11/26/08 – 2 Former Alamo Followers File Suit Against Alamo and Kolbeck

Texarkana Gazette
November 26, 2008
By: Lynn LaRowe

2 former Alamo followers file suit
Plaintiffs who allege they were beaten, starved seek compensation

Two former Tony Alamo Christian Ministries members who say they were beaten, starved and forced to work unpaid while living on the properties have filed a civil lawsuit seeking financial compensation for their alleged suffering.

Bernie LaZar Hoffman, better known as Tony Alamo, and his alleged enforcer, John Kolbeck, are named as defendants.

“These men bullly, abuse and beat children. That makes them cowards. They invoke the name of the Lord as they do so. That makes them hypocrites. This is the sort of thing a civilized society cannot tolerate,” said Texarkana lawyer David Carter, who filed the suit on behalf of Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna Tuesday afternoon in federal court in the Texarkana division of the Western District of Arkansas.

Both men are 18 and have recently left Alamo’s church.

“Alamo’s theology is known for its virulent paranoia and anti-Catholicism views,” the complaint states. “Alamo claims the Vatican controls the American White House, the United Nations and the media.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s designation of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries as a hate group is also referenced in the suit.

“Alamo has engaged in and directed the use of a number of practices designed to control, punish, intimidate and injure church members, including minors,” the suit states. “Kolbeck’s specific function within Tony Alamo Christian Ministries was to administer beatings to church members at the direction of Alamo.”

The lawsuit describes three beatings Ondrisek allegedly suffered as a child of 12, 14 and 17.

Calagna was allegedly beaten twice by Kolbeck at Alamo’s direction at the ages of 16 and 17.

“As children are removed from Alamo’s smothering influence we are starting to learn just how bad it was for them inside the compound,” Carter said.

The attorney defending the 74-year-old in his federal criminal case, John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock, said Alamo has already addressed the allegations of physical abuse.

“He was asked about that and he’s denied it under oath, at least in the juvenile proceeding,” Hall said. “The fact they filed this lawsuit can be used to question their credibility in Mr. Alamo’s criminal trial.”

Carter said he wants two things from the court over which U.S. District Judge Harry Barnes presides.

“We have two primary objectives: first to obtain some measure of justice for these young victims,” Carter said. “We also want to see that the defendants are economically punished, so that these episodes don’t repeat.”

Carter said Kolbeck’s name appears on deeds for properties associated with Alamo Ministries. Those assets could be liquidated to pay damages if a jury finds in Ondrisek’s and Calagna’s favor.

Most of the land and businesses associated with Alamo’s church are in the names of followers and not the pastor’s, records show.

The church owns property in Fouke and Fort Smith, Ark., Texarkana and in California and New Jersey.

Calagna and Ondrisek were allegedly beaten on properties in Fouke and Fort Smith.

Ondrisek, who has testified about the alleged beatings in hearings in Alamo’s federal criminal case, began living on ministry property in Fouke when he was about 10.

When he was 12, Ondrisek was “accused of digging a ‘tunnel’ and summoned to the compound gymnasium,” while playing in the dirt when he was supposed to be working, according to his testimony in Alamo’s federal detention hearing and the complaint.

“Alamo directed Kolbeck at that time to administer a beating to Ondrisek …” consisting of at least 15 blows to the face and repeated strikes on the rear with a wooden paddle, the complaint alleges.

Ondrisek has described the paddle in testimony as hand-crafted for the job by a church member and 3 feet long. The striking end is allegedly 6 inches wide and a half-inch thick.

A rough-housing incident with a spray bottle involving another child led to a second beating for Ondrisek at 14 that was allegedly more severe than the first.

“On this occasion at least one other minor was ritualistically beaten before the crowd,” the complaint alleges. “Ondrisek was unable to fully sit on his buttocks for at least a week after this beating.”

The complaint accuses Kolbeck and Alamo of striking Ondrisek during a beating in 2007, when Ondrisek was 17.

“On this occasion, defendant Alamo announced the arrival of enforcer Kolbeck by the sarcastic phrase ‘Here’s Johnny,’” the complaint said.

Kolbeck’s alleged attack on Ondrisek’s face left him bleeding but the beating didn’t stop until the use of the paddle caused him to lose consciousness, according to the lawsuit.

Attempts to protect himself left Ondrisek with “serious and permanent injury to his left hand and wrist,” Carter wrote in the complaint.

Ondrisek has testified in court he is a piano player.

“Alamo taunted Ondrisek with the phrase, ‘You think I like doing this? I love doing this,’” the complaint states.

Kolbeck, 49, is wanted by authorities in Sebastian County, Ark., for allegedly beating Calagna last year. Federal authorities have issued a warrant for Kolbeck for unlawful flight from prosecution.

“Given the fact that Kolbeck is on the run, it may take some time to have him served with papers,” Carter said. “But we intend to secure judgments against both men and take whatever steps are necessary to get the judgments paid.”

Carter alleges Kolbeck and Alamo are guilty of conspiracy.

“Specifically, defendants entered into an agreement and understanding to commit battery, false imprisonment and outrage towards plaintiffs,” the suit states.

Carter is asking the court to award actual and punitive damages.

The two defendants in the civil suit are the only church members facing felony charges. Others have been arrested and charged with misdemeanors recently for placing literature on cars in violation of city ordinances.

“Criminal proceedings typically don’t take as long as a civil suit, so by the time we reach a trial in our case, juries should have already decided whether these men are guilty of crimes against these children,” Carter said.

Alamo is charged with violating a federal law that makes it a crime to bring minors across state lines for sex.

Last week a federal grand jury in the Western District of Arkansas added eight counts to two others he already faced.

Alamo’s defense team filed documents Tuesday entering pleas of not guilty to the charges.

“Defendant’s handwriting looks bad because he was handcuffed with belly chains,” reads a hand-penned note by Hall on the signature page of the “Waiver of personal appearance at arraignment and entry of plea of not guilty.”

Alamo could receive up to life in a federal prison if convicted of the criminal charges. He is scheduled for trial in February.

In: 2000-2007

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