7/13/09 – NWA: Alamo to begin trial on charges of transporting minors for sex

NWA News
July 13, 2009

Alamo to begin trial on charges of transporting minors for sex

On the eve of Tony Alamo’s trial on child sexual abuse charges, the flowers on his church’s lush, terraced front lawn bloomed in bright yellows and oranges, deep purples and soft pinks and lavenders.

For a while, the flowers had looked a bit dried out – like everyone else’s in Fouke. But for the past week or so, ministry members have been laboring to spruce them up.

“It is just beautiful,” said Mary Coker, a Fouke resident and anti-Alamo activist. “They have been working in the heat of the day for about a week. They know the media’s coming.”

With its pastor behind bars, many of its members in hiding, and 36 ministry children in foster care, the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries is down but not out.

In a trial that begins today, Alamo’s third since he founded the ministry four decades ago, the evangelist hopes to avoid a conviction that could send him to prison for life.

His lead defense attorney, Don Ervin of Houston, promises a vigorous defense.

“The whole idea here, and what every trial is about, is seeking the truth,” Ervin said. “I believe the truth is that this just did not happen.”

Prosecutors accuse Alamo, 74, of sexually abusing children and having multiple wives while supervising a ministry with businesses and property in Arkansas, Oklahoma, California and New Jersey. Former members from across the country are flying in to testify about their experiences.

Alamo is charged with 10 counts of violating the federal Mann Act, which makes it a crime to transport a minor across state lines for “sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense.” Violations of the law are punishable by 10 years to life in prison.

According to the indictment, the charges involve interstate trips with five girls from March 1994 through October 2005. Prosecutors said in a court filing last week that Alamo took some of the girls as brides.

One trip, in the spring of 1994, was to West Virginia and back while Alamo was preparing for his trial that year on tax evasion charges. Another was to a trial in Memphis in which Alamo was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. He was released in 1998, after serving four years.

In preparation for his trial in Texarkana, which is expected to last two weeks, court officials have summoned a pool of 240 potential jurors, double the number for a typical criminal trial.

Today, U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes will question members of the jury pool to determine whether they are qualified to serve. For instance, some potential jurors may have physical conditions or scheduling conflicts that would prevent them from serving, said Chris Johnson, U.S. District Clerk for the Western District of Arkansas.

Tuesday, it will be the prosecutors’ and defense attorneys’ turn to question the potential jurors as the pool is narrowed to the 12 who will decide Alamo’s fate. Attorney Chris Plumlee said he expects the prosecution and defense to give opening statements by Wednesday.

To provide security and take Alamo to the courthouse from the jail and back, the U.S. marshal’s service has brought in extra deputy marshals from Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and the eastern half of Arkansas, said Johnny Larkin, judicial security inspector for the U.S. Marshals Service for the Western District of Arkansas.

“We’re doing what we normally do on a high-profile trial like this,” Larkin said. He added, “As of right now, we haven’t received any threats.”

Alamo has denied having multiple wives, but prosecutors said in a court filing that they expect to call witnesses who will contradict that claim. They also expect “significant evidence” on Alamo’s view that the Bible does not prohibit polygamy. Witnesses will also testify about Alamo’s sexual relationships with other women and girls besides the ones named in the indictment, prosecutors said.

Ervin has asked Barnes to keep the jury from hearing that testimony, saying it would unfairly prejudice the jury against Alamo.

In a phone interview last week, Ervin said he didn’t know whether Alamo will take the stand.

“There’s just no way to know that at this point,” Ervin said. “There are many considerations as far as that’s concerned, and that’s just one of those things that you just have to determine when the time comes.”

In addition to the former members who will testify, more than a dozen former members are coming from as far away as Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to watch the trial and show their support for the alleged victims.

Among them is Claudia Kochistringov of San Antonio, who remembers baby-sitting some of the girls Alamo is accused of abusing.

“I can’t wait to see justice served,” said Kochistringov, 62, who belonged to the ministry for 21 years. “It’s been an awfully long time that he’s been doing a lot of dirty work, looking like such an innocent little lamb when he’s actually such a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Coker, founder of a group known as Partnered Against Cult Activity, plans to be at the trial, too. Since 2006, her group has been spreading the word about Alamo’s teachings and allegations that children in the ministry had been abused.

“We feel like this is an evil man,” Coker said. “He would like for people to believe that it’s about his religious beliefs, his practice of religion, and it’s our hope that jurors will see it for what it really is.”

Alamo’s message, carried on religious pamphlets left on car windshields throughout the country, is a mix of fire-and-brimstone Christianity and rage against what he sees as a Catholic conspiracy responsible for everything from World War II to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Alamo has also said the Bible teaches that girls are old enough to be married when they begin menstruating, although he says he does not allow underage marriages in his church.

On the ministry’s Web site,, followers express defiance about the charges against its pastor, whom they consider a prophet.

“You have to decide who you’re going to believe – this government which has already been proven to be socialistic and communistic, or Pastor Alamo who is teaching you the truth,” a message on the Web site says. “Either you believe Pastor Alamo or the homosexual Pope.”

Alamo founded the church with his then-wife Susan in Hollywood, Calif., in the late 1960s. The ministry later expanded to Arkansas and Nashville, Tenn., attracting hundreds of followers who worked in ministry-owned businesses, including one that designed and marketed a line of elaborately decorated denim jackets worn by the likes of Dolly Parton and James Brown.

Susan Alamo died in 1982. In the years that followed, the church suffered a number of setbacks, including the loss of its tax-exempt status in 1985 and the seizure of church property to settle tax debts and a civil judgment in the early 1990s. A fugitive for two years before being arrested in Tampa, Fla., in 1991, Alamo was acquitted of threatening U.S. District Judge Morris “Buzz” Arnold in September of that year. But three years later, he was convicted of a felony count of filing a false federal income tax return, along with three misdemeanor counts of failing to file a return, and was sentenced to six years in prison.

While in prison, former members say, Alamo continued directing the operations of the ministry, and he had begun rebuilding it even before his release in 1998. Then, last September, the compound in Fouke was raided by more than 100 FBI agents, Arkansas State Police officers and child welfare case workers investigating allegations that ministry children had been physically and sexually abused. Six girls were taken into protective custody that evening. The state Department of Human Services has since taken 30 more, saying they were endangered by practices that include allowing underage marriages and punishing violations of church rules with beatings.

With the children gone, Coker said, she saw little activity at the compound for a while. Then she saw a few members working in the flower beds. On Saturday evening, when she went to get groceries at the Wal-Mart in Texarkana, the parking lot was blanketed with Alamo pamphlets for the first time in about two months.

Ervin said that Alamo, who has been jailed without bail for more than nine months, remains in charge of the ministry, which he said is “doing fine.”

“I think it would be stronger if he were out of jail and with them, but they’re carrying on just fine,” Ervin said. “He’s still their leader, and they have great confidence in him.”

At the Fouke compound Sunday, a church member wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat pruned the ornamental bushes in front of Alamo’s sprawling brick house, while another member, wearing a black T-shirt and shorts and a Starbucks baseball cap, walked up and down the street.

“Nobody wants to talk to you,” the man in the baseball cap said.

Inside the church cafeteria, in the former Big Stop grocery store, the few church members who had gathered didn’t want to talk, either. They did say the church was not having its usual afternoon service but would be having the evening service. A reporter would not be allowed to attend, church members said.

Fouke Mayor Terry Purvis said that, if Alamo is convicted, he would like to see him get the maximum punishment allowed. Until then, he’s reserving judgment on what should happen to the church, even though many other residents have already made up their minds.

“Do they still follow the same doctrine that he preaches, that it’s OK to do this kind of stuff? That’s the big question on everybody’s minds,” Purvis said. If the answer is yes, he said, “we’d just as soon not have it here.”

In: 2009 - (Trial year)

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