Richard Rossi photographed in 2011
March 2, 1963 |
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, US
A.A. Cinema Arts/Theater Arts, Los Angeles Valley CollegeB.S. & M.A. Religion, Liberty University
|Alma mater||Los Angeles Valley College, Liberty University|
|Spouse(s)||Sherrie Rossi (1984–present)|
Richard Rossi (born March 2, 1963, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) is an American filmmaker, actor, producer, novelist, musician, writer, talk radio host, former evangelical minister, church planter, and healing evangelist. His 1995 trial for the attempted murder of his wife, who recanted her original identification of Rossi as her attacker and espoused his innocence, ended in a mistrial and was front-page news in Pittsburgh and widely covered by syndicated television news programs; Rossi eventually was acquitted of attempted murder but pleaded no contest to a lesser charge.
As a child, Rossi was fascinated with Pittsburgh-based faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman. After one of his father's hospitalizations for manic depression, Rossi landed in a surrogate family led by an evangelist who immersed him in Pentecostal preaching and outreach. After a drug overdose, he became a born-again Christian and toured as a rock and roll preacher, usually in tandem with songwriting partner Johnny Walker, playing gospel rock. He was featured on The 700 Club and in the CBS Evening Magazine documentary Teen's Songs Turn Youth to God. His music from this period was released on the album New Wine (a.k.a. The Kingdom Is Near).
Rossi moved to Lynchburg, Virginia at age 18 to study at Liberty University, where he earned a bachelor's and master's degree in biblical studies. He married his classmate Sherrie Lynn Plaugher on May 11, 1984. In his senior year, he started his first church, "The Fellowship."
His second church, created informally with ministry partner Jack Sims, was called "Matthew's Party," the name taken from the biblical story about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners at the home of Matthew, the gospel writer. In 1986, Rossi started First Love, a charismatic church. He rented movie theaters and showed films as an evangelistic outreach. Dramatic faith healings allegedly occurred. The healing services, called "Healing Clinics," grew from 200 to 2000. Rossi filmed the healings and co-produced a Fox TV documentary on faith healing and exorcism in 1992 entitled Quest for Truth. The program first aired during the fall season on WPGH-TV 53 and WPTT-TV 22.
In 1988, Rossi tried and failed to change both the name of the Church of the Three Rivers and its affiliation. He then joined the Assemblies of God the next year and led the Cranberry church, but left in 1991, saying that his ministry was too radical for the Assemblies; church officials said he left owing several thousand dollars for the church building.
In September 1991, Rossi began broadcasting his nightly radio show Rich Rossi Live on Pittsburgh's WPIT-FM. The program created controversy when Rossi called other evangelical churches "whores" who sell out the gospel for money. Rossi appeared on the Jerry Springer Show in 1994 to discuss faith healing, exorcism, and ESP.
Attempted murder charge
On June 24, 1994, Rossi's wife, Sherrie Lynn, was found near death in a coma on the side of a Pennsylvania road. She had a crushed skull and was left covered in blood; her injuries were so severe that she needed to wear a helmet. Her rescuers thought she had been in a traffic accident, and called for an ambulance. Ninety minutes later, at 8:05 pm, Richard Rossi called police, and claimed that men killed his wife and shot at him twice. But when police came to interview him, his story changed, first claiming that a man that looked like him got into the passenger side of the car, then that the man who looked like him attacked from the driver's side. Rossi had a cellular phone available, but said he pursued the assailant instead of dialing for help because he was a "good runner." Rossi also changed his story on where the assailants approached from, first saying they were in a white car, then that they "came out of the woods out of nowhere." Police testified that Rossi told them a "satanic cult" was trying to frame him; Rossi denies this. Rossi was wearing only a pair of tan shorts when police interviewed him; Rossi claimed that he lost his shirt running through the woods, but did not explain why he was barefoot. Several witnesses reported seeing a man with long hair near the Rossi's cars, and State Police reports suggested the presence of two other cars, one blue and one white.
Ms. Rossi twice testified that her husband attacked her and left her for dead. Sherrie Lynn received an order of protection from a court. But in October 1994, Sherrie withdrew her accusation; a state court judge refused her request to void the order of protection. (Press accounts claimed that Ms. Rossi stated that her attacker might have been a demon in human form, but the Rossis deny she said this.) Sherrie's stepbrother, Mark Plaugher, accused the Rossi family of pressuring her to change her story; her father said she had been "brainwashed," and Sherrie's stepfather, Phil Plaugher, said that church members pressured Sherrie by telling her that it was a sin to testify against one's husband.
Sherrie Rossi testified in the trial that her attacker was a different man with brown eyes and that Rossi's eyes are blue. She said her earlier testimony against Rossi was coerced by police when she was still recovering and did not have a complete recollection, and that her second testimony exonerating her husband came from "flashbacks" and a "fuller complete recollection" of what occurred. Sherrie Rossi said: "We have eyewitnesses who saw a white car similar to ours following us and several family members several weeks before I was attacked. My husband also received a number of threats before I was attacked." Over Rossi's wife's objections, prosecutors charged him with attempted murder and won a court ruling admitting her earlier testimony at trial. The parties argued whether the blood-soaked interior of Rossi's car was consistent with Sherrie's claim. The secretary of Rossi's church testified that Rossi asked him shortly after the incident to forge an alibi. The defense called two witnesses, a church member and Rossi's mother, for a total of a half-hour of testimony; Rossi himself did not testify.
A five-day trial ended in a hung jury, with the vote 9–3 in favor of conviction after six and a half hours of deliberation. Before retrial, Rossi pleaded no contest to a count of second-degree aggravated assault while maintaining his innocence. Though his followers wanted him to fight what his wife called an "assault of justice," Rossi stated he pled nolo contendre to end the ordeal. "One of my many goals is to heal our family and become the best husband and father I can be," Rossi said to the judge. He received a four-to-eight-month sentence in Butler County Jail plus four years probation and required domestic violence counseling; he served 96 days.
Domestic violence workers criticized the short sentence. The Rossis renewed their wedding vows after his release. Rossi wrote an apologetic letter to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette saying: "I repent of the sins I have committed and, with God's help, do not plan to repeat them."
Sherrie Rossi, who had campaigned for her husband's exoneration, sued state and county officials for abridging her civil rights when courts refused to lift a bond restriction forbidding her husband to contact her while he was out on bail; the suit was dismissed by a federal court. In 1996, Sherrie self-published Assault of Justice: The Richard Rossi Mystery, defending her husband and proclaiming his innocence, and claiming that charges were retaliation for exposing police corruption and a satanic cult on his talk radio show. She said eyewitnesses confirmed her husband's innocence and that they had been receiving threats prior to the assault. A press release alleged Rossi was innocent based on physical evidence and the testimony of eyewitnesses. Prosecutors had no physical evidence linking Rossi to the crime.
While charges were pending and Rossi served his sentence, membership in his church dropped from 300 to 12. Media scrutiny of his trials and tribulations revealed Rossi suffered mental health, depression, and addiction issues similar to his father's. Rossi enrolled in a recovery program in jail that he continued after his release, including meetings four days a week, daily monitoring, and treatment in Atlanta.
After his release from jail, Rossi and his wife hosted a free Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless at the Ranch House in Pittsburgh's North Park. Rossi paid for buses to transport urban children out of high-crime areas to the park. Most of the buses got to those wanting to come, but one had difficulty getting to the arranged pick-up due to snow. Native Americans danced and helped Rossi serve dinners to disadvantaged children. Some of his fellow inmates Rossi befriended in jail attended to help serve the poor.
After completing his probation, Rossi relocated to Hollywood with his wife and two children in 1997. He returned to preaching, serving as a pastor and church consultant, and moved into acting and filmmaking to explore his interest in creative and cutting-edge expressions of ministry.
His tenure as pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church was interrupted when parishioners discovered his attempted murder charges and alleged that he had misused church money; litigation ensued, and the parties settled out of court. Rossi's first Hollywood role was in the 1998 short film Jesus 2000. In 1998, he appeared on stage in his own adaptation of Elmer Gantry, which he wrote, produced and starred. His stage performance resulted in an offer to Rossi to play the role in a new film version.
He started "Eternal Grace", a movement of Hollywood house churches for actors and celebrities who had difficulty attending public services due to paparazzi, and also for AIDS victims and others not welcome to attend other churches. He was protested by followers of Fred Phelps from Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, who decried his lenient attitude toward homosexuals. Rossi's wife Sherrie worked with puppets in their children's ministry.
In 2001, Rossi wrote and directed Saving Sister Aimee, a short documentary film about 1920s evangelist Aimee McPherson. Though some considered it a sensationalized depiction, it won the Angel Award from the Southern California Motion Picture Council for best documentary.
In 2005, Rossi revisited Sister Aimee's story in the low-budget feature biographical film Aimee Semple McPherson, featuring Mimi Michaels in the lead and Rance Howard as the preacher's father. A group of Evangelicals offered to invest $2 million in the film, but with conditions that the movie did not depict McPherson's divorce or drug overdose and that the actor playing the lead be a Pentecostal Christian. Rossi turned them down. "By saying no to conditions that religious people put on me, I feel I'm actually of more service to God and people because I make an honest film," he said. In addition to his film work, Rossi acted on stage in plays and musicals to positive reviews, remaining active in the Los Angeles theater community.
Between acting gigs that included numerous guest appearances on TV shows, including The King of Queens, Ally McBeal, The X-Files, JAG, Gilmore Girls and several movies, Rossi appeared as a contestant on Merv Griffin's Crosswords. In addition, Rossi finished his first novel, Stick Man, about a boy growing up in a bohemian household, with an accompanying musical soundtrack, and began working on Baseball's Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories, a film about his childhood hero, baseball great Roberto Clemente, planning a "bicoastal" return to Pittsburgh to premiere his film on Roberto Clemente's birthday, August 18, 2013 before exhibiting the film in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, other cities, small art theaters, Roberto Clemente High School in Chicago, the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina, and on DVD.
The feature film was a labor of love for Rossi and the cadre of actors and technicians who volunteered their time and donated their services to the project. Rossi's telling of Clemente's story of commitment, loyalty, and devotion attempts to provide a counterpoint to today's baseball culture of players suspected of steroid abuse. The dramatic fulcrum of Baseball's Last Hero is a conversation Clemente has with a nun. "She talks to him about the cross. 'Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends,' is what the nun quotes to him from Scripture, talking about sacrificial love and Christ's sacrificial love," Rossi said. "This is the theme I wanted to point out – an allegory of Christ on the cross." Rossi was pressured to delete the scene from the movie for being "too preachy and too Catholic."
The controversial scene turned out to be one of the most popular scenes in the film and won over fans to the idea of pitching the Pope for Clemente's canonization as a saint. Rossi, a former evangelical minister, received several messages of support, including a letter showing papal support from Pope Francis in starting the process from the Vatican through the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington, D.C. and from Archbishop José Horacio Gómez of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. "I've never thought of him in terms of being a saint", said Pirates second baseman Neil Walker, a devout Catholic whose father knew Clemente. "But he's somebody who lived his life serving others, really. So if it would happen, I wouldn't be terribly surprised by it." 
On November 28, 2014, Rossi was in the news again regarding the controversy over the shooting of Michael Brown. Rossi wrote and recorded a protest song expressing his feelings about a grand jury's decision not to charge a white police officer in the death of the unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri. "I wrote the song in five minutes as a way to express my emotions about the danger of trigger-happy police," Rossi said. "I filmed it on my laptop at my kitchen table and uploaded it to YouTube." Rossi uploaded the video on November 26, and provided the song's lyrics in the video description. Here is a sample from the song's beginning, printed in the Los Angeles Daily News: "Down at the courthouse on a Monday afternoon/Justice was thrown right out the window when a young white cop entered the room."
Rossi continues to host his radio talk-show "Richard Rossi Live" as a podcast on BlogTalkRadio. In 2015, the format of the program changed from its Christian roots on WPIT, a Salem Radio Network station, by broadening its content for a general audience. Although Rossi still on occasion discusses religion, the program's focus is on known artists, writers and celebrity guests. Recent guests have included (partial list): Michael Jackson attorney Thomas Mesereau, Elvis Presley fiancée Ginger Alden, Nicole Brown Simpson's youngest sister Tanya Brown, the Harlem Globetrotters, Woodstock performer singer-songwriter Melanie Safka, Charles M. Schultz Peanuts voice-actors, novelist Frank Schaeffer, Walt Disney animator Andrew Ramos, The Bionic Woman and The Incredible Hulk (1978 TV series) creator Kenneth Johnson (producer), Night of the Living Dead screenwriter John A. Russo, researchers from the Smithsonian Institution, Infomercial King Matthew Lesko the Question Mark Man, actors Sherilyn Fenn, Richard Anderson, Lindsay Wagner, Cindy Williams, Dawn Wells, Liz Torres, Sally Kirkland, Kathy Garver, Rance Howard, Karolyn Grimes and Julie Adams.
Following the positive Pittsburgh reception to Rossi's Roberto Clemente project, Rossi said enough time had passed for him and his wife to forgive the media in his hometown for writing untruths about them. Rossi said they were finally coming home, living "bicoastal," maintaining homes in Hollywood and Pittsburgh. "We'd like to spend more time in our home, where most of our family and friends live, in the North Hills of Pittsburgh," Rossi said.
In March, 2016, it was reported that Rossi is in pre-production on his new film Canaan Land, that threatens to expose fake faith healing. On October 17, 2016, it was announced that Claudia Wells, an actress who starred in the 1985 film Back to the Future was cast in the lead role of Sister Sara Sunday. However, as controversy regarding the film grew, the following month the actress "no longer wants her name associated with the controversy," according to a casting associate.
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