Family members who lost faith find justice

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/February 27, 2011

By the time he walked into a Rabun County courtroom Wednesday, Albert Tony Walker was no longer calling himself a prophet who would create the Third Testament of the Bible.

He was just a 63-year-old man in an orange-and-white-striped prison jumpsuit - bespectacled, silver-haired, seemingly harmless.

Spectators seated on the court benches behind him fell into two camps.

The first included his wife, four adult children and several grandchildren, loved ones who called him a wise and righteous man.

The other was a half-dozen former followers who said Walker was not only a charlatan, but a power-hungry sadist and a rapist. They said he controlled a cult in the remote North Georgia mountains in the late '80s and early '90s.

Prosecutors had offered Walker a 10-year sentence in exchange for a guilty plea to rape charges. He was accused of raping a young member of the cult 16 times between 1991 and 1996.

That victim, 31-year-old Kirsten Ferguson, her sister Mindy Kalena, 36, and their mother, Margarete Silva, sat about 20 feet away, trying not to flinch when he turned and stared. Privately they doubted he would ever acknowledge the abuse they say he heaped upon them.

The judge asked if Walker wished to move forward with a plea, waiving his right to a trial by jury.

The question was met with 28 seconds of stony silence. Then, finally, he said the words that the Silva family had waited so long to hear.

"Yes, sir," he said, "I guess so."

'Off the grid'

The Silvas had been members of "The Church," a small community of families that Walker led from informal prayer meetings in central California in 1978 to a 20-acre compound in Kilgore, Texas, to its final destination, a 17-acre parcel of land surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest near Clayton, Ga.

Margarete Silva and her husband, Manny, were among the first to be drawn into the charismatic Walker's fold. On the run from the law for selling drugs, they fell under his influence after he witnessed to them about his faith. After Manny died of cancer in 1983 in Texas, Margarete remained in The Church with young daughters Mindy and Kirsten and one younger son, and followed Walker to Georgia.

Walker would meet and recruit people to prayer meetings while working on construction sites and odd carpentry jobs. Former church member Dee Bergman, who joined Walker in Texas, recalled being amazed by his spiritual insights, but increasingly alarmed by his violent behavior, particularly toward "rebellious" children.

"From what I can remember, there were belts involved, and they were just beating them and beating them and beating them," Bergman said.

Things got worse in Georgia, where a communal house conceived as an upside-down ark housed as many as 50 people. Members lived "off the grid," growing and slaughtering their own food, getting water from a creek, and cutting off all but the most necessary ties with the outside world. In the isolated compound, Walker cultivated an atmosphere of fear.

Chastisings and beatings of both children and adults became routine. Walker's wife, Dalene, was often complicit in administering discipline. Before the group moved to Georgia, Walker also had began preaching about "testing of relations and relationships," authorities said. He began showing affection to married women, and grooming the group's younger women to be his "spiritual brides."

He convinced Silva that allowing him to bed her daughters was the right thing to do, talking to her for hours about saving them from "some worldly guy," she recalled.

"He said, 'God had given us the power to bring on the seed of God, and how great would that be to have your children blessed?' "

Kalena is a grown woman and mother of two now with honey-brown hair cascading down to her waist. Her clear blue eyes grow tearful when she remembers how Walker began separating her from her mother and siblings at age 11 to fondle her. At 12, he began raping her, telling her he wanted her to bear his child. Eventually, at 16, she did get pregnant.

"I hated Tony. ... I planned his murder many times," Kalena said, the tears finally overflowing. "But I accepted when I was pregnant. I would always tell my unborn baby he was my angel and that he was loved and wanted."

As her younger sister grew into an adolescent, Walker pressed himself on her, too. Ferguson, a raven-haired beauty, recalls scornfully how Walker often called her "Mary," telling her she'd been chosen by God to bear his child. She never did become pregnant. All the while, he continued to have sex with her mother, sister and other female members of The Church.

"I hated him, even though I was born into The Church and that was the only thing I knew," Ferguson said. "I thought there was no way this was God's will."

A turning point

Walker's will, though, was strong enough that the Silvas remained in The Church for 18 years.

As time went on, he grew increasingly deranged and violent, they and other former members said. He instilled in his followers a fear of the government, which meant there was no formal schooling, no doctor visits, no leaving the compound at all except in a few rare circumstances.

As a result, Mindy Kalena is now deaf in one ear from an ear infection that went untreated. Margarete Silva is blind in one eye from an untreated corneal ulcer.

Meanwhile, though, Walker tied the women to him through their children. Kalena had one child by Walker. Her mother had four; those offspring are now between the ages of 16 and 25. In all, they say, Walker fathered 17 children with six different women.

His aim was to populate the new millennium with God's children. But he wasn't aware that many of his younger devotees were slipping out of his grasp.

When Ferguson and Kalena were about 15 and 20, respectively, the girls took advantage of one of Walker's absences to attempt an escape, taking along Kalena's young son and one of the Walkers' teenage daughters.

They stole $800 from a stash under Walker's bed and drove a battered car down the mountain, hoping to be gone before anyone noticed.

But Rabun County Sheriff's deputies spotted the kids in downtown Clayton and returned them home. When Walker returned, he called them before a few others in the group and pummeled them mercilessly.

That moment was a turning point for the Silvas. Walker had pitted Margarete Silva and her children against each other - at times banishing Silva from the compound for months at a stretch - and instilled so much fear in them that they had been afraid to defy him. Now, Silva realized her family was crumbling under the weight of his oppression.

When Walker left the compound a few months later, Silva and her daughters packed up their children and left. Over the next few years, other members of The Church began departing, too.

All that time, authorities in the area said, they were unaware of Walker's activities. Former Rabun County Sheriff Don Page, who retired in 2008, said he'd heard one complaint from a neighbor over a trespassing dispute. He had no idea anything was awry, he said.

"They were quiet," he said, "kept to themselves."

Behind the case

About four years ago, Kalena and her mother grew tired of struggling to raise Walker's children without financial support from him. Because Manny Silva's estate had helped the Walkers pay for the mountain property, they thought Walker should sell the land and divide the proceeds among his descendants, as he had often promised to do.

When Kalena screwed up her courage to call him, Dalene answered the phone.

" 'I just want to let you know I am the Judas that Tony always spoke of,' " Kalena told her. "I am the one that is going to betray him."

More importantly, the sisters had hoped Walker might someday apologize for, or at least acknowledge, his transgressions.

"We wanted him to admit that it was wrong, that it was horrible what he did to us and ask us for forgiveness," Kalena said. "He wouldn't do it."

In 2009, the sisters went together to report Walker to Rabun County authorities.

Georgia law made it impossible for both of them and their mother to press charges against Walker. The state has a 15-year statute of limitations for rape cases. Another provision of the law says the clock doesn't start ticking on those 15 years until the alleged victim turns 16. That meant the only crimes for which Walker could be prosecuted were the sexual assaults against Ferguson.

And so the family found themselves reunited with Walker in a Rabun County courtroom last week. It would be a moment of reckoning, they hoped, and perhaps redemption.

Now married and living in Cumming with two daughters and a son, Ferguson said the approach of the court date had stirred up terrifying nightmares in recent weeks. Kalena said she'd spent days crying over painful recollections from her childhood.

In a post-plea statement, Walker's attorney questioned the women's motives, in light of the fact they were seeking payment from him.

"Tony has never denied being the father of other children, and, in fact, he has assisted in paying support," said defense attorney Jeff Cox. He said Walker denied harming the girls.

"We think that most of the allegations regarding beatings and things of that nature were blown so far out of proportion," Cox said.

Rabun County District Attorney Brian Rickman acknowledged the victims' stories had at first seemed "out there." But, he said, public records searches, interviews with other witnesses and evidence gathered in a search of The Church compound corroborated their statements.

And so they waited for Walker to speak. He deliberated about his plea until the moment he answered, his attorney said, even though it did not require him to admit his guilt, only that a jury might find him guilty.

The Silvas and the other victims gathered behind him saw his hesitation differently - as one last power play from the man who had once controlled their lives.

As deputies led Walker away in handcuffs and chains, he turned and mouthed "I love you" to his wife, four children and two grandchildren who had come to support him. He had no words for Silva, Ferguson and Kalena.

They didn't need them anyway, though. They had long since stopped listening.

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