The slogan "WWJD?" is on bracelets, sweatbands and T-shirts. When faced with a tricky real-world choice, the Christian thing to do is to ask "What Would Jesus Do?"
For starters, Jesus might pay the rent.
That's apparently not a priority for self-proclaimed born-again Christian D.C. Chymes, shock jock of the long-running "Steve and DC" morning drive-time radio show on WMLL (104.1 FM). D.C. Chymes, whose real name is Isaiah Wilhelm, filed in June for bankruptcy protection, with a large chunk of his debt owed to former landlords.
In his bankruptcy petition, Wilhelm states he has $155,357 in liabilities, with $60,594 of that amount in unsecured debt. More than half of that debt, $37,450, is owed to landlords for unpaid rent, broken leases and property damage. The Chase Park Plaza has a $18,460 court judgment against Wilhelm for unpaid rent at one of its $6,000-a-month penthouse apartments. Richard Travers has a $15,000 judgment against Wilhelm stemming from a broken lease and unpaid rent in 2001 for a house in Chesterfield.
Travers, a local attorney who owns rental property, is waiting to be paid. He doesn't understand why Wilhelm, who made nearly $400,000 last year, is in bankruptcy court. And Travers is baffled that the radio personality is seeking protection under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code instead of Chapter 13. In a Chapter 7 filing, the debtor seeks to discharge his debts by liquidating assets. A Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows a debtor to keep his property, but restructures his debt so that he can repay creditors with future disposable income.
"He's only listing $60,000 in unsecured debt," Travers says. "He could pay that in two months' salary. He's just trying to cancel all his debts, which doesn't make any sense to me because he has enough resources to pay them off without any problem. Something is funny about this."
Wilhelm lists $94,763 in secured debt tied up in a 1999 Mercedes ML 430 SUV, a 2000 Mercedes 320 sedan and a 2002 Dodge Caravan. He reports income of $414,070 in 2001 and $378,308 in 2002. In the first six months of 2003, Wilhelm states he's earned $85,000.
After his trouble with landlords, medical expenses take up most of Wilhelm's debt. He owes $7,644 to various hospitals or doctors in 2002. Other miscellaneous IOUs include a $1,435 bill from Charter Communications for cable TV and $284.71 owed to Blockbuster, the video-rental chain.
But the bulk of Wilhelm's trouble is with landlords.
Travers says he was unaware of his prospective tenant's radio alter ego, "D.C.," when Wilhelm applied to rent the house. Travers was won over by Wilhelm's proclamation of his faith.
"That's exactly what he told me and that's why I leased to him," Travers says. "I was nervous until he said, 'Well, I'm a born-again Christian. We're going to do good job for you and keep it nice.' That was the wrong thing to say. I got hooked into it."
Wilhelm rented from Travers for eighteen months, but broke his lease in October 2001 to move into another rental house in Chesterfield, this one owned by Scott Thomas. Thomas says Wilhelm quit paying rent in July 2002 and moved in November of that year to the Chase. Thomas sued for up to $25,000 for rent, fraud and damages to the property. Unlike the judgments awarded Travers and the Chase, Thomas' suit is still pending.
Wilhelm's current landlord, Donald Russeau, is part of the bankruptcy filing with $3,990 listed as "past due rent."
Thomas says that when he rented to Wilhelm and his wife, their credit history became apparent. "It's not just landlords. I had creditors of all fashions and forms calling me all the time looking for them." Thomas says before he rented to Wilhelm, he was unsuccessful in contacting any prior landlord, but he had checked his income and was familiar with Steve Shannon (real name: Terrence Trawick) and D.C. Chymes through their years on local radio.
When the Riverfront Times caught up with Wilhelm, he explained his financial difficulties by saying he had nothing to do with them. Wilhelm says that his wife, Anna Marie Wilhelm, managed his finances. His current debt load, in addition to what he describes as several "frivolous lawsuits" pending against him due to his radio show, led him to seek Chapter 7 protection.
"We all make mistakes," Wilhelm says. "I have not been involved in my own financial matters. That's not the smartest thing. I certainly have learned a very important lesson from this."
Through much of the early and mid-'90s, the Steve and DC Morning Show was at or near the top of the ratings heap for morning drive-time FM shows. In the show's early years, sometimes their edgy on-air personas went over the edge.
In 1993, the duo was fired by WKBQ (104.1 FM) in St. Louis after they told a black woman caller that she was "acting like a nigger" when she complained about Shannon and Chymes' on-air comments. The jocks told listeners they opposed museums or TV shows devoted to blacks unless there were museums "about exclusive white contributions" or an hour on television devoted to white history.
After months off the air and "racial sensitivity" classes, the duo returned to the local airwaves only to wade back into trouble. In 1994, they aired an interview with a woman who alleged that KSDK-TV, Channel 5, weathercaster Bob Richards was harassing her after she broke off an affair. Two days after the interview, Richards was killed when he flew his private plane straight into the ground in a 400-foot nosedive. Suicide was suspected. A friend of Richards at the time said the interview on the Steve and DC Morning Show was what "broke" Richards.
Shannon and Chymes' antics made national headlines, but nearly a decade later, they're no longer at the top in their home market. Their rating of 3.5 for the winter months of January, February and March puts them behind KSHE (94.7 FM) with a 9.1, WIL (92.3 FM) with 5.9 and KYKY (98.1 FM) with a 4.8. Howard Stern's syndicated show at KPNT (105.7 FM) is at 4.2. Steve and DC's rating among the 25-54 demographic translates into an estimated 9,500 listeners during the average quarter hour.
The show is syndicated to 29 cities, most of them smaller markets in southern states including Biloxi, Mississippi; Macon, Georgia; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; and Danville, Kentucky. In his bankruptcy filing, Wilhelm estimates that income from syndication of the show amounts to $3,000 per month. His base salary is $170,000 for 2002. The last year of his contract, 2005, raises the base salary to $190,000. Additional income comes from ads, personal appearances and the show's Web site.
In recent years, Steve Shannon and D.C. Chymes' professed Christianity has surfaced on the show enough to concern WMLL's owner, Emmis Communications Corp. Limitations were put into the duo's contracts requiring that they "keep the religious content of the program to a bare minimum."
The reason is simple:
The contract with Emmis states that "if the program should take the form of [a] religious entertainment show we are not confident the ratings will be maintained and grow and therefore our investment in the program will be materially diminished." The contract allows that "sporadic mentions of certain religious beliefs" are allowed, but "there shall be no proselytizing or praying on the show or any emphasis of religious material or content."
Word of Wilhelm's financial trouble has spread through media circles, particularly on the Internet message board at www.stlmedia.net. A string of messages about the bankruptcy triggered a long defense from Wilhelm's wife. Mike Anderson, publisher of the Web site, said that because people have a love/hate, "polarized" view of Wilhelm, the messages got personal and sometimes ugly.
"I dropped the thread because the posters had gone way over the line," Anderson says. "This is not an issue that relates, at least not yet, to their professional performance. It's a personal issue and I didn't think there was a place for that on the message board."
Because he was unaware of the magnitude of his financial problems, Wilhelm says they should not reflect poorly on his religious beliefs.
"It's personal," Wilhelm says. "It's a situation that's between me, my wife and my family. I regret that some people have used it as an opportunity to attack me and say I'm not a Christian or that I'm being a hypocrite when they don't know the whole story. That's the part that bothers me. If you knew every fact of the story, you might not sit back and say this guy's a phony."
But Wilhelm's troubles aren't going away. A public hearing on the bankruptcy is scheduled for July 22. The U.S. Trustee for the court has until late August to decide whether the filing qualifies for Chapter 7. Wilhelm's lawyer, Robert Eggman, says it was Wilhelm who decided to try Chapter 7.
"The budget shows he's got more expenses than income; that's primarily why he filed a 7 rather than a 13," Eggman says. "He does make a lot of money, but that's not the only consideration: it's whether or not you have funds in excess of expenses at the end of the month. They do take into account if your expenses are reasonable. We do have that issue."
Lawyer Nicholas Franke, who represents Thomas and the Chase, says the Wilhelm case is an example of the issues surrounding bankruptcy reform. As it stands, only the U.S. Trustee can rule that the filing doesn't qualify for Chapter 7 eligibility.
"What Congress is debating now is whether there should be a needs test," Franke says. "If someone has the ability to pay their debt, should they be allowed to go through the process, or should they be required to do a Chapter 13 and put in some of their income? That's what is at the heart of bankruptcy reform."
"To be very frank, Mr. Wilhelm is a very high-income Chapter 7 debtor," Franke says. "The average Chapter 7 debtor does not make $200,000 a year."
Travers, the attorney who was burned by Wilhelm, agrees his former tenant shouldn't get Chapter 7 protection. But for him there's been one main lesson from this experience.
"Yeah, never to lease to him again," Travers says. "As soon as somebody says they're 'born again,' I walk away. He destroyed the credibility of that kind of a comment."