4 Mar 2009

2 moms in Alamo case fear for kids

Northwest Arkansas Gazette - March 4, 2009

by Andy Davis

When the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries compound in southwest Arkansas was raided in September, an Oklahoma woman who once belonged to the group called everyone she could think of, hoping she might be closer to finding the four children she says her husband ran off with in 2004.

Meanwhile, in Greenwood, another former member worried about her three children, ages 4, 3 and 2. More than a year earlier, she had signed over custody of them to John Kolbeck, who authorities say was responsible for keeping discipline within the ministry, and Kolbeck's wife, Jennifer. After the raid, she feared that the Kolbecks would run.

Since that raid, the Arkansas Department of Human Services has removed 36 children from the ministry, saying they were endangered by practices such as underage marriages and beatings for violations of church rules. Tony Alamo, the group's 74-year-old leader, has been jailed on charges of taking underage girls across state lines for sex. And John Kolbeck, wanted in the beating of a teenage church member, has been declared a fugitive.

Court orders list an additional 92 children as being in danger of abuse. The Human Services Department says they once lived on church property in Fort Smith, Texarkana and Fouke, but have been moved elsewhere, many of them after the raid.

In most cases, the children are thought to be with parents who are hiding. But two mothers, who left the ministry before the raid, are hoping their children will be found.

They are Anna Pugh, who says her husband disappeared into the ministry with four of her children, and Antavia Meggs, who gave her children to the Kolbecks.

"It's really horrible, just thinking, what are they doing to them there?" said Pugh, whose husband disappeared into the ministry with her children. "I'm so afraid they've beaten my son. I'm so afraid my daughter might be married to somebody, and I might not even know it."

Meggs, who was raised in the ministry, said she signed over custody of her children to the Kolbecks after a child-welfare caseworker threatened to take them away.

At the time, she said, she had split up with her husband, had been evicted from her apartment and was living with her brotherin-law and his wife in a motel room in Fort Smith. Since then, Meggs said, she's been working to build a stable home environment for the children, and she hopes to get them back.

"I still don't know that I can get them back, but I, at least, need a chance to try," she said.

The Human Services Department has distributed information on the children to child-welfare agencies in Oklahoma, California and New Jersey, where the ministry has operations, and Texas, because of its proximity to the compound in Fouke, department spokesman Julie Munsell said.


Pugh, 40, lives in a five-bedroom, doublewide mobile home on 3 acres south of Blanchard, Okla. While four of her children are missing, she has six others that include three from her time in the ministry. She stays home with the children while her fiance hauls chemicals for a trucking company.

When she joined the ministry in 1989, Pugh thought she had found the wholesome Christian environment she had sought. She married Don Davis, who worked on construction jobs in the ministry, and they had seven children.

As time passed, however, Pugh began to question the ministry's practices, and she repeatedly clashed with Alamo, her husband and other church members. For her punishment, she would be paddled with a board, rebuked in messages on tapes distributed throughout the ministry or banished to her house for months at a time. In 2000, she separated from her husband and moved out, but her children had to stay behind.

For more than two years, she was not allowed to visit the children or even talk to them on the phone. After she won custody of them in 2003, the children "were scared to death," Pugh said. "Tony had told them that I was a biker, and I had AIDS, and I was a drug addict and I was a stripper and all these horrible things."

After meeting their cousins and seeing Pugh's home, the children began to warm up to her. She and the children spent four weeks at an Ohio center that offers counseling for people who leave cults. Pugh read the Bible with the children, telling them, "If it wasn't God's will for you to be with me, you wouldn't be with me."

Meanwhile, Davis stayed in touch, talking to Pugh and the children by phone, sending gifts on the children's birthdays and paying $527 a month in child support. In December 2004, after Davis said he had been kicked out of the ministry, Pugh let him visit.

He took jewelry boxes, necklaces and dolls for the girls, toy cars for the boys and $200 in child support for Pugh. He asked if he could take the four youngest children for ice cream and to buy some clothes.

The children "were all looking at me, begging to go," Pugh said. "I just couldn't say no to them." Davis left with the children, and they never came back.

In the years that followed, Pugh said, she searched for her children while also dealing with the breakup of her second marriage and struggling to support the children she had. Now and then, Davis would call Pugh's daughters on their cell phones, urging them to join him in the ministry.

Early last year, television psychologist Dr. Phil McGraw took an interest in Pugh's story, and she hoped for a breakthrough. Then, while the show was researching her story, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services took her children after police had to intervene when she got into an argument with one of her teenage daughters.

Pugh said she had lost control of the children and often had angry outbursts, which she blamed in part on the lingering effects of her time in the ministry. At the direction of the department, Pugh attended counseling and took classes on parenting and anger management. Within six months, all the children had been returned.

Now, a caseworker visits every week, and the family's rules are posted on a sign on a living room wall. Among them: When anyone gets upset during a discussion, he or she can say "time out," and the discussion is tabled until everyone calms down.

The department intervention "saved my family," Pugh said. "I am actually happy, and my kids are happy, and we feel like we have a home that's full of love now instead of hurt."


Meggs, 22, speaks in a soft voice and often smiles bashfully when asked about her time in the ministry, which her mother joined when Meggs was 2 months old.

Growing up, Meggs was taught that God spoke through Alamo, and she never questioned his teachings. When she was 8, while Alamo was in prison for tax evasion, she went to live in his house at the compound in Fouke but was kicked out a week later, after she poured some oil in a fish tank.

After she was married, in 2003, she worked in the cafeteria of the church in Fort Smith and had three children, a boy and two girls. Her husband, Jessie, who had joined the ministry four years earlier, spent much of his time traveling the country, either handing out religious tracts or as a "rider," someone who accompanies a ministry truck driver in keeping with a rule that church members never venture out alone.

Like Pugh, Meggs often got in trouble for breaking church rules and arguing with other members. In 2006, she and her husband were kicked out of the ministry after someone complained about them arguing loudly in their apartment. They were allowed to return, but shortly afterward, she decided to leave for good.

Because of a throat defect, her son, Micah, had to have a feeding tube put in his stomach three weeks after he was born. When he was 8 months old, she was accused of trying to starve him, and he was sent to live with the Kolbecks. Then, when he was 2, the tube fell out, and the Kolbecks didn't replace it.

When she asked Alamo if she could take Micah to the doctor, she said, "He told me no, that God told him that I was lying about that." She said she was also concerned that another church member had begun spanking Micah in the church day care.

"I've always told myself I'm going to raise my family the opposite of the way my family raised me," Meggs said. "I used to get spanked all the time for every little thing, and it didn't help me at all. It actually made me more stubborn."

But Meggs felt guilty about leaving. When she and her husband separated six months later, she thought she was being punished by God.

The day after a caseworker visited in June 2007, Meggs signed a form agreeing to have the Kolbecks appointed as her children's guardians. It was only later, she said, that Jennifer Kolbeck told her that she would have to go to court to get them back. She spoke with an attorney who advised her to first get a job and establish a stable living environment.

But that proved difficult for Meggs. After giving her children to the Kolbecks, she lived in shelters, briefly reconciled with her husband and had another son, who is now 10 months old. Last summer, she went to live with a former church member in Greenwood, who helped her get a job. In the meantime, the Kolbecks let Meggs visit her children, although they eventually cut the visits back from two or three times a week to once every two months.

The day after the compound was raided, she said, she called Jennifer Kolbeck, who assured her that she wasn't planning to run away with the children. Two days later, she let Meggs talk to the children on the phone. Micah told her they were in Fouke. When Meggs asked which house they were at, someone hung up the phone.

"I called back like 20 times," Meggs said. "That's the last time I talked to Jennifer or my kids."


Since the raid, a few parents have been reunited with their children. Gina Howard had been searching for her three children for eight years. Her 14-year-old daughter was found in the Fouke compound, and her two sons, ages 10 and 12, were picked up in November, her attorney has said. Anthony Lane, whose three children were found in Valparaiso, Ind., on Dec. 2, had been looking for his children for 10 years. Both parents are now working to regain custody of their children, who are in foster care.

Pugh's missing daughter is now 12, and the three sons are 9, 11 and 14. Adding them to her already large family would be a challenge, she said, but one she is eager to take on.

Meggs was able to visit her two younger sisters who were removed from the compound and placed in foster care. But she has received no word on her children.

Last December, she sent an electronic card for her children to Jennifer Kolbeck's e-mail address.


There was no response.

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