Saturday, July 11, 2009

Jailed evangelist "married"girls

Last updated July 10, 2009 8:38 p.m. PT

Prosecutors: Jailed evangelist 'married' girls

In this photo taken May 4, 2009, a house on property once owned by evangelist Tony Alamo is shown in Dyer, Ark. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
TEXARKANA, Ark. -- Jailed evangelist Tony Alamo "married" the underage girls he allegedly forced into sex, exchanging wedding vows and rings, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors made the claim as lawyers met Friday with U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes about Alamo's trial, slated to begin next week. The trial, scheduled to last two weeks, will put Alamo's lawyers in a delicate position of trying to tear into the credibility of the evangelist's alleged victims on the stand while trying to not alienate jurors in the conservative southwestern Arkansas town.

"We're looking forward to the trial and looking forward to vindicating Mr. Alamo," defense lawyer Don Ervin told The Associated Press Friday. "His spirits are high and he is strong and he is ready to go to trial."

Alamo, 74, has pleaded not guilty to the 10-count federal indictment. FBI agents and Arkansas State Police troopers raided Alamo's 15-acre complex in Fouke on Sept. 20, searching for evidence of child pornography. Agents arrested the evangelist five days later in Flagstaff, Ariz.

In the closed-door hearing in Barnes' chambers, lawyers argued over a series of defense motions seeking to limit what prosecutors can use at trial. Meeting minutes filed by a court clerk show Barnes dismissed the majority of the defense requests seeking to name FBI informants, suppress evidence found during the Fouke search and offer other records.

However, Barnes granted portions of defense lawyers' request to stop prosecutors from offering jurors Alamo's criminal record and using words like "polygamy," "cult" and "compound" at trial. Barnes did not immediately issue a written order Friday clarifying what portions of the defense request he had granted.

Ervin said Barnes would address motions in the case again Monday, when a pool of jurors from across western Arkansas will come to Texarkana for jury selection. Court officials expect opening arguments in the case by Wednesday.

Late Thursday, prosecutors filed a motion to reject the defense request. In it, they alleged Alamo used the marriages and physical abuse to keep the girls under his control. Alamo also took girls with him to West Virginia and Memphis, Tenn., to have sex with while he prepared for a 1994 tax-evasion trial, prosecutors said.

Alamo served four years in federal prison after being convicted in that trial. Alamo took another underage girl across state lines for sex while still living at a halfway house in Texarkana, prosecutors said.

"It demonstrates that (Alamo's) true motive in transporting the victims of this case across state lines at various times and in various ways, was not to merely have them available for 'office work,' but that would allow him to maintain his sexual relationship with each of them," the prosecutors' filing reads.

Prosecutors also said Alamo had sexual relationships with several different partners at a time and believed in polygamy, but stopped short of calling him a practicing polygamist. A previous defense lawyer for Alamo said the evangelist "spiritually" married and divorced multiple women who continued to live with him.

Ervin said "no" when asked Friday if Alamo practiced polygamy. He declined to discuss the prosecutors' claims about Alamo exchanging wedding rings and vows with the alleged victims, saying that would be discussed at trial.

Since the Fouke raid, state child-welfare officials have seized 36 children associated with Alamo's ministry. A separate lawsuit the ministry filed against the state claims the raid fractured Alamo's ministry and sent many followers into hiding. Ervin said that hasn't prevented Alamo's defense team from finding witnesses to testify on his behalf.

"He is still their leader," the lawyer said. "The last time I visited the ministry, it looked fine. There were dedicated members and the ministry seemed to be functioning very well."

The evangelist remains held without bond pending trial.

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