Oct. 5 2005 12:00 AM

How James Hartline became Hillcrest's most notorious Christian soldier

Flies and waitresses buzz around the booth as a pair of well-groomed young men glare at James Hartline from a few tables away. Hartline either doesn't notice their stares or he doesn't care. He's used to dirty looks, and, besides, he's too caught up in expressing his desire to stamp out prostitution on El Cajon Boulevard, the bustling thoroughfare just beyond the windowpane.

From his seat inside Coco's restaurant, Hartline points out where streetwalkers-many of them teenagers-troll for Johns in the shadow of the North Park water tower. He identifies a nearby budget motel and a strip club that he believes contribute to, and profit from, prostitution. Hartline has tried unsuccessfully in the past to bring attention to the issue, but with upcoming meetings scheduled with City Attorney Mike Aguirre and the San Diego Police Department, he's finally gaining some traction.

Hartline acts out of genuine concern for those young women-he claims to have been the victim of both underage prostitution and child abuse-but confronting those issues is only part of Hartline's larger, “God-given” mission “to remove the wicked places in San Diego.”

It's Hartline's tactics and successes related to that larger mission that have earned him the icy stares from across the room. Indeed, the current incarnation of James Hartline-gaunt features, sunken eyes, fair skin, thinning red hair and slightly effeminate mannerisms-isn't an intimidating figure, but it is a polarizing one.

A convicted felon and born-again Christian, Hartline, 47, renounced the life he led for 33 years as a homosexual shortly after he was diagnosed with HIV in 1997. Although he has started taking medication, he believes God will one day cure him of AIDS. Moreover, he has turned against the gay community and has spent the last five years leading an increasingly vocal and effective crusade to close gay bathhouses and shutter adult bookstores in San Diego.

Along the way, he has taken shots at gay-friendly community organizations, individuals and events, as well as anything else that he feels falls short of being truly Christian, creating controversy in a series of high-profile confrontations.

Hartline almost literally brought Hillcrest's annual Pride festival to a halt in July when he informed the media that several of the event's volunteers were convicted sex offenders. Prior to that, Hartline managed to convince Bishop Robert Brom to deny a Catholic funeral to John McCusker, a local philanthropist and the owner of two gay nightclubs. That touched off a firestorm that ended with Brom wavering under public pressure and Hartline lashing back-he called the bishop “totally spineless” and played for reporters some telephone-message recordings of Brom pleading for Hartline's understanding and forgiveness.

Before interjecting himself into the McCusker issue, Hartline made life difficult for Naturally California, a local nudist group that had scheduled members-only events at a North County pool and a roller-skating rink. Hartline objected to the presence of children, and the parties were canceled.

It's an impressive amount of havoc for one man to wreak in less than a year.

He's also blasted Republican leaders and candidates who, he says, don't share his Christian morals, calling them corrupt. At one point, he even left his own church for several years because its leaders weren't interested in helping him minister to gay youth in Hillcrest.

Hartline has managed to stir up this much trouble by appealing to likeminded individuals via his e-mail newsletter, which he says goes out to 4,600 recipients in the U.S. and Canada. It helps that he has a knack for digging up dirt and is media-savvy, but that's not what has some in the gay community sweating Hartline.

“Honestly, in my 40 years I have not met a [man like] Hartline,” says Nicole Murray-Ramirez, a gay-community activist. “He's a guy that admits that he used to do drugs, he admits he used to go to bathhouses, he admits he used to be gay, he admits that he got HIV.... He knows our community inside and out. He knows how to exploit and exaggerate things, how to take things out of context.

“We have dealt with the religious right, radicals, militants, the American Nazis-we have dealt with all of them. We have never in San Diego-and I have been here 40 years-dealt with a Hartline. He's one of the most dangerous.”

A true enemy from within, Hartline has managed to generate all of this trouble while living in Hillcrest, in the midst of those he despises most and just blocks away from the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, the hub of San Diego's gay community.

That's why Hartline is a regular at Coco's. It has a wholesome feel. He knows some of the waitresses from church, and it provides him refuge from the neighborhood he finds so offensive, where he often doesn't feel safe walking the streets. The restaurant is also where he takes reporters when they come calling.

When the waitress arrives to take his order, Hartline picks an item that's brand new to the menu of bland American standards. Possibly a demonstration of the deleterious effect that nearly 20 years of eating prison food has had on his taste buds, or maybe a measure of his unyielding faith in God, Hartline orders the fillet of cod.

Love or hate James Hartline, the story of how he came to be the man he is today is a fascinating one. Hartline says he doesn't like rehashing it, but he's had plenty of practice over the years, telling his tale to judges, psychologists, clergy, cellmates, fellow congregants and reporters, all wanting to know his motivation.

During interviews with CityBeat Hartline was cooperative, honest and detailed, though he showed little emotion when recounting his sordid past. Much of what he didn't touch on can be gleaned from the generous paper trail generated by a decades-long criminal career. Court transcripts, some of his own letters from prison and psychological evaluations are all part of the public record and shed additional light on the history of a man who has simultaneously endured, and been the source of, so much suffering.

Born in Bakersfield in 1958, James Donald Hartline is the second oldest son in a working-class family. Two younger sisters would eventually join him, his older brother and his parents in what has never been-at least for James-a happy family.

Hartline says his parents weren't religious but kept a large white Bible on the coffee table and attended church a few times a year. Court documents show that he has alleged that his mother, a nurse's aide, abused him from an early age, administering regular beatings that his father, a contractor, failed to stop. Today he has a small scar on the back of his head, a memento, he says, from when his mother pushed him, just a toddler, through a glass shower door.

According to a 1990 psychological evaluation that's part of his court file, Hartline claims his mother often looked through his personal belongings, and both parents showed his siblings favoritism. At age 6 he began stealing from their piggy banks, something that he said “turned into a horrible compulsion.”

At the same time, he became sexually active. He told a psychologist that he found his father's “huge mountain of pornography. And I read that stuff from age 6 on up.... I've been homosexual since I [was] 6 years old.”

He told a doctor, “I was always embarrassed and ashamed as a child. My parents never acknowledged my homosexual feelings and the problems I had. They swept everything under the rug.”

These days, Hartline doesn't believe that homosexuality is a genetic trait; he attributes his past sexual orientation to his father's neglect and an early exposure to pornography.

According to the evaluations, his parents tried to curb his behavior with punishment but ended up placing the fourth grader in a foster home for several months after he continued stealing and looking at porn.

In 1969, the family moved to Chicago and two years later to Carson City, Nev. That's where Hartline, 13, received his first jail sentence, serving 30 days after he says his parents turned him in for stealing cash. He started running away from home, and was arrested for a burglary and placed on probation.

By 14, according to evaluations, Hartline started prostituting himself to older men in shopping-mall restrooms.

“I spent hours and hours waiting there to pick guys up,” he told a psychologist.

A judge eventually sent him to the Nevada state children's home where he was charged with another burglary and sent to the Nevada Youth Training Center until age 17.

Despite his tumultuous teenage years, Hartline says he managed to graduate from high school with a 3.5 grade-point average, but, because of his troubled home life, he lacked the social skills to get along with other kids. “I paid a terrible price for the terrible things [my parents] did to me when I was a child,” he told a doctor, according a 1990 evaluation. “I'm the one who has been locked up forever. ”

Hartline would spend nearly 20 of the next 24 years of his life behind bars.

“Mr. Hartline's compulsive burglary appears an imitation of what he believed to be his mother's unfair rummaging in his room and also a continuation of his stealing from his siblings' piggy banks because he believed his siblings received preferential parental treatment,” a psychologist would write years later.

But if Hartline's family has been the cause of much of his troubles, then it seems he has returned the favor.

His brother, Doug Hartline, currently a professor at UC Davis, told CityBeat he hasn't seen or heard from James in more than three years and wasn't interested in talking about him.

“He's posed a lot of challenges for the family, so it is highly unlikely that anyone is going to want to comment,” he said.

After graduating from high school in 1976, Hartline says he stole some money and ran off to San Francisco, where he was arrested in short order for burglary and sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years' probation. That offense began a six-year period during which Hartline bounced between Nevada and California, committing multiple burglaries and serving more than five years' prison time between the two states.

During one of his trials, a Nevada judge, after much hand wringing, summed up the difficulty of dealing with Hartline-an apparently intelligent 18-year-old who, records show, had dabbled in drugs (including PCP), lied compulsively (even in court) and had psychiatric issues.

“It's not a case of sending him to prison, because he has to go to prison, and that is where I want him to go,” the judge said, according to a court transcript. “It's a case of sending him there because there is nothing else to do with him.”

During his ensuing incarceration Hartline's psychological problems took a severe turn. He attempted suicide on numerous occasions and spent several years in the prison psychiatric ward.

Hartline was paroled in 1982 and made his way to San Diego. Along the way, he overdosed on ecstasy-the drug-during a sexual encounter in Oakland and was rushed to the emergency room. He then went to visit his parents in Bakersfield but stayed for only two days. He hasn't seen them since.

After arriving in Ocean Beach, Hartline started stealing again and snorting cocaine. He eventually moved into the Berkshire Motel on El Cajon Boulevard, one of the same establishments he's targeting today. That's where he says he made friends with a hooker and talked her into accompanying him on a burglary. But his new friend ratted him out to the cops.

That arrest began an 18-year period during which Hartline served four more prison terms lasting approximately 12 years. It was a time marked by Hartline's increasingly risky behavior: intravenous use of crystal methamphetamine and unsafe sex with multiple partners. His health deteriorated both physically and mentally. But this time was also marked by his growing spirituality, which features no definitive “come-to-Jesus moment” but, rather, a long struggle for redemption peppered with relapses.

In a 1982 psychiatric report written shortly after Hartline returned to prison and attempted suicide, a doctor diagnosed him with an antisocial-personality disorder and severe depression. He also noted that Hartline “has no religious denomination but believes in God.”

Paroled in 1984, Hartline started injecting a mix of cocaine and methamphetamine and says he was “basically stealing to exist.” Then another burglary arrest. According to the police report, Hartline claimed to be a police informant and, although he has no recollection of the job today, a “freelance dancer and exercise instructor.”

Seven months and another attempted burglary charge later, Hartline reported his spiritual awakening to a doctor charged with determining whether he was mentally competent to stand trial.

“They offered me five years in prison if I pled guilty, but since I was in jail I accepted Christ. I'm a born-again Christian. I believe in the second coming and that it is at hand, so I didn't want to spend five years in prison....

“It's a matter of me trusting in God to deliver me from bondage. He wants me to preach his word, I think.”

Deemed to be “of average or above average intelligence” and able to stand trial, Hartline received a nearly nine-year prison sentence. Behind bars, he says, he became a “pornography pimp,” providing his fellow inmates with explicit magazines while regularly attending church. A fight over an unpaid porn debt resulted in Hartline's transfer to Folsom State Prison, a “negative environment” he described in a 1989 letter to Judge Norbert Ehrenfreund, the man who sent him to prison.

“I truly praise the Lord for His protection and divine intervention on my behalf since arriving at Folsom Prison,” Hartline wrote. “This is indeed the most corrupt and evil place I have ever known, and it has taken total obedience and faith in the Word of God, on my behalf, to survive this experience.”

Judge Ehrenfreund saw potential in Hartline and helped him secure early release from Folsom through a work-furlough program and a job in the mailroom at a friend's San Diego insurance company. But shortly after starting his new job, Hartline began abusing drugs again and stopped showing up to work.

More suicide attempts. Two additional burglary charges.

Hartline, then 32, told a psychologist that he believed he was being followed and that people about whom he had given the police information were out to kill him. His offenses earned him a six-year term, which he says he served partly in a state mental hospital.

Throughout his prison career, Hartline was, for the most part, a model prisoner. According to his supervisors' written reports, he performed his work assignments with uncommon enthusiasm and skill. He says he avoided drugs and was in good physical shape, jogging 15 miles a day in the prison exercise yard and running competitively. Sexually he was free, engaging in regular homosexual encounters with other inmates.

But it was life beyond the prison walls that Hartline couldn't handle. When he was on the outside, he says, he turned into a “meth monster,” using drugs to facilitate sex.

According to one psychological evaluation, “When asked his motivation to abuse ‘crystal' he stated he was visiting bathhouses, and that ‘crystal' allowed him to experience pleasure and sexually degrading settings.”

“The weird thing is that in prison I did not use any drugs,” Hartline told a doctor. “As soon as I got out I started drugs.... I was using dirty needles and went unprotected in sex. It was if I wanted to get AIDS.”

In December 1997, released from lockup, Hartline, still suicidal, visited a bathhouse where he believes he was intentionally infected with HIV-a death sentence that in many ways has set him free.

He rented an apartment, started volunteering at a facility for HIV patients and tried to make amends with those he had previously harmed. He says he made a concerted effort to stop having sex with men and brought his Bible to bed instead.

But there would be one last relapse before Hartline was able to escape the prison of his past.

On New Year's Eve 2000, Hartline and a friend went to see The Green Mile, a prison movie. Hartline left early and went to the bathhouse, where he embarked on a 10-day meth binge, which ended with him being sent back to jail on a parole violation for 60 days.

That's where he says he ended up sharing a cell with his future self, an older man convicted of arson on his third strike and serving a life sentence. The man was delusional and dying of AIDS, but Hartline says he decided to endure him rather than request a new cellmate and risk the possibility of a sexual encounter.

“It's just like something broke in me, in the fact that I made that mental, conscious decision to endure that guy for 60 days,” he says.

At the end of his term, he was released on parole, which he completed later in 2000.

He has no intention of going back.

James Hartline has come a long way from that New Year's Eve in 2000.

It's Sept. 23, 2005, and, accompanied by two other concerned citizens, he's sitting in City Attorney Mike Aguirre's office dressed in a gray suit and lavender tie. Hartline accepted Aguirre's invitation to discuss underage prostitution on El Cajon Boulevard mindful that he doesn't agree with the liberal city attorney on many issues-but he's cautiously optimistic that they can work together.

Aguirre shuffles papers, consults with his underlings and makes a few brief calls as Hartline articulately explains his concerns and proposes ideas to stem the trade of flesh in North Park. As he speaks, there's no hint of James Hartline the convicted felon. No trace of the meth monster.

Knowing the trials of Hartline's past, it's easy to marvel at the progress he's made, to see his meeting with Aguirre as a legitimizing moment. It's also easy to lose track of what he has become.

In Hartline's view, his past is proof that he can live through anything; it's also the source of his authority on all things homosexual. It's because of his experiences that he says he knows there is an evil conspiracy afoot in Hillcrest-an organized effort among homosexuals to lure individuals into the gay lifestyle, drugs, prostitution, and pornography, and to intentionally spread the AIDS virus.

“There is a whole network of this very dark criminal activity going on in this neighborhood,” Hartline says. “So here I come along, and I'm effective at exposing this stuff and beginning to shine a light on bathhouses and stuff and what's the first thing that comes out of [Nicole Murray] Ramirez' mouth? ‘Well, he's kind of dangerous.'

“Well you know why? Because I know all of these people and what's going on.

“You need to understand when people are saying stuff about me, they have an agenda and it's more than just...being for civil rights and they think I'm against it.... It's because they have deep, dark secrets that I'm on the brink of bringing to light, and when the media is establishing me as a reliable source, then they know there's a possibility that some of the stuff they have been up to could be exposed.”

Hartline's firebug cellmate may have provided him with a cold dose of reality, but it's a different kind of fire starter who deserves the credit for giving him his first media exposure and a taste of the power he wields today. Hartline says it was radio talk-show host and former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock who opened his eyes to the possibilities of Christian activism roughly four years ago.

It happened when Hartline quit his job bagging groceries at a Hillcrest supermarket after his boss, who he says claimed to be a Christian, made a donation to a lesbian-pride organization. Hartline called Hedgecock and was invited to tell his story on the air.

It took several years for Hartline to fully capitalize on the experience. He started slow-even before the Hedgecock show-educating himself about the laws governing adult businesses and pornography in San Diego and filing complaints. He also dreamed up an idea to start his own Christian outreach organization called the Hillcrest Mission with the hope of someday opening The Prophet's Lounge, a Christian coffee shop, in the heart of Hillcrest.

But Hartline says he truly found his niche about a year and a half ago, when he started distributing an e-mail newsletter called “The James Hartline Report.” On disability because of his illness, writing and researching have become fulltime activities.

In its first incarnation “The James Hartline Report” was rather crude, just an e-mail urging a small audience of likeminded individuals to attend meetings and put pressure on city officials. Over time, his e-mail list has grown to include thousands, and Hartline has broadened his scope, taking on a variety of issues but never straying far from topics related to homosexuality.

Today, Hartline typically produces several newsletters a week and his writing tends to be melodramatic and full of woe. He quotes scripture and refers to himself-the hero in most of his writings-in the third person while presenting his readers with shocking conclusions drawn from questionable evidence. Of course, headlines like “The day the sun went black in San Diego,” “The death chambers of San Diego's bathhouses” and “Schwarzenegger reveals anti-Christian bigotry” don't exactly imply restraint.

Hartline has received lots of media exposure in the years since his interview with Hedgecock. Although he says he's not interested in media attention, he has started issuing press releases and clearly realizes-and has effectively leveraged-the power of the press. Conservative Internet sites like World Net Daily and religious publications like Jim Holman's Catholic San Diego News Notes (Holman also publishes The Reader) have championed Hartline, and his exploits have also been covered by general-interest media, including local television stations, the Union-Tribune and CityBeat.

During the past year, Hartline has also ratcheted up his criticism of politicians he deems to be corrupt or hypocritical due to their stances on a variety of so-called “moral issues.”

Hartline, a Republican, has found fertile ground in his local party, chastising Republican officials for endorsing other pro-choice Republicans, blasting local party leaders for meeting with a gay Republican group and alleging corruption when the local party voted to endorse millionaire Steve Francis over motorcycle dealer Myke Shelby before this year's mayoral primary election.

Leo Giovinetti, Hartline's pastor at Mission Valley Christian Fellowship said he has a sense of what fuels Hartline's passion.

“I've had a good chance to get to know him and I believe the reason he is so intense is because he realizes he has full-blown AIDS and could die at anytime,” Giovinetti said in a voicemail message. “And so he's trying to live his life as fervently and as much in the truth of the Bible as he possibly can.

“I've seen God use him in mighty ways, and yet he's just a human being who has feelings and the same struggles as anybody else does.”

But not all of Hartline's struggles are pedestrian. In some e-mails, like those titled “When rainbows collide: my personal battle against the gay Goliath” and “Breaking news: immune system recovery for James Hartline is miracle,” he chronicles his own story.

In others, Hartline, who believes he is a prophet tasked with setting the stage for a San Diego-based spiritual revival that will sweep the nation and draw sinners to do God's work, interprets his own dreams.

“The Lord has shown me prophetically things that are coming in the future,” he says. “He has shown me things that are going on spiritually that I am dealing with. He has shown me my enemies.”

The existence of those enemies and people who are out to do him physical harm are other regular themes in Hartline's writings, fears which seem to bubble up from his past. Hartline is particularly worried about “radical gay activists” who he says want to kill him.

Hartline also has a pattern of targeting an individual or group and then claiming that he's the one being attacked when they respond. At the same time, Hartline faults gay activists for giving “the perception to the culture that they are victims.”

“They always say that,” Hartline says. “You can only cry wolf so many times before you lose your credibility.”

So far, the gay community's response to Hartline has been largely reactionary, acknowledging his presence only when he lands a serious blow.

HillQuest, a website focusing on the Hillcrest neighborhood, features a page of Hartline-related press clippings called “The James Hartline Watch.” HillQuest's editors declined to comment on Hartline, but, according to the website's own numbers, there are plenty of people watching. This year, “James Hartline” ranked third among the site's top 20 most common search strings, outdoing queries like “Hillcrest,” “Hillquest” and “Bonnie Dumanis.”

Experts warn against ignoring or dismissing people like Hartline. At CityBeat's request, Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which has monitored hate groups for the past 30 years and recently published a study of the religious right's anti-gay activism, reviewed a sample of Hartline's writings and says he believes Hartline poses a threat to the community.

“This man engages in a series of what are essentially lies,” Potok said. “It is false that ‘homosexual activists are intentionally spreading the AIDS virus,' [and] to describe gay people as a ‘bunch of rebellious child molesters' is an invitation to hate crime. I'm sure that Hartline will deny that with all of his heart, but the fact is when religious leaders make these kinds of statements young angry men in the community tend to see them as authorization for violence.”

Potok points out that, in America, gay men are the single most physically attacked subpopulation and says the community should face Hartline head on.

“He's an extremist-or at least he makes extremist statements,” Potok says. “The correct strategy is to isolate these people and separate them from the mainstream,” he says.

To isolate Hartline, Potok suggests keeping close track of any false statements he makes and use his own words to discredit him. “But you have to be squeaky clean on all of this-you can't exaggerate and you absolutely have to tell the truth,” he says. “From a community or gay-activist point of view, there's always a danger of over-responding as well, too.”

Hartline brushes of Potok's criticism as another attack from an enemy with a “leftist, socialist, anti-Christian viewpoint” and says he's not like other radical groups who simply hate gays-because his message is Biblical.

“These people who attack me they don't really understand that there is nothing that they are going to say, there is nothing that they are going to do, to make me move from what God has told me to do,” Hartline says. “It's just not going to happen, and I'm willing to die for what God has told me to do.”


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