4/3/13 – TG: Property in dispute in lawsuit against jailed evangelist. Judge must decide whether assets are privately owned or part of Tony Alamo Ministries.

Texarkana Gazette
April 3, 2013
By: Lynn LaRowe

Property in dispute in lawsuit against jailed evangelist.
Judge must decide whether assets are privately owned or part of Tony Alamo Ministries.

Who or what is Tony Alamo Christian Ministries are among questions posed Tuesday by a federal judge at a hearing concerning a civil suit against imprisoned evangelist Tony Alamo.

Alamo currently owes Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna $15 million each per a judgment in a civil lawsuit that ended with Alamo being found liable for battery, outrage and conspiracy. Ondrisek and Calagna were ritualistically beaten, forced to labor unpaid and denied food during their lives as children in Alamo’s controversial group.

Alamo is currently serving a 175-year federal prison term for bringing women he wed as children across state lines for sex.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Bryant listened to arguments Tuesday from Ondrisek’s and Calagna’s lawyers, David Carter of Texarkana and Neil Smith of Irving, Texas, and Alamo’s lawyer, John Rogers of Missouri, in Texarkana’s downtown federal courthouse. The court also heard from Texarkana lawyer David Crisp, who represents Steve Johnson.

Johnson is listed as owner or co-owner of six properties Carter and Smith want included in a writ of execution that would allow the properties to be sold to satisfy Alamo’s debt to Ondrisek and Calagna.

The six Fort Smith, Ark., properties sought in the writ include the church building, a gym building, a warehouse, a restaurant parking lot, a restaurant and a residential house. Smith and Carter are only seeking to take Johnson’s interest in the properties, not the interest of the other members listed as owners. Crisp described Johnson as a former member.

Carter and Smith argued Johnson, like many Alamo followers, holds properties in his name that actually operate under the control and for the benefit of Alamo. In a videotaped excerpt from a deposition, Alamo states members of his group decided to place properties in individuals’ names after mass seizures of church and Alamo-owned properties in the 1990s. The properties were seized as recompense to the IRS for tax liabilities and a civil lawsuit involving mistreatment of former members, including the ritualistic beating of 12-yearold Justin Miller.

Carter and Smith assert in court filings and argued at Tuesday’s hearing Alamo operates a “quit claim scheme” to protect properties from creditors. A piece of real estate is placed in the name of one or more followers, while at the same time that follower signs an undated quit claim deed giving up rights to the parcel. If a member falls from Alamo’s favor, the quit claim deed for properties on which their name appears is backdated and filed, transferring ownership to a member in good standing, Carter and Smith said.

Smith told Bryant that Johnson admitted he is not a true owner of the properties at issue. Smith argued the properties are actually owned by Alamo and can be sold to satisfy the judgment in the Ondrisek and Calagna case.

Rogers argued Johnson and Alamo testified in their depositions the properties are communally owned by “the ministry” and all members of Alamo Ministries have an interest in the property.

Rogers said the court should view the properties as part of a trust for ministry members who pool their resources and share their assets.

Rogers’ argument all members of Alamo’s ministry have an interest in the properties eventually led Bryant to ask, “Who or what is Tony Alamo Christian Ministries?”

“It appears to be this nebulous entity out there, but nobody can say who it is or what it is,” Bryant said.

Carter argued Tony Alamo Ministries is a nonentity under Arkansas law.

“Tony Alamo Christian Ministries is nothing. It is just a name,” Carter said.

Smith described the idea the ministry is the property owner as “legal fiction.”

Carter said the group is not incorporated or listed as a partnership in Secretary of State records as is required under the law for property ownership by an organization.

Carter said the claim properties belong to all members is in conflict with earlier arguments.

“The ministry wasn’t an entity, which could be sued, but now they say it is one to avoid execution on the judgment,” Carter said.

The Alamo Ministries Website touts the church has more than 2 million followers worldwide.

Briefly discussed at the hearing would be the difficulty in providing notice of the property issue to all members in the U.S., much less those Alamo Ministries claims to have in Africa, India, China, Japan, South America and Europe.

Bryant asked Rogers if Alamo is one of the members of “the ministry.”

“Does Tony Alamo have an interest in these properties subject to the writ,” Bryant asked. “Then do you think the plaintiffs have a right to take his interest, whatever it may be?”

Rogers declined to give Bryant a definitive answer to the question without speaking to Alamo first.

Carter argued if the writ is granted, Arkansas law includes procedure for ensuring the rights of anyone or any organization with an interest in the property be given notice and a chance to be heard in court.

“My hunch is due process has been served,” Bryant said. “Mr. Alamo’s had notice. Mr. Johnson’s lawyer is here. Mr. Johnson has been deposed.”

Rogers argued the ministry is an “unrepresented group.”

“So are you trying to suggest that this group you’re calling the ministry has more rights than the listed owners?” Bryant asked Rogers.

Bryant expressed concern about Rogers’ argument.

“So then all you have to do to avoid judgment is claim to be part of this nebulous group,” Bryant said.

Bryant referred to a brief Rogers filed Monday that argues the ministry owns the properties and asked Smith and Carter to file a response.

“I think the way to address the due process concerns is to grant the writ, post notice and then people with an interest can assert a claim,” Carter said.

Smith and Carter also played excerpts of a deposition of Sharon Alamo, one of Alamo’s wives.

In the excerpts, Sharon Alamo invokes her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself to every question asked of her. Among the questions Sharon Alamo refuses to answer are those about polygamy, whether Alamo hides his property ownership using members’ names and quit claim deeds and whether she assisted Tony Alamo in hiding assets.

Sharon Alamo refused to answer when asked if she assisted Tony Alamo in attempting to have people killed.

Bryant asked Smith how questions about whom Tony Alamo allegedly tried to purchase assassinations were relevant to the property issue.

“It shows the lengths to which Tony Alamo will go … ,” Smith argued.

Bryant is expected to rule on the writ in the coming weeks.

In: 2013, Breaking News

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