9/20/10 – TG: A look at Alamo bust, two years later

Texarkana Gazette
September 20, 2010
By: Lynn LaRowe

A look at Alamo bust, two years later

Two years ago today, a long line of Arkansas State Police cruisers and shiny, black, unmarked sedans snaked along U.S. Highway 71 toward Tony Alamo Christian Ministries in Fouke, Ark.

It was controversial evangelist Tony Alamo’s 74th birthday.

FBI agents and state police investigators combed the property for evidence, while Arkansas Department of Human Services staff interviewed children.

Townsfolk and media watched from across the street, waiting for news of what officials were looking for and what they had found.

That night, six girls ages 10 to 17 who had been living in Alamo’s house were placed in state care amid allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Eventually, their parents’ rights to them would be terminated.

Less than a week after the raid, Alamo, whose given name is Bernie LaZar Hoffman, was arrested as he checked out of a hotel in Flagstaff, Ariz. He has been in custody since.

Less than a year after his arrest, Alamo was convicted on all 10 counts in a federal indictment accusing him of transporting five women he wed as children across state lines for sex.

In November 2009, Alamo received a 175-year sentence. He is incarcerated in federal prison in Tuscon, Ariz.

On Tuesday, Alamo’s defense attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyra Jenner will present oral arguments concerning Alamo’s appeal of his conviction and sentence before U.S. 8th Circuit appellate justices in St. Louis.

Grounds for Appeal

Alamo’s appeal complains that Barnes inserted his “own sense of religiosity” at sentencing when he told Alamo he would someday face a judge with higher and greater authority than that imparted to a federal district judge.

“May he have mercy on your soul,” Barnes said at the sentencing.

The government denies religion played a role at sentencing, noting that Barnes clearly stated that Alamo’s crimes put him in the range of life in prison, according to federal guidelines.

Hall also argues that evidence does support convictions on all 10 counts and that the jury decided the case on emotion.

Where Have All the Children Gone?

In November 2009, while custody hearings concerning the six girls removed the night of the September raid were ongoing, removal orders for all children living on the Fouke and Fort Smith, Ark., compounds were signed by circuit judges in Miller and Sebastian counties.

No children were found on either compound.

In Texarkana, minutes before they would have crossed the state line into Texas, two black SUVs carrying 17 children from the Fouke compound were stopped. The children were placed in the care of child welfare officials. Several other children were taken at the courthouse; a few more were found in the following months.

The whereabouts of about 90 other Alamo Ministries youngsters are unknown. Authorities think the children may be in hiding with their parents.

A civil lawsuit filed in federal court by the ministry accuses the government of using a child abuse investigation to disband Alamo’s loyalists. Barnes threw out the case, but the ministry is appealing.

The ministry complained in the lawsuit that because parents have fled with their children, the ministry’s operations have suffered from the lack of labor.

The Future of Alamo Ministries

If Alamo loses his bid for post-conviction relief, a stay Barnes granted for payment of restitution for the five Jane Does who testified against Alamo might be lifted. Each victim was awarded $500,000.

To collect, the government will seek to liquidate ministry holdings, arguing that though the titles are held in the names of individual members, they are actually controlled by Alamo for his benefit.

In addition to the $2.5 million Alamo owes as restitution, he has yet to pay a $250,000 fine assessed at sentencing.

Next month a civil lawsuit filed by two men who allege they were beaten, starved and forced to labor unpaid for Alamo Ministries is scheduled for trial. Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna are hoping Alamo will be ordered to pay damages.

Last year, Ondrisek and Calagna were awarded a $3 million judgment against fugitive John Kolbek. Kolbek allegedly beat Alamo Ministries members with a long, wooden paddle at Alamo’s bidding.

Kolbek remains at large.

Last month, Texarkana attorney David Carter, who also represents Ondrisek and Calagna, filed a civil suit on behalf of six former members, including the five Jane Does. The litigation names several high-ranking members of Alamo’s organization, including wife Sharon Alamo, as defendants. Ministry-run businesses are also targeted in the suit.

If Alamo Ministries’ properties are seized to satisfy Alamo’s restitution debt or to pay judgments in civil actions, it could leave the members without their compounds in Fouke, Fort Smith and Santa Clarita, Calif.

But for now, members still live on the compounds. In Fouke, colorful flowers dot a well manicured hill on which the ministry’s main building sits.

The ministry’s Website is regularly updated. Recently Alamo’s 1993 tract titled “The Polygamists” was re-posted, along with Alamo-penned articles about the virtues of marriage at puberty.

“Anyone who would believe that polygamy, according to God’s Holy Scripture, is dead, would believe that God is dead, and that the Bible is meaningless,” starts the tract.

It ends with the phrase, “Tony Alamo is probably the greatest patriot this country has ever known.”

In: 2010

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