lawsuit or ask for their money back," said a longtime Family Radio manager, who requested anonymity fearing repercussions at work. "Bernie Madoff should have become ordained and made his operation a nonprofit and he probably would have gotten away with it."
Since the Rapture prediction flamed out, a religious freedom group and a part-time Family Radio employee wrote the California Attorney General's Office requesting a fraud investigation into Family Radio's handling of donations. Evans said the complaints were unfounded.
Meanwhile, Tuter -- Camping's former top assistant -- believes his ex-boss is running the ministry into the ground on purpose.
In 1996, about a week before Camping had heart surgery, Tuter said his boss confided in him his concern for Family Radio's future upon his death.
"He was very specific he did not want it to continue," Tuter said, quoting Camping in the meeting, "'God raised up Family Radio just as a platform for me!'"
What will Family Radio become? It depends on whom you ask.
Some followers still debate future Rapture dates. But others hope Family Radio will return to its pre-Rapture roots as a more mainstream religious radio network.
"Most of us were sad to see the stuff happening, but we thought, 'OK, once the (Rapture) date goes by we'll get back to orthodox programming,'" said Craig Hulsebos, 70, Family Radio's longtime director of programming who was let go in September 2012. "But we didn't."
Evans envisions a new mission.
"We feel we can be a comfort to listeners and a comfort to people affected by events, like the one in Connecticut or Hurricane Sandy," he said. "We want to be a comfort and reminder of God's strength and mercy. ... In the end, our founding mission is to proclaim the word of God."
Matthias Gafni is an investigative reporter. Contact him at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.