NEAL RUBIN

Rubin: Faith tough after “Survivor” competitor's arrest

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

I felt indebted to Mike Skupin, so I sat and listened to him for half an hour while he gushed about his new, completely absurd business venture. I even took notes.

This was after he appeared on “Survivor: The Australian Outback,” which was 2001, and before he was arraigned on 12 felony charges of larceny, racketeering and child pornography, which was last Friday.

It was after he spoke with pride of leading his fellow contestants in the most public possible prayer, and before reporter Rob Wolchek of WJBK-TV (Channel 2) found a place for him in his Hall of Shame.

It was before I started finding it impossible to defend him, even to myself, and before his friends began posting supportive messages on his Facebook page: “Praying for you Mike! I don't believe it! Sounds like a set up!”

It was before I started ruminating on how well you can truly know an acquaintance and how far off course things have to go before people lose faith.

As “Survivor” aired in its second, viewer-obsessed season, Skupin was not supposed to speak to reporters. But he would tell stories to relatives and a close friend, who would re-tell them with his approval so I could write about his experiences away from the show.

Now it was 2002 or 2003. A German scientist, he was explaining, had invented miraculous pellets you could drop in your gas tank to improve your miles per gallon by 40 percent or more.

Skupin claimed he had tried them in his car and they had performed even better than advertised. He was selling them, and wouldn’t I like to write a column about it?

As politely as possible, I declined. If there were actually such a thing as miracle mileage pellets, I reasoned, I would be able to get them at Walgreens, not from a former photocopier salesman best known for over-inhaling smoke and pitching hands-first into a campfire.

I chalked it up to Skupin being Skupin – a blend of well-meaning optimist and irrepressible hustler – and tossed my notes in the trash.

But across time, and across tax liens and traffic stops and excuses for increasingly sketchy behavior, I started to wonder if I should have written about his loopy new job – not in the way he wanted, but as a warning.

Nagging details

It’s important to keep in mind that charges are not convictions.

According to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, Skupin was selling $10,000 shares in a pyramid scheme called Pay It Forward. During the investigation, alarming photos of children were found on his laptop.

Bond was set at $350,000. Supporters, and there are a goodly number online, have set up a defense fund at myevent.com.

Skupin, 54, was airlifted from the second season of “Survivor” and was co-runner-up in the Philippines for the 25th season in 2012.

In a sometimes turbulent decade between appearances, he was mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, and mentioned as well in court filings about unpaid support for what is now seven children across three failed marriages.

A nice guy, I’d tell myself, and anybody can have financial issues. But still: What about that arrest in February 2013, on his way back to White Lake Township from a speaking engagement?

It wasn’t the lack of insurance that made me wince, or even the absence of a valid license after multiple suspensions. It was the plate on his SUV that belonged on a different vehicle.

Then came the Hall of Shame.

Caught in a lie

Wolchek was the first to report on the alleged pyramid scheme, an arrangement in which organizers typically make money and later entrants get fleeced.

“Everything about the guy is deception,” he says.

As Wolchek tracked the story in late 2013, Skupin told him via phone one day that he’d love to talk but he was on the West Coast on business.

“We had a cameraman watching his house,” Wolchek says, “and he told me, ‘The guy just walked out to his mailbox.’”

Finally confronted after a court appearance, the man who once pushed magic mileage pellets claimed the attorney general had approved the current scheme, which was not true.

Then he drove away on his suspended license.

He’s incorrigible, I thought. Charming and relentless, but incorrigible.

Others continue to believe, even after last week’s charges.

“Head high. Stay strong.”

“The measure of the man is his Love for others Not some twisted justice.”

“Isaiah 54:17 ‘No weapon formed against you shall prosper.’”

Maybe they’re right. I certainly hope they’re right about the kids.

Who’s to tell? At this point, I can’t even say I know him.

nrubin@detroitnews.com

@nealrubin_dn