1/15/09 – Talk or stay in jail, judge warns father

January 15, 2009

Talk or stay in jail, judge warns father

A member of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries who refused to reveal the whereabouts of two of his children will remain in jail until he provides the information “or until I have a change of heart,” a judge said Wednesday.

Miller Count Circuit Judge Joe Griffin found Don Thorne, 54, in contempt of court Tuesday, saying that Thorne took steps to hide two of his children even though he knew they were being sought by the Arkansas Department of Human Services, which had a court order allowing it to take the children into protective custody.

Thorne’s other child, a 13-year-old boy, was taken into custody along with 16 other ministry children during a Nov. 18 traffic stop on Arkansas 245 in Texarkana.

Thorne, a truck driver in the ministry, had been attending a hearing on the custody status of his son, as well as that of 22 other ministry children, when he was found in contempt. On Tuesday evening, he was led from the Juvenile Court Center in handcuffs and taken to the Miller County jail.

He was taken to Wednesday’s hearing wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, and with his hands and feet shackled. Asked for a comment as he was taken back to jail during a lunch break, Thorne said, “I’m praying.”

The hearing is closed to the public, but Griffin told reporters during the break that he spoke with Thorne’s court-appointed attorney, Lisa Wilkins of Texarkana, Texas, on Wednesday to make sure she understood “what my requirements would be for him to purge” his contempt. Thorne could stay in jail indefinitely unless he provides the information, Griffin said. Wilkins declined to comment, citing a gag order in the case.

A handful of church members who protested outside the court building Wednesday said they supported Thorne and considered his jailing unjust.

“They’re trying to intimidate us,” said Susan Scarcello, 51, the grandmother of three children who have been removed from the ministry. “They’re trying to do everything they can, but it’s not working.”

Since the ministry’s compound in Fouke was raided on Sept. 20, 36 children have been taken into protective custody and placed in foster care by the Department of Human Services, which says the children are endangered by practices that include beatings for violations of church rules. Some of the children are also alleged to have been sexually abused.

A pair of identical court orders issued in Sebastian and Miller counties name 92 children who have yet to be found, and Human Services Director John Selig told The Associated Press on Wednesday that the ministry appears to be actively hiding its children, possibly using its network of passenger vans that ferry members to its churches in California and elsewhere.

“The problem is we don’t have real good information,” Selig told the AP. “We work closely with the FBI, but it’s hard to get real good information where the kids are at any particular time because they move around in the ministry a lot anyway.”

Department spokesman Julie Munsell later clarified, “The truth is, we don’t know where they are, so it would be purely speculating to say they are hiding them.”

The department included all the ministry children it had information about in the court orders, but some of those children may no longer be in the ministry, Munsell said. The ministry’s “secretive nature” made it difficult to compile an accurate list, she said.

“We had a list of children’s names, of children we believed were at risk because of the situation in the ministry, but whether they are still in that situation, we wouldn’t know,” Munsell said.

The hearing in Texarkana will decide whether 23 children will remain in foster care, be placed with relatives outside the ministry or return to their parents, possibly with conditions attached. At hearings in November, judges ruled that six girls removed in September will remain in foster care unless their parents move off church property and find jobs outside the ministry. Church members say the children were well cared for and deny any abuse.

The ministry’s 74-year-old pastor, Tony Alamo, is in jail awaiting trial on charges that he transported five children across state lines for sexual purposes over the past 15 years. The trial had been set for May 11, but U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes moved it Tuesday to May 18, citing a scheduling conflict.

Alamo’s criminal-defense attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock, said he doubted that Alamo would give orders for the children to be hidden because his phone calls from jail are recorded. But Hall said he wouldn’t blame the parents for hiding the children.

“If they think their kids are going to be worse off with DHS, I think any human being would take their kids and hide them. I sure would,” Hall said. “How do you blame the parents for a normal human response?”

Among the children who have yet to be found are three who belong to Jim and Bethany Meyers, who also have three children in foster care. In that regard, their situation is similar to that of Thorne.

Bethany Meyers attended the hearing in Texarkana on Monday and for part of Tuesday, but she did not return after a lunch break Tuesday. Her husband, Jim, has not been at the hearing.

Griffin said he hasn’t taken any action against Bethany Meyers.

“She’s just a party who decided not to attend at this time,” Griffin said. “But I also made it clear that the proceedings would proceed.”

In: 2000-2007

| Back to Top |
Want to help?

Click the button!

Comments are closed.