Arkansas seizes 21 more kids from evangelist's group

Associated Press/November 19, 2008

Little Rock - State officials on Tuesday took into protective custody 21 children associated with an evangelical group whose founder faces federal child sex charges.

The children, all younger than 18 and part of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, were taken while custody hearings were being held for six girls seized during a September raid of Alamo's compound in Fouke, in southwest Arkansas. The court must decide whether the girls should be returned to their parents or remain in state care.

Authorities took three children into custody Tuesday at the courthouse in Texarkana, 130 miles southwest of Little Rock. Police seized the other 18 children from two vans during a traffic stop, said Julie Munsell, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services. She said she didn't know why the children were in the vans or where they were headed, and she declined to elaborate on the court order, which cites allegations of neglect and physical abuse as the reason for the seizures.

On Monday, a 14-year-old girl taken by the state during the September raid testified that Alamo molested her, counted a number of young girls as his wives, and coached her and others to say they weren't touched improperly or beaten.

She said Alamo crept up behind her while she was showering, held his hand over her mouth and sexually molested her. She said Alamo warned her to keep quiet, saying if she didn't, she'd be beaten by a man who witnesses have described as Alamo's enforcer.

Alamo, 74, is charged with two counts of transporting a juvenile across state lines for sex, once in 2004 and again the following year. The preacher, listed in court documents by his real name, Bernie Lazar Hoffman, has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges, each of which carries a sentence of 10 years to life in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. He is in jail in Texarkana awaiting trial, which is set to begin in February.

Alamo has preached that the Bible allows young girls to marry once they reach puberty but has said he didn't adopt the practice.

His attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr., said Tuesday he doubts Alamo can get a fair trial in Texarkana because of the media scrutiny surrounding the case. He said Alamo is an easy target in the child welfare hearings because Alamo is in jail and can't attend the hearings.

"Tony Alamo is not able to be there to defend himself, not able to cross-examine these people, which is a fundamental right," Hall said.

The 14-year-old girl, who spent much of her time in Alamo's organization in Fort Smith, testified that Alamo coached her and others to say they weren't sexually molested or beaten, and said Alamo recorded interviews with the girls to document the statements.

"Tony told us what he was going to ask us and what we were supposed to say," the girl testified.

The girl reiterated claims by witnesses at a bond hearing last month, including that Alamo had taken several young girls as wives.

She listed eight names, including Alamo's legal wife, Sharon Alamo, as being the "sisters in the house" at Alamo's residence in Fouke, where she said she lived for a time.

"They all wear wedding rings. They go into his room at night and close the door. They're the only ones that do that," said the girl, who said she lived for a time at Alamo's Fouke residence.

An 18-year-old man testified about being beaten several times by Alamo's alleged enforcer, and said he'd also watched his sister get beaten.

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