As the trial nears, Danny Davis says his client’s wrongful reputation precedes him. The flamboyant is accused of child abuse.
When flamboyant evangelist Tony Alamo goes to court next month in Newhall on charges that he ordered followers to discipline a young boy by striking him 140 times with a board, he will be represented by an attorney who may be walking familiar ground.
Beverly Hills attorney Danny Davis, who successfully defended Ray Buckey in the infamous McMartin Pre-School molestation case last year, said he once again represents a client whose wrongful reputation precedes him in court.
Davis said his job will be to separate the preacher from the myth he says was created by the media and prosecutors.
“There is a man and there is the myth,” Davis said of Alamo. “He has become a myth in the character of this monstrous felony accusation . . . a Draconian whipping. It’s an aftermath product of the media.”
Davis said the child abuse case has been “overcharged” by prosecutors and ultimately will fail when facts are presented in court. Like the McMartin trial, he said, the case against Alamo could come down to how it was handled by authorities and the testimony of a child victim.
Meantime, prosecutors are unfazed by such criticism and have pursued the case for three years, even seeking unsuccessfully last week to have Alamo held on bail of $1 million. Authorities believe that the preacher’s public image is largely of his own making and what will remain when and if it is stripped away is a man who controlled his followers, right down to decreeing the exact number of swats administered to a small boy. “An aura about Mr. Alamo has developed over the years,” Deputy Dist. Atty. John Asari said. However, “I think it has been generated as much by Mr. Alamo as by the media or prosecutors.”
Asari said the case is not based on myths but evidence that shows that Alamo prescribed the beating of the boy. Alamo is charged with one count of child abuse and one count of inflicting cruel and inhumane corporal punishment, both felonies.
“Clearly, he is the leader and that is how he is connected to this,” Asari said. “He is the one who sets the standards. He decides how many blows are to be given.”
Alamo, 56, whose real name is Bernie Hoffman, founded the Holy Alamo Christian Church more than 20 years ago when he and his late wife began taking young dropouts, drug users and alcoholics off the streets of Hollywood and providing them food, shelter and religious sermons. The church established a commune in remote Mint Canyon in Saugus and, at times, hundreds of followers lived on the property.
Alamo later created communes and follower-operated businesses in Arkansas and Tennessee, including a firm that distributed denim jackets lavishly designed by Alamo that sold for up to $600 each.
The church became best known for circulating anti-Catholic literature and for Alamo’s claims that his late wife, Susan, who died in 1982, would be resurrected. The church has drawn the attention of cult-monitoring organizations and has been the subject of numerous government investigations over the years.
The Internal Revenue Service stripped it of tax-exempt status after the federal agency determined that it was primarily a moneymaking enterprise taking much of its members’ income.
The case Alamo now faces began in early March, 1988, when Justin Miller, then 11, told authorities that two months earlier he had been struck with a wood paddle 140 times by four men at Alamo’s urging. The boy said Alamo, saying God told him to punish the boy as a disciplinary measure, ordered the men to administer the beating while talking over a speaker-phone from a nearby bungalow.
At the time, the boy was at the center of a custody dispute between his mother, who was a member of the Alamo church, and his father, who had left the church and accused Alamo of stealing his family’s trucking business. The father and son were later among former church members who won a $1.8-million federal court judgment against Alamo in Arkansas.
The boy’s accusations in 1988 prompted a raid on the Saugus commune by sheriff’s deputies, who arrested four men but did not find Alamo.
Prosecutors first declined to file charges in the case, citing a lack of evidence. But six months later, felony charges were filed against Alamo and five followers, including Justin’s mother, after a church member who witnessed the beating came forward and agreed to cooperate with authorities.
The charges were initially sealed but were made public in early 1989 when authorities were unsuccessful in attempts to locate the six suspects. After the announcement, Alamo told The Times in a phone interview from an undisclosed location: “I favor spanking. . . . It says so in the Bible. People have to decide whether to do what the Lord says or the state.”
Alamo was sought on a federal fugitive warrant for more than two years. Authorities said he is believed to have spent most of that time in Tampa, Fla., where he lived under aliases and operated businesses with his followers. He also produced taped sermons for broadcast on pay-for-play radio stations and frequently called media outlets to denounce critics and pursuers.
He was arrested July 5 after federal marshals traced him to a waterfront home. Asari said the other five suspects in the child abuse case remain fugitives.
Alamo, who last month was acquitted on charges that he threatened to kill a federal judge in Arkansas, could not be reached for comment for this story. A preliminary hearing on the child abuse case has been set Dec. 12 at Newhall Municipal Court.
Davis, Alamo’s attorney, denounced the case as a persecution of Alamo’s unorthodox church.
“It is a reaction to outspoken religious zeal,” Davis said. “There is a level of intensity in going after this man that doesn’t match this weak case. There is an underlying intense feeling of fear, of hate that is drawn from the religious” aspects of the case.
Alamo was not diligently sought by authorities but did not surrender before his arrest because exaggerations and misconceptions in media coverage caused him to fear returning to California, Davis said.
“Mr. Alamo would have been better advised to ignore the fear and hype of the media and promptly cooperate with the criminal justice system,” Davis wrote in legal papers submitted in the case.
Davis likened the Alamo case to his successful defense of Buckey, who was acquitted of molestation charges in the longest trial in U. S. history–an acquittal that was politically embarrassing to Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner.
“They are similar in that we are living with a weak case long after it should have been resolved,” Davis said. “How it was allowed to happen will emerge as another political tar baby for Ira Reiner.”
The case may also be similar, Davis suggested, because it could rely on testimony of Justin, who is now 14. In the McMartin case, the methods investigators used in gathering evidence from children and how the children testified during the trial proved critical when jurors voted to acquit defendants, including Buckey.
“It’s another case where you’re going to have a boy who was a child coming in to testify as a teen-ager,” Davis said. “This is nothing against him, but I have some experience with what adults do to refresh memories.”
Davis noted that one difference in the prosecution of the cases is that initially prosecutors rejected charges against Alamo for lack of evidence, though they were filed later. He said the Buckey case was prosecuted without pause to reflect on the lack of evidence.
“In the Buckey case, the evidence wasn’t there,” Davis said. “But far more was presented to the media that the case was there. Here we have a case where the prosecution dutifully reviewed the case and said it was a turkey, ‘this isn’t going to fly.’ ”
Then, Davis said, “it was overcharged. But it is a weak case and we know it before it is even launched.”
Asari declined to discuss the evidence in detail but said there could be testimony from other children of church members in addition to Justin. Asari also declined to comment on Alamo’s choice of Davis to defend him, other than to say: “I assume he has some expertise in the area” of children’s testimony.