1/7/09 – Interviews with Teens from Alamo Ministries

January 7, 2009

A day before a court hearing on an interview with a 16-year old member of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries posted on a Web site, an anonymous source sent the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette recordings of interviews with five other girls taken from the ministry during an investigation into physical and sexual abuse.

All six interviews were conducted at the Children’s Advocacy Center in Texarkana, Texas, on Sept. 21, a day after more than 100 federal and state police officers and child-welfare caseworkers raided the ministry’s compound in Fouke.

Tony Alamo, the ministry’s 74-year-old pastor, was arrested in Arizona five days later. He is in jail in Texarkana awaiting trial on charges that he transported five other underage girls across state lines for sexual purposes over the past 14 years. The trial is set for Feb. 2, but Alamo’s attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock, on Wednesday requested that it be postponed, saying he needed more time to investigate.

“The defense believes that there is a potential statute of limitations argument as to a few counts that still needs to be explored,” Hall wrote in a motion for a continuance.

Under federal law, the statute of limitation for sexual crimes against a child extends for the life of the child or 10 years after the offense, whichever is longer.

In the videotaped interviews, the six girls, ages 10-17, describe Alamo’s teachings about marriage and the church’s practice of keeping boys and girls separate to prevent “fornication.” The girls praise Alamo. Those who are asked deny that they have ever been abused.

“I get the hint that they took us away because they think that our pastor is, like, abusing us or raping us,” one of the girls, age 17, says in the interview. “Believe me, if someone was abusing me or doing something, believe me, I would say something about it. I’m not the type of person that just keeps my mouth shut.”

The Arkansas Department of Human Services contends that providing the video recordings to media outlets violates the girls’ privacy. The department cites Arkansas Code 20-78-106, which requires that information gathered at children’s advocacy centers for sexual abuse allegations be kept confidential.

“We have the same concerns that we had with the original video [of the 16-year-old] being released,” department spokesman Julie Munsell said Wednesday of the videos released to the newspaper. She said she wasn’t sure what action, if any, the department might take in response to the leak.

The video recording of the 16-year-old was posted on the Google Video Web site late last month by the operator of the Internet radio station, FirstAmendmentRadio. com. A link was posted on the Web site of Tom Friess, who hosts a talk show on the station.

Last week, the state Department of Human Services filed a motion in Miller County Circuit Court asking for an order directing the girl’s parents, Richard and Debra Ondrisek, to ask the station to take down the video. The order would also direct the Ondriseks not to share the video with anyone else. A hearing on the motion is set for today.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Debra Ondrisek acknowledged that she provided the video to the radio station. She said she would comply with the Human Services Department’s request.

“We’re law-abiding people,” Ondrisek said.

Attorney Jim Phillips of Little Rock, who represents the Ondriseks in their efforts to regain custody of her 13-year-old son, who was among the removed children in the case, said the Ondriseks reached an agreement with the Human Services Department on Wednesday to ask to have the video taken down. Debra Ondrisek also agreed to ask President Bush to return a copy of the recording that she says she sent him. The agreement was submitted to Miller County Circuit Judge Jim Hudson for his approval late Wednesday, Phillips said.

Debra Ondrisek said she didn’t know who sent DVDs with recordings of the other five videos to the Democrat-Gazette on Wednesday.

They were delivered via Federal Express, with the address of the church in Fouke listed as the sender. A note explained, “We are distraught citizens who are fighting for justice. The enclosed tells the truth that has been hidden by the government.”

The six girls were the first of 36 children placed in foster care during the investigation. After hearing allegations by former church members of sexual abuse and underage marriages, judges in Miller County Circuit Court ruled in November that the six girls will remain in foster care but can eventually be reunited with their parents if their parents agree to move off of church property and find jobs outside the ministry.

At least two of the six girls are alleged to have been beaten. The others were deemed to be at risk in an environment where violations of church rules were enforced by beatings. None of the six girls was alleged to have been sexually abused.

The five girls in the video recordings sent to the Democrat-Gazette on Wednesday include a 14-year-old and two pairs of sisters – one ages 11 and 12 and the other ages 10 and 17. All of them have fathers in the church and mothers who have left or been kicked out.

Three of the girls said they had been staying in a room together at the sprawling house on the compound known as the “school and mission,” where Alamo and several women also had been living. They said the house has classroom space and places for girls to stay when their parents are away. Alamo had his own room in the house. Two of the girls lived at the nearby “green house,” along with one of their adult sisters.

Like the 16-year-old, the girls described the church’s rule that people are not allowed to interact with members of the opposite sex outside of their families. If a man wants to get married, he asks Alamo for permission, who then asks the woman. If she’s interested, the two are allowed to meet with their parents present, the girls said.

The girls also reiterated Alamo’s teaching that girls are ready to be married when they begin menstruating.

“Mary was 10 when she was married to Joseph, and she’s the one who had Jesus,” the 11-yearold said. But like the other girls, she said the church does not allow marriage at ages younger than 18. She was not asked about polygamy, but the girls who were said the church does not allow people to have multiple wives, even though the Bible allows it.

“One man can have as many wives as the Lord gives him,” the 17-year-old said. She said God gave Abraham four wives “and that was OK with God, because whatever God wants to do, what is man to say, ‘No, God you can’t do this”?

The girls were all dressed casually in jeans or shorts. The 17-year-old stared at the floor as she spoke, looking dejected as she sat with her hands between her knees. But her 10-year-old sister bounced around her chair, grinning as she talked about getting candy on “treat day” – Friday – and playing kickball at the compound during recess at school.

“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at the camera. Told the answer, she smiled and said, “They’re videoing us?”

The girls talked about going “tracting” – traveling across the country with other church members, passing out religious tracts. They said the children could watch “clean” movies – cartoons, Bible movies, old Western films and Alfred Hitchcock films but weren’t allowed to watch television or surf the Internet.

Those who were asked about their mothers or other relatives who had left the church had harsh responses.

“I don’t want to see her,” one girl said of her mother, who she said was kicked out for abusing prescription drugs. “I can tell she didn’t love me or care about me, so it’s basically her fault.”

In addition to saying he needed more time to investigate, Alamo’s attorney said in his motion for a continuance in the criminal trial that he is up for jury duty next month.

“While lawyers and judges may find jurors a necessary evil, it is still a civic duty for the person called,” Hall wrote.

In a court filing opposing the request for a continuance, acting U.S. Attorney Debbie Groom said Hall hadn’t cited a compelling reason for a delay. She noted that Hall didn’t say whether he had explored such options as having his name removed from the jury panel and placed in a future panel.

In: 2009 - (Trial year), Video Clips

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