At the Sunday morning service at the three-thousand-member Shady Grove Church in Grand Prairie, one of the most popular charismatic churches in the Metroplex, a contemporary Christian band launches into “Dancing With My Father in the Fields of Grace,” and nearly all the members of the congregation come bounding out of their seats. Some jump up and down like pogo sticks; others whirl spontaneously in the aisles; still others throw their hands up, punching the air in time with the music.
Show your joy to the Lord with dancing.
Even in the back row of the auditorium, an older man in a dark business suit sways back and forth, his eyes tightly closed, his arms cradling a large Bible.
There’s a place where I lose myself in Him. There’s a place where I find myself again.
The man nods his head, as if the lyrics were written for him. He lifts his face toward the ceiling and holds out his hands as if he’s receiving a blessing.
Dancing with my Father in the Fields of Grace.
“Amen,” the man says to himself. “Amen.”
When the song ends, the man opens his eyes. He turns his head and sees me just a few feet away, staring at him. He flashes me a gentle, gracious smile, then turns back and shuts his eyes again as the band begins another song.
I have come to this church just to see the man worship. According to his closest friends, he has been poring over his Bible for the past twenty years. He prays several times a day. He spends time “ministering” to others, telling them about the joys of Christian devotion. He reads religious newsletters and Biblical commentaries. He is well regarded in fundamentalist Christian circles for his ability to cast out demons from sinners. “He is one of the most enjoyable, loving human beings you’ll ever meet,” says Olen Griffing, the pastor of Shady Grove. “I’ve known him well for more than a decade, and I’ve never once seen him get angry or heard him talk negatively about anyone.”
“People will be amazed to hear you say that,” I tell him.
“Not the people who’ve gotten to know him,” he replies. “They know Cullen Davis is full of God’s love.”
All you have to say is the name and the memories come flooding back. In 1976 he was the sort of figure in modern Texas history who was both famous and infamous—a rich and rakish young oil tycoon with a net worth close to $250 million and all the trappings of fabulous wealth, from Lear jets and paintings by Renoir and Dufy to a bevy of blond, spectacularly busty women. If the Tarrant County district attorney was to be believed, he was also a remorseless killer. Then 43, Cullen was arrested for shooting two people to death at his 19,000-square-foot Fort Worth mansion, including his twelve-year-old stepdaughter, and for wounding two others, including his estranged wife, Priscilla Davis. The crimes were so shocking—Cullen was the richest man in America ever arrested for murder—that they were front-page news all over the state. Even more shocking, however, was his acquittal by a jury despite the testimony of three eyewitnesses who said they saw him pull the trigger. Months later he was arrested again after allegedly telling an informant that he wanted fifteen people killed, including one of his brothers, Priscilla, the judge in their divorce case, a business associate, and various people who testified against him in the murder trial. The informant had audiotaped their conversations about the hit list—but again, incredibly, he was acquitted.
At least four books were written about him; the most celebrated of them, Blood Will Tell, by Texas Monthly senior editor Gary Cartwright, was made into a TV miniseries starring Peter Strauss as Cullen and Heather Locklear as Priscilla. Long before O. J. Simpson, Cullen was the symbol of what is sometimes called “rich people’s justice.” According to his detractors, he spent millions of dollars on lawyers and investigators to manufacture reasonable doubt and beat the rap. “Think about what this man has done,” says Priscilla, who now lives in a small one-bedroom apartment in Dallas. “He is seen shooting innocent people in cold blood. He is on tape talking about paying hit men to kill other people. Then he gets on the witness stand and persuades juries that he had nothing to do with it. And now here he is going to church and praying to God. To me, that’s scary.” Yet just as many people who will tell you that 66-year-old Cullen is a genuinely different man—that his embrace of Christianity, which began a few months after his second acquittal, is not unlike the great conversion stories in the Bible.
Today Cullen lives in a cream-colored house in suburban Colleyville, a thirty-minute drive from downtown Fort Worth, with his pretty blond wife of 21 years, the former Karen Master. Living with them is Karen’s 28-year-old son from her first marriage, Chesley, who as an infant suffered massive injuries in a car wreck and now works at a nearby Luby’s cafeteria. (Cullen long ago adopted Chesley and Karen’s other son, Trey, who works in Dallas; he also has two sons from his first marriage, both of whom are also in Dallas.) Cullen himself has a modest job as an industrial products salesman; he works out of his home selling things like skin-protectant barrier cream and industrial surge protectors. For fun, he and Karen invite friends from church to their home to play canasta or dominoes, or they go out to a restaurant in his 1995 Cadillac and then catch a movie.
“I’m sure there are people out there who won’t speak to him or associate with him because of all the old publicity,” Karen told me when I called to ask if I could meet them. “All I can say is that they refuse to see who he really is today. I hope you won’t come out here to see him with some preconceived idea of who he is.”