Saturday, September 20, 2008

Arkansas evangelist compound raided in child porn case

Federal authorities conducting a child-porn investigation raided the headquarters Saturday of a ministry run by a convicted tax evader once labeled by prosecutors as a polygamist who preys on girls and women.

Social workers interviewed children who live at the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries complex, which critics call a cult, to find out whether they were abused. The two-year investigation involves a law that prohibits the transportation of children across state lines for criminal activity, said Tom Browne, who runs the FBI office in Little Rock.

"Children living at the facility may have been sexually and physically abused," Browne said.

The raid, conducted by state and federal authorities, started an hour before sunset at the complex in tiny Fouke, in southwestern Arkansas. Armed guards regularly patrol the headquarters, but there was no resistance as agents moved in, state police said.

No one was arrested, but U.S. Attorney Bob Balfe said before the raid that he expected an arrest warrant for Alamo to be issued later. The federal investigation centered on the production of child pornography, while state police were looking into allegations of other child abuse, he said.

In a phone call to The Associated Press from a friend's house in the Los Angeles area, Tony Alamo — who was also once accused of child abuse — denied involvement in pornography.

"We don't go into pornography; nobody in the church is into that," Alamo said. "Where do these allegations stem from? The anti-Christ government. The Catholics don't like me because I have cut their congregation in half. They hate true Christianity."

About 100 officers raided the 15-acre compound housing the ministry, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a cult that opposes homosexuality, Catholicism and the government.

The ministry's Web site says it is "dedicated to spreading the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and the winning of souls worldwide."

John Selig, head of the Arkansas Department of Human Services, said state workers were talking to children.

A passenger van with about 12 people inside left the compound heading for Texarkana with a police escort shortly after 8 p.m. It appeared some of those inside were children, but Selig said he didn't know whether any children would be taken into state custody.

Police said the Alamo church complex would be allowed to open for Sunday services, although officers did not indicate when the search would end.

Alamo's church is in a single-story building that used to be a convenience store. A white cross stands atop the structure, with a small steeple to the right side. A helicopter circled overhead, and onlookers stopped along the two-lane highway to watch the raid.

There had been complaints about the ministry since Tony Alamo arrived in town in the late 1990s, said Terry Purvis, mayor of the town of about 850 residents.

Four members of the Alamo ministries are vying for City Council seats in November, said Purvis, who added that he has gotten calls from former ministry members with allegations of child abuse, polygamy and underage marriage.

Purvis said he turned over all the complaints to the FBI.

Fouke resident Mary Coker said that she has filed complaints with police about the Alamo ministries and that she has become close to some former ministry members who sought her counsel. Coker applauded Saturday's raid but said, "The wheel of justice is slow."

"He has scammed the people long enough," she said.

Alamo was once accused in California of directing the beating of a church member's 11-year-old son. In 1994, he was sentenced to six years in prison on tax evasion charges filed in Memphis, Tenn.

The judge in the tax case ordered him held pending sentencing after prosecutors argued that the evangelist was a flight risk and a polygamist who preyed on married women and girls in his congregation. U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla said he was concerned over "the very great control Mr. Alamo has over a number of people."

Alamo told the AP on Saturday that he believed the raid was part of a push by the federal government to make same-sex marriage legal while outlawing polygamy.

The raid had been set for October but was moved up after an e-mail exchange between Justice Department employees was inadvertently sent Friday night to media outlets, including The Associated Press. The U.S. attorney asked the media to hold stories until after the raid began.

Purvis, the mayor, worried the raid would harm his town's reputation.

"When people think of Waco or Eldorado, Texas, now, they think of cults," Purvis said. "When people think of Fouke, Ark., they are going to think of the Alamo ministries, not the great people in this town."

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