Inside Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Unlikely Rise and Precipitous Fall at Liberty University

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Becki said she didn’t report the traumatic experience at the time because she felt guilty about the affair. In her mind, she deserved it. A few months later, Becki told Jerry and two lawyers about the incident. Becki said it also took her time to process that what happened could have been a form of assault. “I said no. Just because we had sex before does not mean he has a free ticket to my body.”

Granda and the Falwells hurtled toward a blowup. Months later, a lawyer representing Granda wrote a letter to Jerry’s attorney that stated Granda wanted Jerry to buy him out of the hostel for $2 million ($1.1 million in cash and $50,000 a year for 20 years, according to a letter Granda’s lawyer sent on October 15, 2019). Jerry refused. Granda’s attorney, Aaron Resnick, did not respond to a request for comment.

Granda’s emotional state deteriorated and he talked about suicide. Becki shared a text Granda sent around this time: “My life is absolutely ruined. When they find my lifeless body hanging in the woods, please make sure [my dog] Logan is returned to my family. Goodbye.”

In June 2020, Granda and Jerry reached the point of no return. “Since you’re okay with ruining my life, I am going to take the kamikaze route,” Granda texted Jerry. According to Jerry, Granda said he would tell people Jerry participated in the affair: “Revenge is coming soon.… I’m taking everyone down with me with my side of the story,” Granda texted. Becki worried Granda could release clips of the sex tapes she said she had shared with him.

“You should by now understand that I will not be extorted,” Jerry texted back. “I have always treated you fairly and been restrained in response to your threats because I did not wish to ruin your life. Going forward, stop contacting me and my family.”

With Granda threatening to go kamikaze, you would think Jerry would have kept a low profile. Instead, he spent 2020 brazenly courting controversy—as if he was trying to get fired. The year began with Jerry holding a bizarre press conference calling for rural portions of Virginia to secede and join West Virginia. In March, he tweeted a conspiracy theory that COVID-19 might be a North Korean bioweapon. When campuses across the country went into lockdown and sent students home that spring, Jerry kept Liberty open. But that was just a warm-up. Two days after George Floyd’s murder on Memorial Day, Jerry tweeted a photo of a face mask he printed with a racist photo from Virginia governor Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook. It showed people posing in blackface and a KKK hood. Jerry tweeted he would only wear a mask that had “Governor Blackface” on it. Protests and violence erupted in Lynchburg, a city with a large Black population. Jerry refused to apologize, even after Black Liberty staffers, including the head of diversity retention as well as top football and basketball players, quit the school in protest. After nearly two weeks of chaos, Jerry grudgingly deleted the tweet.

But Jerry couldn’t break his destructive social media habit. On Sunday morning, August 2, Jerry was relaxing with Becki and Caroline at the farm when he announced he had posted a photo on Instagram and held the phone up. So much was wrong about the picture: Jerry had his pants unzipped and what looked like a rum and Coke in one hand, with his other arm wrapped around a pregnant woman with her shorts unzipped and stomach showing.

Becki and Caroline were mortified. “We were like, that’s terrible! Take it down!” Becki recalled. Jerry didn’t see the big deal. The photo was taken during a costume party aboard billionaire Rick Hendrick’s 160-foot yacht. He was dressed as the main character Julian from the Canadian sitcom Trailer Park Boys. The drink in his hand was the Blk brand mineral water he ordered off Amazon, and the woman was Becki’s assistant. Jerry deleted the photo. But it was too late. Someone had taken a screenshot, and the media was all over the controversy.

On August 7, the Liberty board of trustees put Jerry on indefinite leave. Jerry said he wanted to fight the decision but didn’t have the energy. Since that July, he had been suffering from shortness of breath, dizzy spells, and slurred speech. He said he was eventually diagnosed with pulmonary emboli, a form of blood clots in the lungs. He was hospitalized when his blood oxygen fell to 77 percent. “The lungs were blocked up with clots. The pressure in the right side of my heart was triple what it should have been, and it was swollen. I barely made it to the car when we went to the hospital,” Jerry said.

Jerry said he was in a diminished state when a Reuters reporter named Aram Roston emailed to say Granda had given an on-the-record interview. Granda was alleging Jerry liked to watch Granda and Becki have sex, did Jerry have a comment? Borrowing a page from Trump’s playbook, Jerry wanted to preempt Granda’s story with one of his own, but he was too weak to go on television. On August 23, he sent a statement to the Washington Examiner. It acknowledged Granda and Becki’s affair but claimed Granda fabricated wild accusations about Jerry’s involvement as part of an extortion plot.

Before publication, Jerry and Becki sat their kids down. “We never told them until the day before it was about to hit,” Becki recalled. “I didn’t want my kids to know. You know, how embarrassing is that?”

A day later, Jerry says a member of Liberty’s board called Jerry and said if he didn’t step down, he would be fired. Jerry resigned.

Since his resignation, Jerry has been locked in a bitter feud with Liberty. The board fired Jerry’s son Trey and barred Jerry and Becki from setting foot on campus, even though their daughter is a senior and Jerry’s parents are buried there. Two days after Jerry’s resignation, an anonymous former Liberty student and friend of Trey’s told Politico that Becki had performed oral sex on him at the Falwell’s home in 2008 when he was 22. Becki denied the allegation to me, calling it “so ridiculous.” In April 2021, the board sued Jerry for $40 million to claw back his eight-figure severance package. The trustees said Jerry committed fraud when he negotiated a lucrative new contract in 2019 without telling the university he was being extorted by Granda—information the trustees said they were entitled to before they renewed Jerry’s multimillion-dollar deal. The lawsuit included accounts of Jerry and Becki’s booze-filled nights in Miami clubs and alleged Jerry showed up at Liberty when he “smelled of alcohol.” Jerry and Becki denied the allegations. “The lawsuit was my worst day,” Becki said. “I just remember crying all day long. It was our own people coming after us.”

Jerry said the board held him to an unfair standard. Jerry’s reasoning is that he was a university president, not a pastor. His brother, Jonathan, who preached every Sunday at their father’s church, was the pious one. “Liberty never had any rules for whether the president or any staff member could drink alcohol,” Jerry said, sounding like the lawyer he was trained to be. I told him the argument sounded like an extreme case of rationalization given that he was the leader of a school that fines female students for wearing a dress more than two inches above the knee. But Jerry said the current leadership has also broken rules—and that some school leaders drank alcohol. “I couldn’t believe the board was shocked about that,” Jerry said. The suit is ongoing.

Getting rid of Jerry didn’t stanch Liberty’s image crisis. In August, 12 women filed a federal class-action lawsuit alleging the university violated Title IX law by discriminating against women who made allegations of sexual assault and harassment. According to the suit, which is proceeding, Liberty staff discouraged victims from reporting abuse and fined some for violating Liberty’s “commitment to Biblical principles of purity and abstinence.” Jerry’s successor, Jerry Prevo, released a statement calling the allegations “troubling” and added: “Liberty University will not tolerate Title IX violations, sexual abuse or sexual assault in any form at any time.” In October, Scott Lamb, Liberty’s former senior vice president for communications, sued Liberty in federal court, claiming he was fired after raising red flags about the way the university responded to sexual assault allegations. Prevo called Lamb’s allegations false in a statement. His suit is in progress.

In exile, Jerry and Becki’s grievances festered, like Trump’s after his election loss. It’s no accident, Jerry said, that forces marshaled against him in the heat of the 2020 presidential campaign. He pointed out that Granda was advised by Kurt Bardella, at the time a PR adviser for the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “They wanted to get Jerry out of the picture for the election cycle because he got credited for bringing all the evangelicals around,” Becki said.

Jerry also suspected that Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, used the scandal to expand the Graham family’s influence over Liberty. Franklin Graham’s son Will was named vice chairman of Liberty’s board. Prevo is also a Graham ally. Jerry said Franklin Graham had also once told him that he wanted to start a Billy Graham University, but it didn’t get off the ground. In September 2020, Jerry and Franklin got into an argument over who should get credit for Liberty’s success. “I said, ‘My dad built the foundation, but I built the house. And Franklin got furious. He said, ‘You didn’t build it!’ You should have heard the jealousy in Franklin’s voice,” Jerry recalled. According to Jerry, Franklin Graham told him his future in the Christian world is over. “He said, ‘You’ll never be anything in evangelical circles again.’ ” Graham, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.

Jerry said that being on the receiving end of evangelicals’ moral opprobrium has fundamentally turned him away from the movement. He believes in Christ, he said, but not the church. “Nothing in history has done more to turn people away from Christianity than organized religion,” he said. “The religious elite has got this idea that somehow their sins aren’t as bad as everyone else’s,” Jerry said. Listening to Jerry, it made me think he convinced himself Liberty wasn’t the fundamentalist school that it is. “He would tell reporters that we don’t mind if gay and lesbians come here. I would tell him, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ ” recalled Lamb.



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