Evangelist convicted on 10 sex-abuse counts

Sandy Buchanan (left) and Dana Richardson waved to the bus carrying the jury yesterday after evangelist Tony Alamo’s conviction on 10 accounts of sex abuse in Texarkana, Ark. Sandy Buchanan (left) and Dana Richardson waved to the bus carrying the jury yesterday after evangelist Tony Alamo’s conviction on 10 accounts of sex abuse in Texarkana, Ark. (Evan Lewis/Texarkana Gazette via Associated Press)
By Jon Gambrell
Associated Press / July 25, 2009

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TEXARKANA, Ark. - Tony Alamo, a onetime street preacher who built a multimillion-dollar ministry and became an outfitter of the stars, was convicted yesterday 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 US 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, which straddles the Texas-Arkansas border.

Jurors were convinced Alamo had had sex with the girls when they were underage, but deliberated for more than a day to ensure that they considered everything, jury foreman Frank Oller of Texarkana said.

“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 said the evidence against Alamo, 74, was insufficient and that 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.

“We believe he will face the rest of his natural life in prison,’’ said Assistant US Attorney Kyra Jenner. The penalties on the 10 charges total 175 years in prison, she said, and violations of the century-old Mann Act also carry fines of up to $250,000 each.

The five women, now ages 17 to 33, told jurors that Alamo “married’’ them in private ceremonies while they were minors, sometimes giving them wedding rings. Each detailed trips beyond Arkansas’s 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, and the attorneys argued to jurors that the girls traveled for legitimate church business.

State and federal agents raided Alamo’s compound Sept. 20 after repeated reports of abuse. Defense lawyers said the government targeted Alamo because it doesn’t like his apocalyptic brand of Christianity. Alamo has blamed the Vatican for his legal troubles, which include a four-year prison term for tax evasion in the 1990s.

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.

At times, men were ordered away from the compound and their wives kept as another Alamo bride. Minor offenses from either gender drew beatings or starvation fasts.

In the end, prosecutors convinced jurors in Arkansas’s 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 who spoke directly to God. They described a ministry that ran on the fear of drawing the anger of “Papa Tony.’’

“You really appreciate the courage that they showed stepping up to face their demons,’’ said Thomas Browne, the special agent in charge of the FBI office at Little Rock.