A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is the guy who held up those "John 3:16" signs at sports events in jail for life?

November 7, 1997

Dear Cecil:

Recently on your America Online site you posted your old column about Rock'n Rollen Stewart, the guy who used to hold up those "John 3:16" signs at sports events. You may be interested to know that Stewart is now serving a life sentence in jail.

Cecil replies:

Yipes. I lost track of Rollen after talking to him in 1987. At the time he struck me, and I'd say most people, as a harmless if obsessed flake. Shows how wrong you can be. A few years later Stewart went completely off his nut, staged a series of bombings, and wound up in prison after a bizarre kidnapping stunt. The whole story is told in The Rainbow Man/John 3:16, a new documentary by San Francisco filmmaker Sam Green. If you doubt that too much TV is bad for you, you won't after seeing this flick.

Stewart's problems started during his childhood in Spokane, Washington. His parents were alcoholics. His father died when Rollen was seven. His mother was killed in a house fire when he was 15. That same year his sister was strangled by her boyfriend. A shy kid, Rollen got into drag racing in high school, married his first love, and opened a speed shop. But his wife soon left him. Crushed, he sold the shop and moved to a mountain ranch where he became a marijuana farmer, tried to grow the world's longest mustache, and watched a lot of TV.

In 1976, looking for a way to make his mark, Rollen conceived the idea of becoming famous by constantly popping up in the background of televised sporting events. Wearing a multicolored Afro wig (hence the nickname "Rainbow Man"), he'd carry a battery-powered TV to keep track of the cameras, wait for his moment, then jump into the frame, grinning and giving the thumbs-up. Rollen figured he'd be able to parlay his underground (OK, background) celebrity into a few lucrative TV gigs and retire rich. But except for one Budweiser commercial, it didn't happen.

Feeling depressed after the 1980 Super Bowl, he began watching a preacher on the TV in his hotel room and found Jesus. He began showing up at TV events wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Jesus Saves"-type slogans and various Bible citations, most frequently John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son," etc.). Later accompanied by his wife, a fellow Christian he married in the mid-80s, he spent all his time traveling to sports events around the country, lived in his car, and subsisted on savings and donations. He guesses he was seen at more than a thousand events all told.

This brings us to the late 80s. By now Rollen had gotten his 15 minutes of fame and was the target of increasing harassment by TV and stadium officials. His wife left him, saying he had choked her because she held up a sign in the wrong location. His car was totaled by a drunk driver, his money ran out, and he wound up homeless in LA. Increasingly convinced that the end was near, Rollen decided to create a radically different media character. He set off a string of bombs in a church, a Christian bookstore, a newspaper office, and several other locations. Meanwhile he sent out apocalyptic letters that included a hit list of preachers, signing the letters "the Antichrist." Rollen says he wanted to call attention to the Christian message, and while this may seem like a sick way to go about it, it wasn't much weirder than waving signs in the end zone at football games. In any case, no one was hurt in the bombings, which mostly involved stink bombs.

On September 22, 1992, believing the Rapture was only six days away and having prepared himself by watching TV for 18 hours a day, Stewart began his last "presentation." Posing as a contractor, he picked up two day laborers in downtown LA, then drove to an airport hotel. Taking the men up to a room, he unexpectedly walked in on a chambermaid. In the confusion that followed he drew a gun, the two men escaped, and the maid locked herself in the bathroom. The police surrounded the joint, and Rollen demanded a three-hour press conference, hoping to make his last national splash. He didn't get it. After a nine-hour siege the cops threw in a concussion grenade, kicked down the door, and dragged him away.

About to be given three life sentences for kidnapping, Rollen threw a tantrum in the courtroom and now blames everything on a society that's "bigoted toward Jesus Christ." A cop who negotiated with him by phone during the hotel standoff had a better take on it: "With all due respect, maybe you look at a little bit too much TV." For info on the Rainbow Man documentary, write Sam Green, 2437 Peralta St., suite C, Oakland, CA 94607.

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