Evangelist Alamo arraigned on child-sex charges

By: AP
By: AP

TEXARKANA, Ark. (AP) -- Evangelist Tony Alamo told a judge on Friday that he understood that he could get life in prison if convicted of taking a minor across state lines for sex, and he'll argue next week that he should be released from custody pending trial.

Alamo's appearance in federal court was his first since shortly after his Sept. 25 arrest in Arizona. Five days before the arrest, his compound in Fouke was raided and six girls were taken into protective custody.

Alamo is charged with two felony counts: a violation of the Mann Act - which prohibits children from being brought across state lines for sex - and that he aided and abetted a Mann Act violation.

Alamo, 74, has said he believes girls should be allowed to marry when they reach puberty. In interviews with The Associated Press between the time of the raid and his arrest, Alamo reaffirmed that assertion but denied he conducted any such marriages and said no child abuse occurred at his compounds. Alamo also has operations in Fort Smith, California and New Jersey.

If convicted, Alamo faces 10 years to life in prison and a $250,000 fine for each count. In the indictment, Alamo is listed by his real name, Bernie Lazar Hoffman.

During the Friday hearing, Alamo told U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Bryant he understood the charges, though he said he couldn't read them. He has said he is legally blind. Alamo walked slowly and wore thick glasses.

Alamo's attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr., said the indictment made no mention of child porn, which was the impetus for the government raid on Alamo's compound at Fouke. A document mistakenly released to the media prior to the raid discussed anticipated child porn charges.

Bryant set a hearing for Wednesday on whether Alamo can be released from custody before trial. Prosecutors have said Alamo has shown himself to be a flight risk, but Hall said he'll argue that his client can be put under electronic monitoring.

Hall said in court that he wants access to the search warrant affidavit before the Wednesday hearing, but prosecutor Candace Taylor objected. Bryant told the sides to make their arguments in writing and that he'd rule by Tuesday afternoon.

Taylor declined to comment after the hearing.

The arraignment ended without the judge asking for a plea from Alamo. Hall said later that it is understood that a defendant's plea is not guilty but that Bryant told him he would formalize the plea at the Wednesday hearing.

Bryant also set a trial date for Nov. 19.

In the raid in Fouke, agents were searching for evidence that children there had been molested or filmed having sex.

Hall said he may challenge the charges because the government acted based on the pornography allegations.

Hall said Alamo has health problems, including a heart condition and diabetes. He said Alamo claims not to be getting full medical care.

"That's also going to be an issue," Hall said.

Since establishing his ministries in Arkansas, Alamo has drawn attention for brushes with the law and unusual behavior, such as keeping his late wife's corpse for years under the belief that she would be resurrected.

Alamo was convicted of tax-related charges in 1994 and served four years in prison after the IRS said he owed the government $7.9 million.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, describes his ministry as a cult that thrives on criticism of homosexuals, Roman Catholics and the government.

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