Arkansas Democrat Gazette
October 23, 2008
BY ANDY DAVIS
Alamo denied bail after judge hears of beatings, sex with girls
TEXARKANA — After listening to testimony that Tony Alamo has ordered beatings, taken young girls as wives and controls what an FBI agent described as a “vast,” tightly controlled organization, a federal judge Wednesday ordered the evangelist held without bail pending his trial on sex charges, saying he wanted to “assure the safety of the community” and make sure Alamo doesn’t flee.
The order by U. S. Magistrate Judge Barry Bryant came after a four-hour hearing in federal court in Texarkana on whether Alamo should be released while he awaits trial on charges that he transported a minor across state lines for illegal sexual purposes.
Defense attorneys said the 74-year-old preacher, who suffers from congestive heart failure and diabetes, would pose little threat if he was released, noting that he had complied with the conditions of his supervision after spending four years in prison for federal income tax evasion. Church members testifying on Alamo’s behalf said he took care of all of their needs and would never tell them to lie.
But prosecutors noted that Alamo had eluded authorities for two years before being arrested in Tampa, Fla., on child abuse and tax evasion charges in 1991. They also elicited testimony that he had instructed members to mislead authorities and punished disobedience with beatings.
Last week, an arrest warrant was issued for church member John Kolbeck, whom prosecutors described as Alamo’s “enforcer,” authorities said Wednesday.
Kolbeck is wanted on seconddegree battery charges in the beating of a 17-year-old boy at Alamo’s church in Fort Smith in February, authorities said. They said police have been searching for Kolbeck but have been unable to find him.
During the hearing Wednesday, Arkansas State Police investigators served a search warrant at the compound in Fouke. Authorities said the investigators took samples of blood from the church gymnasium where some of the beatings are alleged to have occurred.
At the hearing, Alamo, wearing tinted glasses and an olivecolored prison uniform, leaned back in his chair as two former church members, including one who said she was one of Alamo’s former wives, testified about life inside his religious organization.
The courtroom gallery was filled with anti-Alamo activists from Fouke, former members of Alamo’s church and several current members, including Alamo’s one acknowledged wife, Sharon Ast Krooph. After one church member, testifying in Alamo’s defense, said that “God works through Pastor Alamo,” church members in the gallery murmured “Amen.” As he was escorted from the courthouse to a car that would take him to the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, Texas, Alamo maintained his innocence.
“Same old persecution, same old lies,” Alamo said. “False statements, persecution — it never ends.” Alamo’s arrest on Sept. 25 came five days after more than 100 state and federal police officers and child protective services officers raided his compound in Fouke, searching for evidence of physical and sexual abuse and evidence that Alamo had taken Polaroid photographs of a naked, underage girl. Six girls, ages 10-17, were taken from the compound and placed in foster care pending hearings on allegations that they were physically or sexually abused.
Special Agent Randall Harris, the FBI’s lead investigator on the case, said Alamo controls businesses and property in southwest Arkansas, Fort Smith, New Jersey and California and has a fleet of 20-30 tractor trailers. The property and businesses are all registered to other church members, but “hardly a penny is spent” without Alamo’s approval, he said.
Alamo was released from prison in December 1998 and paid his $ 250, 000 fine with a series of cashier’s checks in June 1999.
Harris said the search warrant for the September raid was issued on the basis of statements from three girls who alleged abuse, as well as a confidential informant. One of the girls said Alamo had photographed her in “various states of undress” and she had watched pornographic movies with him, Harris testified.
Alamo’s lead attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr., said that is the girl Alamo is accused in an indictment of transporting across state lines for sexual purposes. A criminal complaint, filed under seal, accuses Alamo of having sex with the girl in 2004, when she was 13, and in 2005, when she was 14.
The other two girls also told investigators that Alamo had sex with them, but no charges have been filed in connection with their allegations, Hall said.
Under questioning from another of Alamo’s attorneys, Patrick Benca, Harris said investigators seized a Polaroid camera from Alamo’s house but didn’t find any pornography.
Harris also testified that Alamo has three children by three different women and had been living with several “wives” at his sprawling house in Fouke. The youngest wife is now 20, but Alamo has taken them as young as 10 or 11, Harris testified.
Asked what it means to be a “wife,” Harris said, “That you’re taken care of by him. You travel with him. You have marital relations with him.” But the marriages apparently aren’t legal. Harris said he had found no record that Alamo is legally married to anyone.
Jael Sprinkle, 32, a former member who was born into the church, said she was alone in a room with Alamo on Oct. 15, 1993, when he proclaimed that they were married, making her one of six wives Alamo had at the time. She was 17, and he was 59.
She said she was beaten for wetting the bed and witnessed others being beaten for minor infractions. If questioned by authorities, the wives were instructed to deny that they were married to Alamo or that they had had sex with him, and Alamo ranked them according to how convincingly they could lie, she said.
The wives were told, “This was before the court of Satan, and we were before the court of God, and therefore, the lies did not count.” Church members “are to defend the cause of Christ, whatever that means,” Sprinkle said. “They are to do anything that they must to bring shame and dishonor to those of us who testify against him.” Even from prison, Alamo maintained tight control, receiving reports on church members’ behavior and approving every expenditure, she said. Alamo would call the wives every morning to give instructions to the church and tell them whether they were in favor with God. Sometimes, he ordered them to fast for days, she said.
“It was a daily roller-coaster ride,” Sprinkle said. “We never knew if we were up or down, in heaven or in hell.” Spencer Ondirsek, 18, who was also born into the church, testified that at age 10, his sister went to live in Alamo’s house, and the family believes she became one of his wives.
He said he was beaten by Kolbeck three times at Alamo’s direction. The first time, when he was 12 or 13, Alamo was unhappy that he had been digging tunnels in a pile of dirt at the Fouke compound that he had been instructed to move. The second time, at age 14, he had sprayed another child with Windex while they were playing. Then in October, at age 17, he was accused of “horsing around and beating up kids,” which he denied.
Alamo watched and gave instructions while Kolbeck, who is about 6-foot-4, carried out the beatings, Ondirsek said.
“He’d hit you at least 15 times in the face, until your face was bloodied,” Ondirsek said. Then Kolbeck hit him 30 times with a 3-foot-long, wooden paddle, giving him bruises on the back of his legs.
“It was so hard that I couldn’t sit down for at least a week without feeling pain,” Ondirsek said.
Just before the final beating, Alamo announced, “Here’s Johnny” as he introduced Kolbeck. After Kolbeck was through, Alamo lightly punched Ondirsek in the face a few times.
“He was doing it mockingly, basically,” Ondirsek said, adding that he “almost blacked out” during the last beating, which left him with scars where his teeth had cut the inside of his mouth. He left the church in May, he said.
“I was just scared for my life because I had been beaten so badly,” he said.
Ondirsek said church members worked but did not earn any money aside from “bonuses” of a few hundred dollars each month. All of their purchases had to be approved, and they were not allowed to leave unless accompanied by other church members. They were allowed to watch only television shows approved by Alamo, and they were not allowed to listen to the radio, he said.
Under questioning from Alamo’s attorneys, Ondirsek said Alamo recognized his talent for playing the piano and had paid for him to attend a music school in California, along with Alamo’s son Sion, but Alamo stopped paying for the courses because they disobeyed an order that they attend church every day. But, in her questioning, Assistant U. S. Attorney Kyra Jenner noted that Alamo’s appreciation for his talent didn’t keep him from bruising his hands during the final beating.
Testifying for Alamo, church members Joan and Ron Decker of Fort Smith said the church provides them housing, food and medical care. Joan Decker teaches at one of Alamo’s schools, and Ron Decker drives a truck for a church business, Vantage Food.
“It’s just more wonderful than you could imagine,” Joan Decker said.
She said she wouldn’t obey an order from Alamo unless it was in accordance with the word of God.
Alamo “would never expect anyone to lie,” she said. She said she spanked her own children but wasn’t aware of beatings being administered in the church. Ron Decker said children were paddled, but he wouldn’t say they were beaten.
Alamo’s personal assistant, Angela Morales, also denied that the church administers beatings. She said she lives in Alamo’s house along with several other women, but she said they sleep in separate bedrooms and are not Alamo’s wives.
“I’ve heard the same rumors, and they’re not true,” she said.