29 Jan 2009

1988 abuse case involving Alamo resurfaces

The Mercury News - Silicon Valley
January 29, 2009

By JON GAMBRELL | Associated Press Writer

LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Tony Alamo's voice crackled from a speakerphone as four people prepared to beat him on the evangelist's behalf, Jeremiah Justin Miller recalled in court.

Miller said he bled after being struck 140 times with a wooden paddle. His sins: asking a science question during a history class and, without permission, wearing a metal-studded leather scarf Alamo had designed.

"He said that I was a goat among the sheep and he was going to have to beat the devil out of me," Miller told a California courtroom three years after the 1988 incident at Alamo's religious compound north of Los Angeles.

By 1995, prosecutors dropped child abuse charges against Alamo, who said Miller, then 11, exaggerated his tale. The evangelist, now facing federal Mann Act charges in Arkansas, said Miller was an unruly child who needed to be disciplined.

More than two decades after the beating, one man still sought by detectives surrendered last week. Miller, meanwhile, hasn't surfaced since his family won civil suits against Alamo after the Internal Revenue Service seized the evangelist's assets in a tax case.

"The Millers fought the fight for everybody, they paid the price for everybody. They did the work, they took the chances," said Peter N. Georgiades, a Pittsburgh lawyer who represented the family. "They overcame their personal fears. They got the judgment and the IRS took the money."

Miller's case, which saw no action since 1995, sprang back to life when Douglas Christopher walked into a Santa Clarita, Calif., courthouse last week and turned himself in. Christopher, 55, faces an initial hearing Friday morning in municipal court over two felony charges from the 1988 beating, said Shiara Davila, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office.

The case re-emerged as Alamo, 74, faces a 10-count federal indictment accusing him of taking young girls across state lines for sex. Since a Sept. 20 raid on Alamo's compound in Fouke, child welfare officials with the Arkansas Department of Human Services have seized 36 children associated with the evangelist's ministries.

Christopher surrendered at the urging of an Arkansas government agency, said Steve Whitmore, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department spokesman. Julie Munsell, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services, said her agency encouraged Christopher to resolve the criminal case. She declined to comment further.

Christopher is being held without bond on the charges. Christopher's public defender, Jim Bruns, could not be reached for comment. Davila said statutes of limitations didn't affect the case.

During the 1991 court hearing, Miller said church members wrote reports on children's misbehavior. Those reports went to Alamo, who decided on discipline he said God had recommended to him.

About 40 Alamo followers, including Miller's mother, watched as the paddle smacked against Miller's backside, the boy testified. He said he bled so badly he had to wear bandages for more than a week.

Miller's story matches testimony at an October federal detention hearing for Alamo. Then, former followers described suffering through beatings ordered by the evangelist over minor infractions like playing with a spray bottle.

Danny Davis, Alamo's lawyer at the time of the Miller hearing, dismissed the boy's testimony as exaggerated and coached by his ex-ministry member father. Davis served as a defense lawyer in the infamous McMartin Pre-School molestation case, the longest criminal prosecution in U.S. history.

Alamo himself has dismissed the allegations through the years, saying the unruly only face "spankings."

Miller "didn't even cry," Alamo told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. "It was a very light, easy spanking."

It is unclear what evidence sheriff's deputies have to work with now in Miller's case. Whitmore declined to discuss whether deputies have spoken with Miller, who would now be in his early 30s.

"This is an active, open case. We've got reports, we've got everything," Whitmore said. "The sheriff's department, make no mistake about it, is about its business."

Georgiades, who represented Miller's family during years of lawsuits against Alamo, said bringing Miller and his family back into the case might prove impossible.

"We don't communicate," Georgiades said. "A couple of them have disappeared completely, period."

The family won a multimillion legal challenge against Alamo over labor law violations, but the IRS later liquidated much of the church's holdings, including its clothing line. Ministry members made elaborately embroidered denim jackets once sought by celebrities.

The lawyer applauded prosecutors for moving forward on the case, even after a two-decade delay.

"No sane person could think that what these children did warranted any punishment other than maybe a stern look from mom," he said. "The reason he's doing these beatings is to show the other people in the group his power so that if they're thinking about leaving, they won't."

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