Experts say targeting parents in Arkansas evangelist's sex-crimes trial a tricky question

Associated Press/July 24, 2009

Texarkana, Arkansas - One by one, the women told the court a similar story. They were "married" to evangelist Tony Alamo as children or teens, pushed into the unions with the blessings of parents who believed it was the highest honor before God.

Their parents had been taught that Alamo was infallible, and with him the girls would have access to amenities like television, ponies, a swimming pool and a carousel - luxuries otherwise unattainable in their tightly controlled lives. But instead of spiritual happiness, the women allege Alamo preyed on them for sex at ages as young as 9 as their parents willingly allowed it or ignored the signs of abuse.

None of their parents have been charged, despite the litany of abuse the women detailed under oath as Alamo faces charges of taking them across state lines for sex when they were underage. Experts say prosecutors would encounter several challenges in accusing the parents of abuse or neglect, most notably in determining how much responsibility they had.

"Some of these parents may be viewed as victims as much as suspects," said D'Lorah Hughes, an assistant law professor at the University of Arkansas. "Alamo has a long history of treating his followers not well, and I think you could take the viewpoint that these people have been duped and have been in some way suckered in as victims."

FBI agent Randall Harris, who led the Alamo investigation, shared some of the same concerns when testifying before the grand jury that indicted the 74-year-old evangelist. When questioned during the trial by Alamo's lawyers, Harris said he never told any of the women their parents could be prosecuted.

"I think some of them may have asked me if there was some way my parents could get in trouble," Harris said. "I explained to them that I didn't believe that they were going to be pursued at the federal level, but that I had no control over the state level."

Federal prosecutors won't say whether any of the parents could face charges. Prosecutor Brent Haltom in Miller County, where Alamo's compound is located, said he has no cases open involving the evangelist or parents of the alleged victims.

Parents themselves offered differing views on their own culpability. The mother of an 18-year-old who said Alamo "married" her at age 8 told jurors she had no problems with her daughter going to the evangelist's home. The mother called Alamo "a holy man of God" and a prophet who took in a troubled girl.

"I was totally in control of her situation," the woman, a defense witness, said. Prosecutors never got the chance to ask if she knew Alamo had sex with her daughter as she left the stand after claiming Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. Four of her underage children remain missing after state child-welfare officials obtained an order seeking to put them in protective care.

The Associated Press generally does not name those who say they were victims of sexual abuse, and often doesn't use names of family members to avoid identifying the accusers.

On the opposite end, some said they felt they had to sacrifice their daughters to appease the man who was master over every aspect of their lives. The mother of a girl Alamo allegedly "married" at age 15 said she was pregnant with another child when Alamo summoned the woman, her husband and their daughter to his house and made the announcement.

Alamo told her God instructed him to take their underage daughter as a "wife," she said. Refusing meant being thrown out of the church, which paid for all of the family's food, clothing and shelter.

"I didn't think we'd survive outside. ... That was the only life I knew," the mother said. "When he said the Lord told him to do something, I believed it."

In the past, some allegations against Alamo surfaced because parents spoke up.

More than two decades ago, child abuse charges were filed against him in California alleging that an 11-year-old boy was hit 140 times with a 3-foot board while Alamo gave punishment orders over a speaker phone. The case came to light because the boy's father and uncle, who had previously fled the commune, came back one night to try to take custody of their sons. The boy's physical condition prompted a raid on the Saugus, Calif., compound. The abuse charges were later dropped because Alamo had been imprisoned on tax evasion charges.

In the current case, any attempt to charge the girls' parents with failure to protect their children would be especially difficult, said Linda Spears, vice president for policy and public affairs at the Arlington, Va.-based Child Welfare League of America.

"Failure to protect is difficult at best because you have to demonstrate that they understood the harm their daughters would be under," Spears said. "Maybe some of them did, maybe some of them didn't. It's hard to know that and demonstrate that in a court of law."

The closest comparison prosecutors may have is from neighboring Texas, where authorities raided a polygamist sect's ranch last year. A dozen men from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints await trial on criminal charges, mostly related to their alleged marriages to underage girls.

One father, 73-year-old Fredrick Merril Jessop, is charged with conducting an unlawful marriage ceremony between his 12-year-old daughter and sect leader Warren Jeffs.

Initially, all 439 children from the Yearning For Zion Ranch were placed in foster care. After the mothers took parenting classes, nearly all were allowed to stay with their mothers and were dropped from court oversight.

Julie Munsell, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, said she couldn't comment directly on the Alamo case but that in general, Arkansas aims to reunify parents and children in abuse situations.

"We just have to make sure the children are going back to an environment that is safe," Munsell said.

Andrew DeMillo reported from Little Rock, Ark. Associated Press Writers Michelle Roberts in San Antonio and Deborah Hastings in New York contributed to this report.

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