1/12/09 – Judge issues gag order in Alamo custody hearings

Pine Bluff Commercial
January 12, 2009

Judge issues gag order in Alamo custody hearings

TEXARKANA, Ark. – The judge overseeing a hearing for 23 children taken from the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries issued a gag order Monday, barring those involved from talking publicly about what is likely the largest child custody case in Arkansas history.

Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin said lawyers for the state asked for the gag order at the start of what could be a two-week hearing. Griffin said the release of videotaped interviews with children seized from Alamo’s Fouke church compound, as well as intense media interest, led him to put the order in place.

Only a court reporter will be allowed to record future hearings about the children, Griffin said, preventing parents from bringing in recording devices.

“The statute says we have confidential hearings,” Griffin told reporters Monday afternoon. “If we’re just going to open it up to the Internet, we may as well let all of you representatives from the media in the courtroom and take it all down.”

State child welfare officials have seized 36 children associated with the ministry of the jailed evangelist, who faces a 10-count federal indictment accusing him of taking young girls across state lines for sex. Alamo previously testified in an earlier court hearing involving children taken from the church, offering details about how he “spiritually” married and divorced women.

None of the children taken from nine ministry families are believed to be the evangelist’s progeny, the judge said. However, state officials have said they seized the children over concerns of physical and sexual abuse at ministry, noting the stories of ex-members about Alamo ordering beatings and taking child “brides.”

Alamo has denied having sex with underage girls but says he’s an advocate of girls marrying when they reach puberty to avoid living in sin.

As of yet, Griffin said lawyers had not asked for Alamo to testify at this set of hearings. The judge said the witness list likely would include former followers of Alamo, 74, a flamboyant minister whose apocalyptic messages deride Catholicism, the Vatican and the “new world order.”

Griffin will decide whether and under what terms parents can be reunited with their children. Another judge previously required parents in the ministry to sever their ties with Alamo before regaining custody of their children.

Before the hearing, a group of family members for the children sat quietly inside of the Texarkana Juvenile Court Center, a cheery undersea mural behind them. One diver rode the back of a shark.

Don Dahme, 66, of Glendora, Calif., said he was the step-grandfather of a 13-year-old boy taken by state officials. His step-grandson was one of 18 taken from vans traveling near Arkansas’ border with Texas on Nov. 18.

“They said they were going to a park,” Dahme said. He declined to say whether he believed that, as orders allowing for the children’s seizure carry no legal weight outside of Arkansas’ borders.

His stepdaughter had been with the ministry for 17 years, joining the Alamo church just outside of Los Angeles. They spoke by telephone after nightly church services, but he said contacting her had become more difficult recently.

The last time he saw his stepdaughter, Dahme said she was distraught over the loss of her son and was taking part in a “coffee and water” fast.

“I guess she was all shook up about (them) taking her one son,” Dahme said.

Outside of the court, a woman who identified herself as the mother of six children taken held a ratty blouse she said a foster family made her daughter wear. She ran her hands over a hole around the collar.

A gold cross bejeweled in bright costume gems _ the emblem of the Alamo ministries _ lay across her chest. The stones represent the 12 named in the book of Revelation to build the walls of Heaven.

“I sent beautiful clothes for my children to wear and this is what they do,” the woman said. “This is how they are treating my children that have never been abused.”

Later, several ministry supporters held signs outside of the juvenile court, decrying the how child welfare officials and the FBI “obey the Vatican.” Another compared the child seizures to Nazi Germany.

The Alamo supporters filmed themselves protesting and reporters asking questions. State child welfare officials inside the court building peeked around curtains and took cell-phone photographs.

Arkansas State Police and federal agents raided Alamo’s compound at Fouke in western Arkansas on Sept. 20, searching for evidence that children there had been molested or filmed having sex. Five days later, FBI agents arrested the evangelist as he left a hotel in Flagstaff, Ariz.

Alamo, convicted of tax evasion charges in 1994, remains jailed without bond.

While Dahme said he had never seen any signs of abuse when visiting with his stepdaughter, he recounted taking a foreign exchange student to an Alamo service. After the service, followers surrounded the student, urging her to join.

Dahme said he quietly told one of the ushers the student was Catholic.

“After the service, they threw me out for like two or three months. I had to write letters and make phone calls and they let me back in,” he said. “I probably should have handled the situation a little differently.”

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