1/19/09 – Alamo followers offer a peek into Alamo compound

January 19, 2009

Followers offer a peek into Alamo compound

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/BENJAMIN KRAIN Tony Alamo Christian Ministries follower Richard Ondrisek shows a bedroom shared by three boys in a home in Texarkana owned by the church and shared by several families.

FOUKE – In the courtyard of the house that provided living quarters for Tony Alamo, along with several women and girls, is an in-ground swimming pool, a colorful carousel and a pen with two ponies.

Children at the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries’ compound in Fouke would play in the courtyard, some traveling there from as far away as Fort Smith for birthday parties, said Debra Ondrisek, a member of the ministry, during a tour of the compound last week.

“That was a big deal for them,” Ondrisek said. “It’s somewhere for them to go.”

Now, the children are gone – 36 are in foster care, and others are being sought by the Arkansas Department of Human Services. The department says the ministry’s children are endangered by practices that include beatings for violations of church rules. Some children are also alleged to have been sexually abused.

A hearing began last week on the Department of Human Services’ decision to remove 23 of the children. A judge upheld the department’s decision with regard to five of the children on Wednesday. Testimony will resume in the cases of the other 18 today.

Alamo, the ministry’s 74-yearold leader, is in jail awaiting trial on charges that he transported five girls across state lines for sexual purposes over the past 15 years.

While the grounds are usually closed to outsiders, church members granted a reporter a tour of part of the compound on Friday. They said their children were well cared for, and they denied any abuse.

At the evening service, member Bert Krantz offered a prayer for the children in foster care, including his own six children, and for members of the ministry who are “in hiding.”

“Protect them, keep them, deliver them all,” Krantz said.

Of the 36 children who have been removed from the ministry, 22 lived at the compound in Fouke, 11 lived in Fort Smith and three lived at a house in Texarkana.

With the children and many of the adults gone, the compound in Fouke seems quiet, said Krantz’s wife, Miriam.

“It’s hard getting through every day,” she said. “My six kids are all scattered in three different places. I personally, as a mother, worry about them. Not only that but all the people that had to go away, it can’t be very easy for them either.”

Ministry members began moving to Fouke in the 1990s, while Alamo was serving time in Texarkana, Texas, on a federal tax evasion conviction. What had been a Big Stop grocery store became a cafeteria, church sanctuary and school, with the church’s name spelled out in illuminated letters above storefront windows.

Surrounding the church are at least four mobile homes, a duplex and 14 houses, including mobile homes converted into brick cottages. Large metal buildings house a gymnasium, boys school and offices where thousands of cassette tapes and CDs are produced and shipped out to be mailed around the world.

Residents at the compound generally work at jobs within the ministry – teaching, working on the manicured grounds, or helping produce the CDs and religious pamphlets.

With Alamo in jail, the church keeps functioning, Ondrisek said. Asked who’s in charge of the day-to-day operations, she said, “This church was set up years ago, and we all just follow the same pattern there’s always been.”

After the children were taken, the ministry removed the uniformed guards who were once posted at the entrances. But the ministry still guards its privacy. Church members would not let a reporter inside most of the buildings, including a 9,600 square-foot, ranch-style house, known by church members as the “school and mission.”

The house contains a church office, classroom space and living quarters for Alamo and women he has described as his former wives. Girls whose parents are working out of town also would stay there, according to church members.

Ondrisek did take a reporter behind the house’s wooden privacy fence, to the courtyard. Inside is a long, narrow storage building, a guesthouse and a screened-in garden for strawberries and tomatoes.

For children, there is the pool, which is about 15 feet long with a diving board and a plastic slide, the carousel, and the ponies, which share a small, wooden stable. Nearby is a kennel for two dogs, a Shih Tzu and a cocker spaniel-poodle mix.

Groups of boys and girls would play in the courtyard at separate times – under the church’s rules, children and adults avoid socializing with members of the opposite sex outside their families.

“It’s like our own little place where kids come and have fun,” Ondrisek said.

Church members offered varying estimates on the number of people who lived at the compound before the Sept. 20 raid, but they said the number has now dwindled to about a dozen.

The evening service drew an average of about 50 people before the raid, members said, but only about 14 showed up Friday.

The service opened with a series of country-style hymns – “I’ll Fly Away,” “Stand Up For Jesus” and “I’m Going Home” among them. Bert Krantz and another member played acoustic guitars and sang, accompanied by a drummer, while the casually dressed members of the audience stood, clapping in rhythm as they sang along. Between songs, the parishioners raised their hands and murmured, “Praise the Lord,” and “Thank you, Jesus.”

A woman read messages from people who said they had been touched by the ministry, and three people offered testimony about how they had found Jesus. In his prayer, Krantz asked God for help.

“While this situation appears to be impossible, we’ve seen you move in impossible situations,” he said.

Members take turns giving the sermon, and this time it was Greg Seago, the other guitar player. Mocking the idea of a permissive, “cookies and milk Jesus,” he condemned homosexuality and abortion, and warned that only those who lead a Christian life will make it into heaven. After the service, church members went to the cafeteria and milled around before returning to their homes.

Later, Miriam Broderick, whose three stepchildren are in foster care, predicted the church will bounce back, as it did after the ministry’s compound near Dyer was raided by federal authorities in 1991.

“All we do is grow and multiply,” Broderick said. “We’ll be stronger in the Lord.”

In: 2000-2007

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