Fouke - Two days after their children were taken from them in a sweep of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries properties, church members opened the church in Fouke to reporters, denying that they had ever abused their children and saying the government is trying to destroy their church.
Speaking in the compound's cafeteria on Thursday, the parents of 11 of the 20 children taken into state custody in Tuesday's sweep played a video recording of the stop on Arkansas 245 in Texarkana in which police and Arkansas Department of Human Services caseworkers removed the children, some of them sobbing, from two sport utility vehicles that had been heading toward the Texas line.
The parents said their children had been taken away from homes where they were loved and happy, and they blamed the allegations of abuse on disgruntled ex-members.
"These people that are bringing these accusations are drug addicts and liars, and they are driven in their hearts to destroy Tony Alamo because they know in their hearts that if he's right, then they're going to hell, and eventually into the Lake of Fire, and people can't live with that," said Bert Krantz, whose six children were taken from him in the traffic stop.
Tuesday's sweep followed a Sept. 20 raid on the compound by more than 100 federal and state police officers and Hu- man Services Department caseworkers investigating allegations that children had been physically and sexually abused at the compound. Six girls, ages 10 to 17, were taken during that raid and placed in foster homes.
Late Monday, judges in Sebastian and Miller counties issued orders finding that probable cause existed to believe that the children of other church members had been abused or were at risk of abuse or neglect.
The orders allowed the Human Services Department to take in any children at the compound and at 14 Alamo-controlled homes, warehouses and other businesses in the Fort Smith area. The orders also named certain children or their families.
No children were found at the properties, but 17 were found during the stop on the highway. Three other boys were taken into custody at the Juvenile Court Center in Texarkana, where they had been attending a hearing on the custody status of four of the girls who were taken during the September raid.
The Human Services Department is continuing to search for other children who were missed in the sweep. The Miller County order covers more than 100 children belonging to 39 families, according to a part of the order provided by church members on Thursday. Some of the children's names are listed as unknown.
"The truth is we really don't know" how many children were missed in the sweep, Human Services Department spokesman Julie Munsell said. "That goes back to sort of the secretive nature of the community out there." Alamo, 74, was arrested on Sept. 25 on charges of transporting a minor across state lines for sexual purposes.
Hearings on the custody status of the six girls taken during the September raid are expected to continue into next week. At those hearings, judges could decide to keep the children in foster care, place them with relatives or return them to their families, possibly with conditions.
A hearing on whether the 20 children taken Tuesday should stay in foster care, pending further court proceedings, is scheduled for Monday.
Until Tuesday's sweep, the Fouke compound had guards posted at its entrances, and members had repeatedly declined to speak with reporters. But on Thursday, members said they wanted to tell their side of the story.
In the cafeteria where the members spoke, the walls are lined with photographs of Tony and Susan Alamo and church gatherings and with letters from people saying they've been touched by the ministry. A letter from Arkansas Children's Hospital in 2006 thanks the church for a $ 10, 000 donation.
Tables along the wall are stacked with religious tracts and newsletters. On a bookshelf are copies of Alamo's book The Messiah in English and 14 other languages.
Krantz, 57, took a reporter behind the cafeteria and church building to the outside of the yellow, three-bedroom duplex apartment where he lives. A child's plastic picnic table and two metal scooters were in the yard.
"It's hard for me, but I left the kids toys out front because I like it," he said. "It keeps them on my mind, keeps them closer to me." He declined to allow a reporter inside, saying the house was messy and it would be too painful to look in the children's rooms.
Krantz and other members acknowledged they had gotten wind of the sweep when they loaded up the Ford Excursions with children and headed out on Tuesday.
Krantz, who helps produce the church's newsletters, said he was working on his computer at home when he got a call from his wife, Mirriam, who was at the hearing at the Juvenile Court Center.
"She said, I can't tell you what happened, but make sure the kids are somewhere safe," he said.
His children, who range in age from 12 years to 14 months, had been watching an edited version of the TV miniseries A. D., about the life of Jesus' disciples, in the cafeteria, he said. He gathered them up, and they headed out.
"I didn't even know where we were going," Krantz said. "We just took off. I was just thinking, let's just leave." After the stop, Krantz got a call from his wife, and he told her where he was. She parked on the other side of the highway and ran over crying and saying "I want my baby !" A few minutes after the stop, Krantz took out a digital video camera and began recording. In the video, uniformed state troopers and investigators in blue jackets can be seen standing by while caseworkers load the children into two Dodge vans. At least nine police vehicles can be seen parked along the shoulder and median.
Carlos Parrish, 30, and his wife, Sophia Thorne, 23, who were also among the group, said they were headed to a park in Texarkana. They had brought their four children, ages 1 to 7. Their youngest child, a girl, is still nursing.
"I begged them to let me keep my baby," Thorne said. "My kids were crying, screaming." "It's very tragic," Parrish said. "I can hardly sleep at night. I don't know where my kids are, if they're calling for me, if they're having nightmares about being pulled away." Lisa Thorne, 42, lives in Texarkana but had been helping babysit at the compound for parents who were at the hearing. Her 13-year-old was taken in the traffic stop, she said, but her two other children were somewhere else.
"I can't give any information about them because I don't want them to get taken away," she said.
Lisa Thorne said her son has "morals and integrity, unlike a lot of boys his age." "He loves to do what's right," she said. "He loves the Bible. He used to love to go pass out literature with the rest of the brothers." The church members said they spank their own children but denied that they have ever been beaten. Lisa Thorne said she asked another church member to spank her child once, while her husband was away, but she said she wouldn't call it a beating and her son was smiling and playing shortly afterward.
The members denied that the church is a cult and objected to the property being called a compound. They defended Alamo but stressed that they worship God - not their pastor.
In recent years, Alamo had spent most of his time preparing his radio broadcasts, and the services - held every evening and twice on Sundays - are usually led by members.
They said the guards who had been posted at church entrances were there for the children's protection. After the sweep, they are no longer needed, members said.
They said their children eat four meals a day - at 8 a. m., noon, 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. - and attend school inside the compound. Boys and girls attend separate schools and are not allowed to play together. Men are also not allowed to socialize with women outside their families.
Members who live at the compound volunteer their services in jobs on the property. Lisa Thorne transcribed Alamo's radio broadcasts. Parrish is a gardener, and his wife baby sits and is a substitute teacher.
Krantz said members can leave the church in pairs, which he said is so they will have a witness to protect them against false allegations. The church pays for members clothes, medical expenses and other needs. While most eat in the cafeteria, members also have food in their homes. When they need something, they can request it from the church or request money to buy it.
"I like to get my Starbucks," Lisa Thorne said. "That's the main thing I always get."