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.
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.
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.
TEXARKANA — Back in Arkansas for the first time since police and child protective services workers raided his compound in southwest Arkansas, evangelist Tony Alamo stood before a federal judge Friday as authorities unsealed an indictment accusing him of taking a girl across state lines for illegal sexual activity.
Alamo’s attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock, said after the hearing that his client is accused of having sex with the girl in 2004, when she was 13, and in 2005, when she was 14. Alamo denies the allegations, Hall said.
More than two dozen people, including members of Alamo’s church and anti-Alamo activists from Fouke, watched as the balding, bearded, 74-year old preacher, wearing tinted glasses, stood before U. S. Magistrate Judge Barry A. Bryant in the third-floor courtroom of the Texarkana’s federal courthouse, which straddles the Arkansas-Texas state line.
Known for his glitzy, sequined jackets, Alamo was dressed in a white T-shirt and khakis. When Bryant asked Alamo if he had read the two-count indictment, Alamo responded that he is legally blind and can’t read but his attorney had read it to him.
Bryant then set a hearing for Wednesday on whether Alamo should remain in custody or be released on bond. In the meantime, Alamo is being held at the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, Texas.
Alamo did not enter a plea, but Hall said he told Bryant in the judge’s chambers that Alamo plans to plead innocent. Alamo is expected to formally enter a plea at Wednesday’s hearing, Hall said.
After Alamo had been escorted from the courtroom, Hall spoke briefly with six of the church members, four men and two women, in the courtroom. The church members declined to comment as they left.
Among the Fouke residents who watched was Mary Coker, 53, who founded a group, Partnered Against Cult Activity, two years ago to spread the word about allegations of abuse by former church members. She said she had never seen the reclusive pastor in person before.
The indictment unsealed Friday charges Alamo with two counts of violating the federal Mann Act, which prohibits transporting minors across state lines for illegal sexual activity. Each count is punishable by 10 years to life in prison and a fine of up to $ 250, 000.
He said the girl was a member of Alamo’s church in Arkansas but no longer lives in the state. Her mother, who is still a church member in Arkansas, finds the allegations “unbelievable,” Hall said. He said he hasn’t spoken with the girl.
He added that Alamo suffers from Type II diabetes, glaucoma and congestive heart failure and has complained of having diabetic episodes while in custody. Given Alamo’s age and health problems, even the minimum sentence of 10 years would be a “death sentence,” Hall said.