9/20/13 – TG: A LOOK BACK AT THE ALAMO RAID. Retired FBI agent remembers taking part in bust of Tony Alamo’s Fouke compound

Texarkana Gazette
September 20, 2013
By: Lynn LaRowe – Texarkana Gazette

Retired FBI agent remembers taking part in bust of Tony Alamo’s Fouke compound

Five years ago today, about 100 members of the FBI and Arkansas State Police raided the Tony Alamo Ministries compound in Fouke, Ark., just outside of Texarkana.

A months-long investigation uncovered Alamo’s taking of young girls as brides and living a polygamist lifestyle.

Followers lived on compounds in Fouke and Fort Smith, Ark., and Saugus, Calif., just outside Los Angeles. Members were isolated from the outside world, taught to fear the government, and indoctrinated with the belief that leaving the group would lead to eternal damnation.

The Sept. 20, 2008, raid was not supposed to happen until October that year.

But an email intended for officials involved in the investigation was inadvertently sent to a long list of media contacts.

“One group said management, the other, media,” said retired FBI Special Agent Randall Harris, who led the federal side of the inquiry into Alamo’s wrongdoing.

The email was accidentally sent by a U.S. attorney. In the hours following the wayward send, Harris scrambled to put together warrants and staff and to coordinate with other agencies, such as the Department of Child and Family Services, needed to execute the raid the following day, weeks ahead of schedule.

“I’ll never forget coming home that Friday evening around 6 or 6:30 and getting a call from the Special Agent in Charge in Little Rock,” Harris said. “Why is the SAC calling me on a Friday evening? I remember thinking, ‘Can they just call you on a Friday night and fire you?’”

But Harris was not in hot water. Or maybe he was.

Investigators, including John Bishop, now retired from the Arkansas State Police and head of the investigation at the state level, set up headquarters at Harris’ home, where they began drafting search warrants. Frantic calls to media outlets, requesting they withhold the information in the email, were made.

The email made reference to a raid scheduled for the following month and addressed the need to handle the emotional and physical needs of children believed to be victims of abuse.

Harris said he thought at first the raid could be set for Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008, until a local Fouke resident who had been providing information to investigators called and asked him why so many news trucks were driving through the tiny hamlet on a quiet Friday evening.

“It was probably the best thing for me, in hindsight,” Harris said.

The rush the wayward email made imperative actually meant Harris and Bishop did not have to explain their investigation and their plans to wary administrations in as much detail.

“It meant less red tape for us,” Harris said.

That night, six girls ranging in age from 10 to 17 who were living in Alamo’s house were taken into protective care by state child welfare officials. Later, judges in Miller and Sebastian counties signed orders authorizing the removal of all children on Alamo Ministries properties in Arkansas.

The night of the Sept. 20, 2008, raid was a long one for Harris and his colleagues. Harris said he went home around 7 a.m. Sept. 21, took a shower and returned to the FBI’s office in Texarkana’s downtown federal building.

Harris recalled that on Sept. 20, before the raid was executed late that afternoon, dozens of officials’ cars surrounded the normally vacant-on-the-weekend parking spots around the building.

“We were so lucky. Nobody noticed because there was a parade that day,” Harris laughed.

The warrants were executed less than 24 hours after the wayward email found its way into the inboxes of local media.

Harris operated on adrenaline and coffee for days.

“I didn’t take a day off from that day until the day the jury came back,” Harris said.

Investigators were disappointed that Polaroid photos former Alamo members described he took of young girls he wed were not found in Fouke.

Harris said the investigation had led them to allegations of misconduct with several young women and girls, but charging Alamo presented a challenge.

Prosecutors, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kyra Jenner, developed a federal case against Alamo based on his travel with young girls across state lines.

Alamo had the girls travel with him so he could continue his sexual relationships with them. Bringing a minor across state lines for sex is a violation of the federal Mann Act.

A few days after the raid, Alamo, whose given name is Bernie LaZar Hoffman, was taken into custody outside of a motel in Flagstaff, Ariz. He has been in custody since.

Today, Alamo is serving a 175-year prison term at a federal lockup in Tuscon, Ariz., for bringing five women he wed as children across state lines for sex.

When Alamo’s case went to trial in July 2009, a 10-count superseding indictment chronicled Alamo’s abuse of five women he had married. Alamo’s youngest bride was 8 years old.

Harris said getting the victims to cooperate was no easy task.

“Some of the former members who were giving us information were still not certain he isn’t the prophet,” Harris said. “They still had that thought nagging in their minds, ‘I’ll go to hell if I tell.’”

Alamo’s two-week trial included graphic testimony about the former evangelist’s misdeeds, the group’s business dealings, and Alamo’s control over his followers.

Two men, Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna, sued their former pastor with the help of Texarkana lawyer David Carter while Alamo’s criminal case was still pending. A jury found Alamo guilty of battery, conspiracy and outrage at the end of a trial in 2010.

Alamo owes Ondrisek and Calagna $15 million each in actual and punitive damages. Carter and Irving, Texas, lawyer Neil Smith have sought and received permission to sell six properties in Fort Smith, Ark., associated with the controversial group.

Recently a federal judge dismissed the claims of more than 70 Alamo loyalists who claim an interest in the properties. A hearing to address the remaining claims is scheduled for next month.

The U.S. government has taken action to seize properties in Fort Smith and Fouke as recompense for $500,000 in restitution Alamo owes to each of the five victims listed in the criminal case.

Carter and Smith have filed a civil suit on behalf of the five victims listed in Alamo’s criminal case as well. Also included as plaintiffs are a woman who was living in Alamo’s house, allegedly being groomed to be an Alamo wife, when she escaped and a woman who was married to Alamo but left him after his imprisonment. That civil case is scheduled for trial in January.

“One of my biggest concerns when I retired was that there would be no follow-up in collecting restitution for the girls,” Harris said. “But (FBI Special Agent) Tim Akins and the current U.S. Attorney aren’t dropping that.”

In: 2013, Breaking News

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