2 Nov 2010

Defense witness in Alamo cult trial refuses to answer prosecutor's questions, continues to hide children from authorities

Arkansas Democrat Gazette - July 22, 2009

Witness invokes Fifth Amendment at Alamo trial

by Andy Davis

TEXARKANA - Under questioning Tuesday at evangelist Tony Alamo's trial, the wife of a fugitive described by authorities as Alamo's "enforcer" invoked her right not to incriminate herself. As she left the courtroom, she was served with documents from child welfare authorities seeking protective custody of her four children.

Jennifer Kolbeck, whose husband, John, is wanted in the beating of a teenage church member, was one of five members of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries who took the witness stand Tuesday to defend Alamo, who is charged with taking five underage girls across state lines for sex.

Testifying along with Jennifer Kolbeck were three women whom authorities have described as Alamo's wives and the man who drove a bus on a trip in which Alamo is accused of having sex with a 13-year-old girl.

Wearing a white jacket and slacks, a pink blouse and tinted eyeglasses, Kolbeck, who was born in the ministry, told jurors that one of the girls Alamo is accused of abusing went to live with him because she was "always in trouble" and because she had a "very bad problem with lying."

Under questioning by assistant U.S. attorney Candace Taylor, Kolbeck said she had driven that morning from a hotel in Shreveport. Asked where she had been before that, Kolbeck said she had been "driving all over the place."

"Is that because you're in hiding?" Taylor asked.

"Absolutely - hiding from harassment," Kolbeck said. She said she had been in Arizona, Oklahoma and California.

Asked why she is hiding, Kolbeck said, "I have no comment on that." That prompted a huddle between Alamo's attorneys and U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes. Afterward, Barnes said Kolbeck would be invoking her Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself and that all of her testimony would be stricken.

Authorities have been searching for John Kolbeck since October, when Fort Smith police obtained a warrant for his arrest on a second-degree battery charge in the beating of a teenage church member at a ministry warehouse.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services has also been searching for the Kolbecks' four children, ages 12 to 17, since November, when judges in Miller and Sebastian counties issued orders listing 128 children, including the Kolbecks', as being in danger of abuse because of their parents' association with the ministry. The Kolbecks also are the legal guardians of three other children named in the court orders.

As she left the courtroom Tuesday, Jennifer Kolbeck, accompanied by her attorney, was followed by a Miller County sheriff's deputy, an FBI agent and an attorney with the Human Services Department. In the courthouse lobby, a deputy served Kolbeck with the court papers.

Earlier Tuesday, ministry member Sharon Alamo, who prosecutors say is one of Tony Alamo's wives, testified that he had made trips to California to see heart and eye doctors, to work on business ventures such as starting a line of jewelry and recording gospel albums, and to buy a "hairpiece."

She said he traveled for a time in a motor home, then later in a bus, with several women and girls whom she described as his office assistants. Tony Alamo had a bedroom in the back of the bus, where she said suitcases and recording equipment were also stored.

During a trip in the fall of 2004, Sharon Alamo said, the air conditioning in the bus malfunctioned. Since the bedroom sits over the engine, the heat in the bedroom would have been "unbearable," she said, and Tony Alamo didn't spend much time in the bedroom during that trip.

She and the bus driver, ministry member Sanford White, said a 13-year-old girl was along for the trip, but they never saw Tony Alamo go into the bedroom with her, as the girl, one of Alamo's accusers, says he did.

Under questioning by assistant U.S. attorney Clay Fowlkes, Sharon Alamo said she had exchanged vows with Tony Alamo in 1989, but she said they are "not together right now" and stressed that they were never legally married.

"We were together for a while and after several years, we on our own determined to separate, yet we still work together and I live in the same home," Sharon Alamo said.

She also acknowledged that she and Tony Alamo lived with several other women and girls whom she had seen wearing wedding rings, but she did not know whether the other women and girls were Alamo's wives.

Two other women, Alys Ondrisek and Angela Morales, also testified on behalf of Tony Alamo, saying all of his trips were for church business or legal matters. Prosecutors have indicated that they are among Alamo's wives, but did not ask them Tuesday about their marital status.

After each one testified, Tony Alamo smiled and gave them a thumbs up.

Before finishing their case Tuesday morning, prosecutors played recordings of phone calls Alamo had made from the Bowie County jail annex of the Bi-State Detention Center in Texarkana, Texas, where he is being held without bail. In one of them, Alamo assured a member he was "still in charge" of the ministry.

Since a Sept. 20 raid on Alamo's compound in Fouke, child welfare authorities have taken 36 children into protective custody, saying they were endangered by ministry practices that include allowing underage marriages and beatings for violations of church rules. An additional 98 others are listed in court orders as being in danger of abuse, but authorities have been unable to find them.

Among those who were in the courtroom as Kolbeck testified Tuesday was Antavia Meggs, who signed over custody of her three children to the Kolbecks in 2007 but now wants them back.

As Jennifer Kolbeck took the stand, Meggs left the courtroom and went to a bathroom to cry.

"I thought she was out of the country with my kids, and here she is right in front of me," Meggs said.

Human Services Department spokesman Julie Munsell declined to say what action the department might take, citing a gag order in the case. Meggs said she doesn't hold out much hope that serving Jennifer Kolbeck will bring her closer to her children.

"I don't think she'll tell anybody anything," Meggs said.

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