Thomas Richards was typing on his computer in the wee hours of the morning one day in December when he heard cars pulling up outside his Fort Lee, N.J., home.
Moments later, he said, New Jersey child-welfare officials, police officers and federal marshals were at his door, armed with a warrant allowing them to search his house for children associated with the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and question his seven children about whether they had been abused.
"I thought they were taking my kids away," Richards said. "It's terrifying, because my kids love me, and I love them so much. It was the worst day of my life."
Richards, who says he left the ministry five years ago, is one of two men who claim in affidavits that child-welfare officials went to their homes in New Jersey in simultaneous visits early Dec. 5 in search of children who fled Arkansas with their parents amid an investigation into allegations of abuse within the ministry.
The affidavits were filed in support of a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Texarkana that claims that the Arkansas Department of Human Services has infringed on members' religious freedoms.
Desere Howard, the coordinator of CPS Watch Legal Team, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the ministry and members, said the affidavits show the extent of the department's efforts to find the children.
"People that had no involvement with what was going on were being pulled out of bed in their sleep," Howard said. "That's a scary place to be."
Since September, the department has taken 36 ministry children into protective custody and is searching for 92 others. It says ministry children were endangered by practices that include allowing underage marriages and administering beatings for violations of church rules. Tony Alamo, the group's 74-year-old pastor, is in jail awaiting trial on charges that he transported five underage girls across state lines for sex over the past 15 years.
Human Services Department officials say they have shared information with officials in New Jersey, California and Oklahoma, as well as with the FBI, but they have made few other details of the search public.
Joyce Williams, a department spokesman, declined to comment Tuesday, citing laws that require the details of foster-care cases to be kept confidential. Spokesmen for the New Jersey Department of Children and Families and New Jersey State Police also declined to comment.
In one of the affidavits, which was filed along with the lawsuit, Robert Streit, 61, said police and New Jersey caseworkers arrived at his home in Elizabeth, N.J., at 5 a.m., saying they were under orders to find any children at the home.
He said he was handcuffed for three hours while the authorities "interrogated" him and another couple who had been visiting the home. No children were taken into custody. The affidavit doesn't specify Streit's association with the ministry, and efforts to contact him Tuesday were unsuccessful.
While Streit's house was being visited, Richards, a 39-year-old newspaper pressman, said authorities showed up at his house in Fort Lee, N.J. At the time, Richards' wife and seven children, ages 8 months to 7 years, were asleep while he typed on the computer, defending the ministry on the Internet message board, www. topix.net.
While no longer a member, Richards has spoken up for the ministry on his Web site, spirituallysmart.com, which says it is "dedicated to uncovering the activities of the Vatican and their formulation of a One World Government and One World Church."
In a blog entry Monday, Richards noted that Miller County Circuit Judge Jim Hudson, who has presided over some of the cases involving ministry children, is being treated at a hospital in Little Rock for a postsurgical infection after having a cancerous growth removed from his intestines.
"Coincidence? or the Judgment of God?" Richards wrote, adding in parentheses, "I don't think you can call Stomach Cancer a 'blessing.'"
During the Dec. 5 visit, he said, authorities searched his house and asked him about John Kolbeck, who is wanted in the beating of a teenage church member on ministry property in Fort Smith. Childwelfare workers then questioned his children for about 45 minutes and talked to him and his wife before leaving, he said.
"It's an awkward, strange thing to happen," Richards said. "I didn't understand why they had to come like that at 5 in the morning."
Richards said he lived on ministry property in the Fort Smith area from late 1997 to early 1999 and at the Saugus, Calif., compound for about a year before leaving for good about five years ago. Although he left "on bad terms," he said, he never saw any children being mistreated.
"These kids were pampered in that church," Richards said. "They had everything."