Texarkana - In outlining evangelist Tony Alamo's defense strategy for jurors Tuesday, his attorney didn't address whether Alamo exchanged wedding vows with underage girls or sexually assaulted them. He also didn't dispute that Alamo took them across state lines, as five alleged victims are expected to testify at Alamo's trial.
Instead, attorney Don Ervin of Houston told jurors that the main purpose of the interstate trips was to conduct church business, not to have sex.
"This case is about travel, and it's about intent, regardless of all the evidence you hear from the government," Ervin told jurors.
Alamo, the 74-year-old leader of a multistate ministry with headquarters in Fouke, is charged in U.S. District Court in Texarkana with five counts of transporting underage girls across state lines for sex in violation of the federal Mann Act. The prosecution and defense gave their opening statements Tuesday afternoon after spending the morning selecting the 12 jurors who will decide Alamo's fate.
In his opening statement, assistant U.S. attorney Clay Fowlkes told jurors that the victims, who he indicated now range in age from 17 to about 30, will testify that Alamo took them as wives at ages as young as 8 and repeatedly sexually assaulted them.
"Each one of these girls lived a life that was completely controlled by the defendant," Fowlkes said. "Each one of them lived a life that was completely ruined by the defendant's criminal conduct."
A federal offense because of the interstate element, the Mann Act makes it a crime to take a girl under age 18 across state lines "with intent that the individual engage in prostitution, or in any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense."
Ervin said he intends to focus on the purpose of the trips, not whether the sexual assaults occurred.
"The travel was always for the purpose of expanding the church and never for the purposes that the government says," Ervin told jurors.
Asked outside the courtroom whether Alamo did have sex with the girls, Ervin said, "I don't think so, but that's not what this case is about."
"It's a question of intent, period," Ervin said. "When he crosses that state line, he has to have a certain intent, and he didn't have it."
Prosecutors said they are prepared for that argument. They pointed to a 2001 case, U.S. vs. Cole, in which the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis ruled that sexual activity must be one purpose of the trip but "need not be the dominant purpose."
"We believe that the law is clear, that if a trip occurs and if one or any of the purposes of the trip is for sexual purposes, then we're on solid ground on this issue," Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Plumlee said.
Fowlkes told jurors the FBI's investigation of Alamo began in 2006, after a 15-year-old girl left the ministry and moved to Florida.
The girl, who was born into the ministry, told an FBI agent her parents took her to live with Alamo at his home in Fouke when she was 8. The two exchanged wedding vows and Alamo gave her a ring. When she was 9, Alamo began to repeatedly sexually assault her, Fowlkes said.
She also told the agent that Alamo had controlled "every aspect of her life, every last detail, including where she slept, what she ate, when she ate, who she spoke to, what she did with her time," Fowlkes said.
Other alleged victims came forward with similar stories.
One, who was also born into the ministry, told investigators she lived in fear of the phone call that would mean she would have to leave her home to live with Alamo, Fowlkes said. The call came in February 1994, he said.
As the parents and their daughter sat on a couch in Alamo's house in Fort Smith, Alamo, then 59, told the girl's parents that "God had shown him that he was going to take their little girl to be his wife," Fowlkes said.
Two other girls, ages 11 and 14 in 2002, were living with Alamo along with the 11-year-old's sister, when Alamo called them into his room and told them God wanted Alamo to marry two of the three girls, Fowlkes said. He later exchanged vows with the 11-year-old and the 14-year-old.
The mother of the sisters will testify that she was happy when she learned Alamo wanted her daughters to live with him, Fowlkes said. At Alamo's house, the girls would have a swimming pool, more access to television and movies, and several other young girls to play with.
The mother "trusted the defendant, and she thought her daughters would be safe living under the defendant's roof," Fowlkes said.
Another girl, who was 14 when she married Alamo in July 1998, had "only the clothes on her back and a ninth-grade education" when she finally left the church, Fowlkes said.
Fowlkes said each of the girls was ferried by Alamo or his subordinates across state lines, including trips to the ministry's compound in Saugus, Calif., ministry property in Moffett, Okla., and to Alamo's trial on tax-evasion charges in Memphis.
Ervin countered that the investigation of the church was "fueled by a prejudice that government and law enforcement have against Tony Alamo's church because of its religious practices and because of the actions of Tony Alamo in conducting church business."
Ervin also cautioned jurors that "the government will attempt to infect you with prejudice and sympathy" for the victims.
"They don't want you to keep your eye on the ball," he said.