TEXARKANA, Ark. (CBS/AP) Tony Alamo, a one-time street preacher who built a multimillion-dollar ministry and became an outfitter of the stars, was convicted Friday 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, now ages 17 to 33, sat looking forward in the gallery. One, a woman he "married" at age 8, wiped away a tear.
Alamo was defiant in defeat."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 U.S. marshal's vehicle.
Jurors were convinced Alamo 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."
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.
"We believe he will face the rest of his natural life in prison," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyra Jenner. The penalties on the 10 charges total 175 years in prison, she said, and also carry fines of up to $250,000 each.
The five women, now age 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' borders for Alamo's sexual gratification.
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. They testified that no one obtained food, clothing or transportation without Alamo knowing about it, and that sometimes, men were ordered away from the compound, and their wives kept as another Alamo bride. Also, that minor offenses from either gender drew beatings or starvation fasts.
In the end, prosecutors convinced jurors in Arkansas' 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 Brown, the special agent in charge of the FBI office at Little Rock.
Defense lawyer Don Ervin said the evidence against the 74-year-old preacher was insufficient and that he 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.
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 last 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, including the 4-year prison term for tax evasion in the 1990s.
Alamo remained defiant during the trial. He openly referred to the Branch Davidian raid at Waco, Texas, muttered expletives during testimony and fell asleep at times; while alleged victims spoke from the witness stand and again as prosecutors urged his conviction.
He had built his multistate ministry on the backs of followers who worked in various businesses to support the church. In the 1980s, he designed and sold elaborately decorated denim jackets, hobnobbed with celebrities and owned a compound in western Arkansas that featured a heart-shaped swimming pool.
Federal agents seized a large portion of his assets in the 1990s to settle tax claims after courts declared his operations a business, not a church. Among items offered for auction were the plans for the studded jacket Michael Jackson wore on his "Bad" album.
The Southern Poverty Law Center considers Alamo's ministry a cult.
The woman considered to be Alamo's common-law wife, Sharon Alamo, and several other of his 100-200 followers missed the verdict, hustling up the courthouse stairs and entering an empty courtroom five minutes after court adjourned.
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07/20/09 - Inside the Secretive, Perverted Compound of a Fallen Evangelist
07/16/09 - Million Dollar Man of God 'Married' 8-Year-Old, Say Feds