7/25/09 – Tony Alamo says he’s another prophet going ‘to jail for the Gospel’

NWA News
July 25, 2009

Alamo guilty, hears ‘bye, bye’ outside court


A jury Friday found evangelist Tony Alamo guilty on 10 counts of taking underage girls across state lines for sex, a verdict that prosecutors said will mean he will likely be sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Wearing a gray suit and tie and his signature dark glasses, the 74-year-old ministry leader stood stone-faced as U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes read the verdict finding him guilty on each charge of a federal indictment.

Afterward, Alamo’s five accusers, who testified that they were pressured to become Alamo “wives” and were sexually abused at ages as young as 8, smiled, cried and hugged one another and their supporters.

The verdict brought the victims, now ages 17 to 30, a “huge sense of relief,” assistant U.S. attorney Kyra Jenner said.

“For so long, Tony Alamo taught them you don’t matter. You don’t count. I’m in control here,” Jenner said. “This verdict told the girls that they counted, they mattered and that their voices were being heard.”

Before getting into a car Friday that would take him to a Texarkana, Texas, lockup, Alamo said, “I’m just another one of the prophets that went to jail for the Gospel.”

In the indictment, Alamo – who was born Bernie Lazar Hoffman – was accused of violating the Mann Act, a federal criminal statute enacted in 1910 to stop interstate trafficking of women. Alamo was accused of taking girls on trips across state lines for sex from March 1994 through October 2005.

During the nearly two-week trial in U.S. District Court in Texarkana, witnesses told jurors that Alamo had sexually abused them and kept them under his strict control at his house at the ministry’s compound in Fouke, about 15 miles south of Texarkana, along with other girls and women he had taken as wives.

Alamo’s defense team focused on the purpose of the trips, saying the trips were made for church business or other reasons besides sex. Although he initially indicated that he would testify, Alamo did not take the witness stand during his trial.

Barnes is to sentence Alamo in about two months, after completion of a report by the federal probation office. The evangelist faces up to 30 years on each of three counts, up to 15 years on each of three others and up to 10 years on each of the remaining four counts. Barnes could order the sentences to run all at the same time or back to back. Alamo also faces fines of up to $250,000 on each count.

In setting the sentence, Barnes will take Alamo’s criminal history – including a conviction for income-tax evasion in 1994 – into account, Jenner said.

“We believe he will spend the rest of his natural life in prison,” she said.

Alamo’s lead defense attorney, Don Ervin of Houston, blamed the verdict on the “sympathy and prejudice that developed during the trial.” He said he will request a new trial and, if that fails, will file an appeal.

“The evidence is legally insufficient on all counts,” Ervin said. “I’m disappointed the jury didn’t follow the law.”

Jurors, who parked at the Texarkana Regional Airport and were bused to the courthouse each day, deliberated for more than 10 hours, including all day Thursday and for two hours Friday before delivering their verdict at 10:30 a.m.

Jury foreman Frank Oller of Texarkana said jurors wanted to be thorough and discuss their thoughts.

“We really wanted to give everybody an equal opportunity to voice their opinions,” Oller said.

Oller wouldn’t comment on whether any of the testimony he heard was particularly moving. But as to whether he believed Alamo had sex with young girls, he said: “That’s the evidence that was proven.”

On Friday, current and former ministry members from across the country, residents of Fouke and at least three women identified by prosecutors as current Alamo “wives” filled the benches in the courtroom to hear the jury’s verdict.

As Barnes read “guilty” for count after count, Jenner, the prosecutor, blinked back tears, writing a “G” in black marker next to each count on a copy of the indictment. Afterward, the victims gathered in a room, wept and hugged prosecutors and the investigators who built the case.

Outside, as Alamo was escorted from the courthouse to a car that would take him to a Texarkana lockup, several people clapped, cheered and hollered, “Bye, bye, Bernie.”

Jeanne Philyaw’s 10-yearold daughter held a sign with a drawing of a horned Alamo and the message, “Bye Bye Tony.”

“I wanted the public to have a visual reference to what a 10-year-old girl looks like,” said Philyaw, a Fouke resident and member of the anti-Alamo group Partnered Against Cult Activity.

Also among those shouting was former ministry member Dyann Jackson, who traveled from her home in California to show her support for the victims. She said she also wanted to show Alamo “that we were happy that the truth was revealed.”

“Finally, the girls were believed over him, the king of lies,” Jackson said.

Most current ministry members declined to comment as they walked from the courthouse. But Sanford White, a longtime member who drove Alamo’s bus, predicted that Alamo will ultimately prevail.

“Some way, somehow, God is going to overturn this,” White said.

Arkansas State Police Director Col. Winford Phillips; acting U.S. attorney Deborah Groom; and Thomas Browne, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Little Rock office, issued statements Friday praising the work that led to the verdict.

“This investigation has focused on the victims of crime,” Browne said. “The young women who have come forward have been incredibly courageous.”

Authorities said they had advised the victims not to comment until after Alamo’s sentencing.

The Alamo ministry’s message, carried on religious pamphlets often left on car windshields throughout the country, is a mix of fire-and-brimstone Christianity and rage against what Alamo sees as a Catholic conspiracy responsible for everything from World War II to the U.S. terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

He founded the ministry 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 manufactured a line of elaborately decorated denim jackets worn by celebrities such as singer Dolly Parton and actor Mr. T.

Susan Alamo died in 1982, and 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.

In 1994, Alamo was convicted of a felony for filing a false federal income tax return, along with three misdemeanors for failing to file a return, and was sentenced to six years in prison. He served four years and was released in 1998.

By then, prosecutors say, Alamo had taken a number of “wives,” including one who said she was 15 when she exchanged vows with Alamo in 1994. Other victims said they were taken as wives at ages 14, 11 and 8.

Former ministry members had spoken with Arkansas State Police investigators as early as 2001, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the first victim named in the indictment stepped forward, said Randall Harris, the FBI’s lead investigator in the case.

That victim testified that in 2006, when she was 15, she slipped out of Alamo’s house at the compound in Fouke and made her way to a Dollar General store. She later moved in with her aunt in Florida, where she contacted the FBI in March 2007.

“She’s to be credited for a lot of this,” Harris said.

The other accusers who testified also left the church in 2006 or 2007. While Alamo’s attorneys continually questioned the amount of time it took the government to build its case, Harris said, “Quite honestly, the breaks in this case didn’t really begin to occur until about April or May of ’08.”

“The truth of the matter is that we took action within a matter of just a few months after we got the information necessary,” he said.

The investigation led to a Sept. 20 raid on Alamo’s compound in Fouke by more than 100 police officers and child-welfare caseworkers. Alamo was arrested five days later at a resort hotel in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Still unresolved is the custody status of 35 children removed from the ministry after findings that they were being endangered by practices that included allowing underage marriages and beatings for violating church rules. One other child who was removed turned 18 last year and is no longer in foster care.

The parents of other children have been ordered to establish financial independence from the church before they can regain custody of the youths, a requirement that some of the parents are challenging in appeals and in a lawsuit in federal court.

Although Alamo will be in prison, authorities expect him to continue giving orders, as he did during his prison stint in the 1990s, and will take steps to ensure that he does not “continue committing crimes,” Jenner said. She said authorities will closely monitor his communication with his followers.

Jenner said federal authorities also will work with state police and state prosecutors to file charges against church members who were complicit in the victims’ abuses.

“This investigation is not over,” Jenner said.

Information for this article was contributed by Ginny LaRoe of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

In: 2009 - (Trial year)

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