Saturday, July 25, 2009

Pastor convicted

Last updated July 24, 2009 2:17 p.m. PT

Convicted pastor says he's 'one of the prophets'

Evangelist Tony Alamo, left, is escorted from the Federal Court House in Texarkana, Ark., after a day of jury deliberations in his trial Thursday, July 23, 2009. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
TEXARKANA, Ark. -- Tony Alamo, a one-time street preacher who built a multimillion-dollar ministry and became an outfitter of the stars, was convicted Friday of taking girls as young as 9 across state lines for sex. Alamo stood silently as the verdict was read, a contrast to his occasional mutterings during testimony. His five victims sat looking forward in the gallery. One, a woman he "married" at age 8, wiped away a tear.

"I'm just another one of the prophets that went to jail for the Gospel," Alamo called to reporters afterward as he was escorted to a waiting U.S. marshal's vehicle.

Shouts of "Bye, bye, Bernie" - Alamo was born Bernie Lazar Hoffman - came from a crowd gathered on the Arkansas side of the courthouse. Some came from Fouke, the nearby town where Alamo's 15-acre compound sits. Others were former followers of his ministries in Arkansas, California and New York.

The jury of nine men and three women took about 11 hours to consider the charges against Alamo. The 10-count federal indictment accused him of taking his underage "wives" across state lines as early as 1994.

Jury foreman Frank Oller of Texarkana, Ark., said jurors deliberated more than a day only to ensure they considered everything. The testimony convinced them the 74-year-old evangelist kept the girls as sexual partners, not office workers as his defense team claimed.

"That was the evidence. That was proven," Oller said. "We came up with a full decision that we are quite satisfied with."

Defense lawyer Don Ervin called the evidence against Alamo "insufficient" and said the preacher would appeal. He also said Alamo's criminal history - he served four years in prison on tax charges in the 1990s - "will hurt him" at sentencing in six to eight weeks.

Prosecutors said Alamo could face a total of 175 years in prison over violating the nearly century-old Mann Act, a morality law once aimed at stopping women from being sold into prostitution. Each count also carries possible fines of $250,000.

U.S. Assistant Attorney Kyra Jenner said Alamo's conviction would end his cycle of abuse, as he told his followers God instructed him to marry younger and younger girls.

"We believe he will face the rest of his natural life in prison," Jenner said.

The five women, now age 17 to 33, told jurors that Alamo "married" them in private ceremonies while they were minors. Each detailed trips beyond Arkansas' borders for Alamo's sexual gratification.

Alamo never testified. Though he announced to reporters that he wanted to, his lawyers told him he should not directly challenge their testimony. Defense lawyers said the government targeted Alamo because it doesn't like his apocalyptic brand of Christianity.

With little physical evidence, prosecutors relied on the women's stories to paint an emotional portrait of a charismatic religious leader who controlled every aspect of his subjects' lives. No one obtained food, clothing or transportation without him knowing about it.

In the end, prosecutors convinced jurors in Arkansas' conservative Christian climate that Alamo's ministry offered him the opportunity to prey on the young girls of loyal followers who believed him to be a prophet. They described a sect that ran on the fear of drawing the anger of "Papa Tony."

Alamo, who founded the ministry with his wife Susan in the 1960s, remained defiant during the trial. He blurted out a reference to the Branch Davidian raid at Waco, Texas, muttered expletives during testimony and fell asleep even while alleged victims were testifying.

After Susan Alamo's death in 1982, Alamo began focusing his tracts on bashing Catholicism and the Vatican. His ministry, built on the backs of followers who worked in various businesses to support the church, designed and sold elaborate denim jackets for celebrities.

Federal agents seized a large portion of his assets in the 1990s to settle tax claims after courts declared his operations a business, not a church. Among items offered for auction were the plans for the studded jacket Michael Jackson wore on his "Bad" album.

No comments: