18 Nov 2008

Arkansas seizes 21 children from evangelists

USA Today - November 18, 2008
Associated Press

TEXARKANA, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas authorities have taken into protective custody 21 children associated with the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries based on allegations of neglect and physical abuse.

Three children were seized Tuesday at the Texarkana courthouse, the site of custody hearings this week for six girls taken during a September raid of the evangelist's compound in Fouke.

Police took the other 18 children from two vans during a traffic stop.

Department of Human Services spokeswoman Julie Munsell declined to elaborate on the allegations of neglect and abuse in the court order authorizing the seizure.

The 74-year-old Alamo has pleaded not guilty to two federal counts of transporting a juvenile across state lines for sex.

Alamo has preached that the Bible allows young girls to marry once they reach puberty but has said he didn't adopt the practice. However, witness testimony and assertions from prosecutors indicate otherwise.

John Wesley Hall Jr., Alamo's attorney, questioned whether his client will be able to get a fair trial in Texarkana considering the news coverage that has accompanied each development in the case. Hall said Alamo is an easy target in the child welfare hearings.

"Tony Alamo is not able to be there to defend himself, not able to cross-examine these people, which is a fundamental right," Hall said.

On Monday, a 14-year-old girl testified in Miller County Circuit Court that Alamo crept up on her in the shower, put his hand over her mouth and touched her inappropriately. The girl said he then threatened her, saying he would have his enforcer, identified as John Kolbeck, beat her.

At a bond hearing last month, prosecutors and witnesses described beatings by Kolbeck, 49, which often included attacks with a 3-foot-long wooden paddle.

Kolbeck is being sought by authorities.

The hearings this week are to determine whether the girls should be returned to their parents or be placed under continued care arranged by the state.

Alamo's trial is set for February. At the bond hearing, witnesses said Alamo had taken young girls for wives, and the 14-year-old girl made the same claim Monday.

The 14-year-old girl, who spent much of her time in Alamo's organization in Fort Smith, said Alamo coached her and others to say they weren't touched improperly or beaten, and Alamo recorded interviews with the girls to document the statements.

"Tony told us what he was going to ask us and what we were supposed to say," the girl testified.

She said that in Fouke, she lived for a time in Alamo's residence with a number of other young girls. She said she and others suffered gaps in their education because they were doing office work. The girl said Alamo had taken a number of girls as his wives.

"They all wear wedding rings. They go into his room at night and close the door. They're the only ones that do that," the girl said.

Alamo was convicted of tax-related charges in 1994 in Memphis, and served four years in prison after the IRS said he owed the government $7.9 million. Prosecutors in that case argued that Alamo was a flight risk and a polygamist who preyed on married women and girls in his congregation.

Alamo once had a clothing store in Nashville, as well as a church and a downtown mission there.

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