Evangelist Alamo faces charges in child sex probe

September 25, 2008

Little Rock, Arkansas - Evangelist and convicted tax evader Tony Alamo says the age of consent "is puberty" and there's a mandate in the Bible for girls marrying young.

"In the Bible it happened. But girls today, I don't marry 'em if they want to at 14-15 years old," Alamo said Saturday after federal agents raided his southwestern Arkansas compound and placed six girls into state custody. "We won't do it, even though I believe it's OK."

But authorities don't believe it's OK - and now Alamo faces charges he transported children across state lines for sexual activities, in violation of the Mann Act. And so once again, the one-time rock promoter and street preacher that former President Clinton likened to "Roy Orbison on speed" will return to federal court.

Alamo is likely to appear Friday in federal court in Flagstaff, Ariz., where federal agents and local police arrested him outside of a mountainside resort. Police officials said there were several women traveling with Alamo when agents arrested him, but none were minors.

Authorities did not say when minors were taken across state lines or which states were involved, but Alamo has ministries in California and Arkansas.

FBI documents identified Alamo by his birth name, Bernie Lazar Hoffman. Alamo has said he was born Jewish but converted to Christianity.

He turned 74 the day federal agents and Arkansas state police had raided the Fouke headquarters of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries on Saturday. Officials removed six girls ages 10 to 17 from the compound and sought evidence that children there had been molested or filmed having sex.

Prosecutors sought Alamo's arrest after interviewing the girls this week, but Little Rock FBI spokesman Steve Frazier would not disclose what the children said. He said the affidavit describing the FBI's evidence against Alamo would remain under seal even after Alamo's initial court appearance.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, describes the ministry as a cult. Alamo's church rails against homosexuals, Roman Catholics and the government, and Alamo has preached that girls are fit for marriage once they are sexually mature.

"Consent is puberty," he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press last week from a telephone number registered near Los Angeles while agents raided the compound. He denied any involvement with pornography.

An Arkansas judge has hearings set for Friday and Monday on whether the state Department of Human Services can keep custody of the six girls. The girls will attend the hearings.

"We will transport them to and from hearings. We will take part in any future hearings," agency spokeswoman Julie Munsell said. "Our job right now is to basically take care of them."

State Circuit Judge Jim Hudson said two hearings would be conducted Friday and the other four Monday in Texarkana.

The six hearings will be split among three judges who will decide whether the state had enough evidence to temporarily remove the children from their homes on the Fouke compound. If a judge rules against the state, the girls would be returned to the parents.

Arkansas State Police spokesman Bill Sadler said that no further arrests were planned that would involve his agency.

Alamo and his late wife Susan were street preachers in Los Angeles before forming a commune near Saugus, Calif. Susan Alamo died of cancer in 1982; Alamo claimed she would be resurrected and kept her body on display for six months while followers prayed.

Alamo was convicted of tax-related charges in 1994 and served four years in prison after the IRS said he owed the government $7.9 million. Prosecutors in that case argued that Alamo was a flight risk and a polygamist who preyed on married women and girls in his congregation.

Since establishing his ministries in Arkansas, Alamo has been a controversial and flamboyant figure in the state. Snapshots often show him wearing large dark sunglasses, and he recently said he is legally blind.

In his autobiography, "My Life," former President Bill Clinton, an Arkansas native, described Alamo recalled traveling in 1975 to see Dolly Parton sing at Alamo's compound in the town of Alma.

Remembering the fiasco after Susan Alamo's death, Clinton wrote: "A couple of years later, he got involved with a younger woman. Lo and behold, God spoke to him again and told him Susan wasn't coming back after all, so he took her out of the glass box and buried her."

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