Arkansas judge tells parents to leave Tony Alamo compound to regain custody of seized children

Sunday, November 23, 2008

An Arkansas judge has told the parents of two teenage girls taken from a religious compound run by Tony Alamo that the children can be returned to their parents if the parents agree to leave the compound and secure financial independence away from the controversial "Tony Alamo Christian Ministries" organization. The two girls, ages 16 and 14, were removed from the compound along with four other girls in a September 20 raid conducted by state, federal law enforcement officials and FBI. Authorities raided the compound while investigating allegations of physical and child sexual abuse.

Tony Alamo in 2008

The controversial evangelist leader of the organization, Tony Alamo, 74, was himself arrested on September 25 in Flagstaff, Arizona on charges of sexually abusing children and allegedly transporting a young girl across state lines in order to commit sexual acts with her - a violation of the Mann Act. He waived extradition from Arizona to Arkansas. Alamo has previously been convicted on charges of tax evasion. He was born as Bernie Hoffmann, and started the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation in 1969 with his wife Susan.

Texas Human Services caseworkers took another 20 children into custody on Tuesday in investigations into properties controlled by the organization in Fouke, Texarkana and Fort Smith, Arkansas. According to Associated Press, nine girls and 11 boys ages 1 to 17 were taken into care of the state Tuesday. The children were given health screenings by the state on Wednesday, and received mental health and education assessments. Department of Human Services spokeswoman Julie Munsell said that the children taken by the state on Tuesday had no signs of poor health, and did not need any pressing medical attention. The children were placed in foster care in Arkansas, and Miller County Circuit Judge Kirk Johnson will convene a hearing Monday to determine if these children should stay in foster care.

KTBS reported that three of the boys were taken by the state from the courthouse while they were with their parents attending the hearings on the two girls taken September 20. Circuit Judge Joe Griffin gave the order authorizing seizure of the children by the state, on allegations of physical abuse and neglect. Judge Griffin's order found that there was probable cause that other children at the Tony Alamo compound properties were at risk of abuse and neglect, and may have already been abused. According to a report Thursday in the Texarkana Gazette, over one hundred children from the Tony Alamo compound that were part of a court order to be taken into state custody may be outside reach of child welfare services and unaccounted for, if they were taken over state lines. Arkansas State Police searched over 12 locations Tuesday, but no children were found at the Fort Smith location.

I am not trying to infringe on their religious practices, only the practices that were found to be neglectful or abuse.

—Judge Jim Hudson

In a hearing which concluded Friday night, Judge Jim Hudson of Miller County Circuit explained that his ruling was influenced by a recommendation from the Arkansas Department of Human Services. Human Services asserted that girls at the Fouke compound were at risk of sexual abuse, and that beatings were meted out as punishment at the compound. Human Services also alleged that one of the two girls had been a witness to abuse, and that the other was herself subjected to being beaten at the compound. Judge Hudson stated: "It seems from their recommendation that they don’t see a way that the problems with abuse and neglect could be solved within the context of that very tightly knit community."

"I am not trying to infringe on their religious practices, only the practices that were found to be neglectful or abuse," said Judge Hudson after the hearing had concluded. Judge Hudson made his ruling after hearing three days of testimony regarding the allegations of child abuse at the Tony Alamo compound.

You do not have a constitutional right to subject your children to sexual abuse because it’s in line with your religious beliefs.

—Rita Sklar, ACLU

The director of the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, Rita Sklar, stated that she did not have any objections to restrictions on religion, if the welfare of a child was involved. "It doesn’t sound problematic to keep the children away from what seems to be a very dangerous situation. You do not have a constitutional right to subject your children to sexual abuse because it’s in line with your religious beliefs," said Sklar in a statement in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

The Texarkana Gazette reported that Tony Alamo released a statement from his jail cell regarding the testimony given this week regarding the allegations of abuse made against him. With regard to claims made by the 14-year-old girl who testified in court that Alamo molested her when she was 12-years-old and living at his house, Alamo stated: "She’s a liar right out of the pit of hell." Alamo went on to state that he was: "being found guilty without a presumption of innocence ... I have no say in what's going on. This is one-sided and I can't be heard."

An arrest warrant was issued by Fort Smith police for John Erwin Kolbeck, 49, who allegedly served as an enforcer for Alamo. Kolbeck is accused of beating Alamo's followers for offenses against him and the organization, and Little Rock FBI spokesman Steve Frazier told the AP that a federal warrant for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution was drawn out in the past week for Kolbeck.

He said don’t tell anybody what happened here or I’ll have John (Kolbeck) beat you and I'll take care of you.

—14-year-old girl

According to the AP, the 14-year-old girl testified Monday that Alamo placed his hand over her mouth while she was showering, and then touched her inappropriately. He then threatened her by saying the name of his alleged enforcer Kolbeck. "He said don’t tell anybody what happened here or I’ll have John (Kolbeck) beat you and I'll take care of you. Nobody would've believed me, anyway. Everybody thinks he's a prophet here," stated the 14-year-old girl in court, reported the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

Judge Hudson stated that a review of the case is scheduled for February 14 and subsequently every 90 days thereafter in order to assess if the girls' parents are in compliance with the Judge's request. If the parents are seen to be out of compliance, the state may recommend termination of parental rights. Hearings are expected next week with regard to the status of the other four girls that were removed from the compound September 20. Tony Alamo is himself scheduled for trial on February 2.


  Learn more about Tony Alamo and Child sexual abuse on Wikipedia.