9/7/13 – TG: Alamo followers fill court. Members want judge to rethink property ruling

Texarkana Gazette
September 7, 2013
By: Lynn LaRowe Best – Texarkana Gazette

Alamo followers fill court
Members want judge to rethink property ruling

Close to 100 members of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries showed for a hearing Friday to address claims to properties a federal judge previously ruled can be sold.

The members want U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Bryant to rethink an order giving the green light to sell six Fort Smith, Ark., properties associated with Tony Alamo to partially satisfy a $30 million judgment he owes two men raised in the controversial group.

Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna were beaten, starved, forced to labor unpaid and denied education. In 2010, a jury found Alamo guilty of conspiracy, battery and outrage.

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

Not all of the ministry members who filed into Texarkana’s downtown federal building Friday morning fit into the seating available in the Arkansas-side courtroom.

Those in attendance who have not asserted claims were asked to wait in the hallway.

Approximately 80 members have filed ownership claims with the help of Clayton, Mo., lawyer Patrick Kilgore. Members sat shoulder-to-shoulder as Kilgore called witnesses.

The members asserting claims can be placed in two groups: those whose names appear on deeds and/or loan documents and those whose do not.

Bryant previously ruled that the properties are actually controlled and held for the benefit of Alamo.

Texarkana lawyer David Carter and Irving, Texas, lawyer Neil Smith argued at earlier hearings that Alamo devised a “quitclaim” scheme to shield himself from liability after ministry properties were seized in the 1990s as recompense for unpaid taxes and a lawsuit judgment.

Instead of placing the properties in Alamo’s name or in the name of an incorporated organization, the properties are held in the names of individual members.

Members listed on titles sign quitclaim deeds, which are filed in the church office.

Should a member listed on property fall from Alamo’s favor, the deed can be dated, filed and ownership transferred to a follower in good standing, according to Bryant’s previous ruling.

Angela Morales, 40, testified that she has been a member since age 7. Witnesses at Alamo’s criminal trial testified Morales is a wife of Alamo.

Morales testified under questioning from Kilgore that her name is listed on a quitclaim deed for a large, two-story, Alamo Ministries church building on Windsor Drive in Fort Smith.

Morales testified that the property was deeded to her in 2007 by another longtime ministry member, Thomas Scarcello, for the “minimal” amount of $1. The property is currently appraised at more than $500,000.

Under cross-examination by Carter, Morales said she was unaware that Sebastian County property records do not list her as an owner of the Fort Smith church.

Morales testified that she and all the members who use the church building and other properties at issue own them collectively. Morales said the members pool their resources, including any money earned from work outside the ministry, and the ministry provides housing, medical care, food and clothing.

Morales testified that she has claimed tax deductions for money she has earned and given to the ministry that provides for her every need.

Morales said she believes she is a legal owner of the church and a “fractional” owner of the other properties.

Sanford White, who has been a member 43 years, testified his and his wife’s names appear on a deed for the church.

“The church is mine and my wife’s and everybody else there,” White said. “Nobody owns it. The congregation owns it.”

White testified that when he was quitclaimed onto the church deed, he did not pay market value for the property.

White testified that he deducts money he donates to the ministry on his federal tax returns. The money provides for his every need.

“What did you give in exchange for getting church property in your name?” Smith asked White.

“My life,” White replied.

Under questioning from Smith, White testified that Alamo remains the group’s pastor and cannot be voted out. However Alamo continues to hold the power to kick a member out if he believes they need it.

“People get put out for serious offenses against the Lord,” White said. “When you get put out, you lose ownership, but it goes to somebody else.”

White testified that he has already signed quitclaim deeds to properties bearing his name and that they will likely be transferred if Alamo orders it.

Scarcello testified that the ministry is “very simple.”

Like the other witnesses, Scarcello described himself as “legal owner” of a Fort Smith warehouse but said the church or its members really own the properties.

Scarcello said he is not sure if he disclosed his legal ownership of the Fort Smith warehouse on documents in his bankruptcy case several years ago. Scarcello said he did not disclose his believed “fractional” ownership in all church properties as a member, either.

Member David Scheff testified that although his name does not appear on any property deeds, he believes he is part owner of all church-associated properties.

Scheff, who has been a member 42 years, testified that he sells hats and sunglasses in California and donates his profits to the ministry, which in turn provides for him.

“The only reason I’m doing it is for the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Scheff said. “It’s not the only church in the world, but it’s the strongest church I’ve ever seen. … As I support the church, the church supports me.”

Scheff said Alamo kicked him out of the church once years ago.

“So if Tony Alamo decides to put David Scheff out of the church, then you’d be out,” Carter asked.

Member Ben Edwards, whose name appears on a deed for a gym next door to the Fort Smith church, said he left Fort Smith with his children in 2008 to avoid a court order for removal of all children on ministry properties.

Edwards and the other witnesses testified that Alamo Ministry members follow the biblical book of Acts, which dictates a pooling of resources and communal living.

“I lay all my possessions at the feet of the Apostle,” Edwards said.

Smith asked Edwards if Alamo is the church’s apostle.

Members seated in the audience laughed and a few shouted “hallelujah” when Edwards said only those with “spiritual understanding” could comprehend the ministry’s way of life.

Edwards avoided answering questions from Smith about Alamo’s control of church properties, though he conceded that if he leaves, “I understand that I give up everything.”

Don Wolfe, the last witness to testify, is representing himself.

Wolfe said he believes his claim to ownership of the Fort Smith church differs from the other members’ because he struggled to amass the down payment needed to buy the building in the late 1990s.

“I signed quitclaim deeds willingly because you never know when you’re going to die, you never know what’s going to happen, or if I might want to move on and be part of another church,” Wolfe said.

Carter and Smith questioned the witnesses about the “bookkeeper account” from which all loans and other expenses for the ministry are paid.

Witnesses at Alamo’s criminal trial testified that Alamo directs how the money in the bookkeeper account is used.

In his closing remarks, Kilgore refuted the idea that Alamo controls everything in the ministry.

Smith described the members’ claims of actual and collective ownership as a “moving target” and as inconsistent.

“I own it because my name is on the title, and it doesn’t matter if my name is on the title because we all own it,” Smith said.

Smith said the church, which is not incorporated, cannot legally own the properties under Arkansas law.

The name of former ministry member Steve Johnson is the only one that appears on deeds for a warehouse, a restaurant, a restaurant parking lot and a private residence, Smith said in his closing remarks.

Johnson stated in a deposition played at an earlier hearing that properties are bought, sold and utilized at Alamo’s direction and under his control.

The church and gym building in Fort Smith are the only properties at issue in Friday’s hearing that bear other members’ names.

Bryant told the crowd that he would make a determination concerning whether the members who have asserted claims have standing to bring those claims in the coming weeks. If Bryant determines a member does have standing, then additional hearings may be scheduled to address those claims, Bryant said.

Bryant is also expected to rule soon on whether a state court claim to the properties filed by Kilgore on behalf of the members in Sebastian County state court can proceed or should be prohibited.

In: 2013, Breaking News

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