12/28/09 – Alamo trial ranked No. 4 in stories of 2009

Times Record – Fort Smith
December 28, 2009
By Wanda Freeman

4. Minister’s Trial Gets Attention

Editor’s Note: Each year, the Times Record newsroom staff votes on the Top 10 local stories of the year. The sentencing for Tony Alamo ranks as the No. 4 story of 2009.

July 25 was the first day of a long goodbye that ends Jan. 13 for Tony Alamo, born Bernard Lazar Hoffman.

At the end a two-week federal trial in Texarkana, Ark., picketers bid “Bye Bye Bernie” after the 75-year-old founder of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries was found guilty of 10 counts of taking girls across state lines for illegal sexual purposes.

On Nov. 14, a federal judge handed down the maximum sentence, 175 years.

When Alamo returns to court Jan. 13 for a sentencing hearing, the judge will decide if the five witnesses who testified as his victims should receive restitution. All of the witnesses, now 17 to 33 years old, told the court they were forced to “marry” and have sex with Alamo as young girls. Experts have said each victim should get $2.7 million.

During trial, an 18-year-old woman testified she married Alamo at age 8 and escaped from his 15-acre Fouke compound in 2006.

A 17-year-old said she started visiting Alamo at age 8 and was married to him by age 11.

A 25-year-old “third-generation” follower said she married Alamo at 14 during a visit to him in prison while he was serving a sentence for tax evasion. Her 38-year-old mother, a former Alamo follower who sent the girl to him, testified that Alamo lashed out at her when she grimaced upon seeing a 9-year-old girl rubbing his thighs.

The 25-year-old said she traveled to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Nashville, Tenn., either with Alamo or at his behest to have sex with him. Other victims said they were taken to California and West Virginia or returned to Arkansas for sexual purposes.

Alamo’s trial and conviction arose from a three-year investigation that ended a bit prematurely.

State and federal officials were forced to raid his compound three weeks earlier than planned after a federal prosecutor accidentally forwarded an e-mail about the probe to news media.

Alamo was not at the compound the day of the raid, but FBI agents arrested him five days later in Flagstaff, Ariz.

In April, Tony Alamo Christian Ministries sued the Arkansas Department of Human Services after child welfare officials had placed 36 children of Alamo followers in protective custody and sought to take in another 100 children. The suit is pending, and several placements have been affirmed in state courts.

Also pending is a lawsuit by two former followers who are seeking damages over beatings they said they received from Alamo or on his orders.

During the sex-crimes trial, prosecutors used a flow chart to show how financial transactions were conducted in a way that obscured Alamo’s involvement. Plane tickets and hotel rooms were bought by followers using credit cards paid through a bank account listed under a bookkeeper’s name.

Ministry properties — including houses in Fort Smith, mobile homes in Oklahoma and a warehouse in Booneville that formerly housed the Ace Comb factory — were listed in followers’ names. Records show Alamo is liable for $100,000 in civil court judgments against his Fouke complex as well as numerous federal tax liens against his church in Sebastian County.

Alamo founded the ministry with wife Susan in the 1960s. After she died in 1982, he began to criticize Catholicism. He blamed the Vatican for his latest legal woes.

He began taking multiple wives in the early 1990s. After marrying a 15-year-old in 1994, he took brides at younger and younger ages. His common-law wife, Sharon Alamo, 50, testified at trial that she never noticed younger and younger girls were coming to live in the home.

He served a four-year sentence for tax evasion in the 1990s. Investigators have said he was and still is capable of maintaining control of his empire from behind bars.

In 1998, Alamo was released from prison after serving time evading federal income tax. That year, he also was ordered to deliver the body of his wife Susan, who died in 1982, to a Van Buren funeral home, and that news event was ranked No. 7 in the Times Record’s top 10 stories of 1998.

In: 2009 - (Trial year)

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