6/2/11 – AP: 2 ex-ministry members get $33 million each in suit (Houston, Texas)
June 2, 2011
JEANNIE NUSS Associated Press

2 ex-ministry members get $33 million each in suit

A jury awarded two former members of imprisoned evangelist Tony Alamo’s ministry $33 million each on Thursday in response to charges that Alamo ordered them to be beaten.

But Seth Calagna, 21, and Spencer Ondirsek, 20, likely will not see payouts from the judgment anytime soon, said Alamo’s attorney John Wesley Hall Jr.

“Tony Alamo Christian Ministries doesn’t have that kind of money,” he said. “Never has. Never will.”

The jury in Texarkana, Ark., deliberated for about two hours before they returned with a verdict in the civil suit, which alleges that Alamo ordered another man, John Kolbek, to beat the young men while they were raised on the ministry’s compound in southwest Arkansas.

The jury found Alamo liable for battery, outrage and conspiracy and awarded Calagna and Ondirsek $30 million each in punitive damages, plus another $3 million each to compensate them for past injuries and mental anguish. In comparison, a federal judge ruled last year that five young women whom Alamo sexually assaulted and took as “wives” were entitled to $500,000 each.

Calagna and Ondirsek were previously awarded $1.5 million each from Kolbek after he failed to respond to their lawsuit. They haven’t collected any of that money yet, their attorney, W. David Carter of Texarkana, Texas, said. Kolbek died in January.

But Carter said he plans to search for properties on which he can collect the awards from both Kolbek and Alamo.

“We’re going to look far and wide to see what properties might be available to pay the judgment,” Carter said. “Whatever we find we will execute on.”

Alamo’s attorney called the sums awarded “outlandish” and said he plans to ask a federal judge to reduce the amounts. He also likely will appeal the verdict.

“It’s a long way from being over,” Hall said.

Hall had argued that the Bible condones corporal punishment. He wanted to tell jurors about Arkansas law regarding corporal punishment that was on the books when the alleged beatings occurred. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry A. Bryant disagreed and didn’t include Hall’s instructions, part of which were to read: “The fact there was bruising does not make corporal punishment unreasonable. If you find that corporal punishment was reasonably applied and was not excessive, then your verdict should be for Tony Alamo and against Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna.”

Hall also said that Thursday’s verdict means he’ll likely have to file for a change of venue in other cases involving Alamo’s ministry.

“It’s apparent that Tony Alamo can’t get a fair trial in that community,” Hall said.

Alamo, whose real name is Bernie LaZar Hoffman, is serving a 175-year term in federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind. He did not appear in federal court for the civil trial because it was too expensive to transport him to Texarkana.

His wife, Sharon, and Calagna’s mother, Barbara Calagna, were among several witnesses to testify on his behalf.

Calagna’s mother, Barbara Calagna, said the spankings were the best thing to ever happen to her son.

Calagna’s attorney disagreed.

“Seth’s mother’s testimony is a prime example of how blindly people will follow Tony Alamo when they believe he’s a prophet of God,” Carter said. “She turned her back on her own son and allowed him to be beaten savagely on numerous occasions.”

Beyond compensating the two young men, Carter said the suit was designed to prevent other people from following in Alamo’s footsteps.

“It’s intended to send a message not only to Alamo but to anyone else who might manipulate scripture in an attempt to control others for their own advantage,” Carter said.

In: 2011

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