6 children in Ark. officials' custody after raid on compound

Monday, September 22, 2008

FOUKE, Ark. -- Six minors have been temporarily placed in state custody as part of a child porn investigation after a raid on a ministry run by a man who says "consent is puberty" when it comes to sex, officials said Sunday.

The children will be in the custody of the Arkansas Department of Human Services as investigators interview them, state police spokesman Bill Sadler said in a statement.

Sadler didn't say how long the interviews would last, but did say that courts would decide the children's status in the event of any "long-term separation" from the property of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries in rural Fouke.

He did not say how old the children were, but an e-mail that authorities inadvertently sent to media members last week referred to 12-, 13- and 14-year-old girls.

The move comes after a raid Saturday by more than 100 federal and state authorities. Investigators said their two-year probe into allegations of child pornography and abuse focused on convicted tax evader Tony Alamo and his ministry, described by its critics as a cult.

Alamo claimed in a telephone interview Saturday that the investigation was part of a federal push to legalize same-sex marriage while outlawing polygamy. He also said for girls having sex, "consent is puberty."

News of the raid brought Anthony Justin Lane, 34, into Fouke from his job roofing in nearby Texarkana, hoping for some word about his family.

Lane said he has been trying for 10 years to reunite with his children, who belong to Alamo's ministry. Lane said he saw a 13-year-old girl marry a man of about 40 just before he was kicked out of the church for asking too many questions.

Lane said he last saw his oldest daughter, who would now be 13, in 2005. She offered him a pamphlet as he sat in his car reading a newspaper outside Alamo's church in Fort Smith in 2005. When Lane told her he was her father, he said, she ran off.

He has received only a few photos since then of the 13-year-old, an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son from a relative. His longtime girlfriend was pregnant with the boy when Lane said he was expelled from the church for questioning its practices.

Authorities' search of the Fouke complex ended after midnight Saturday, and Sadler said officials had no plans to search the buildings again.

Sunday afternoon, a van ferried members back and forth from a nearby 15-acre compound to the church on U.S. 71. Two women, one pushing a stroller, entered the building along with several children. A man at the door told reporters that "no visitors" would be allowed in for the services.

U.S. Attorney Bob Balfe declined to comment when asked whether an arrest warrant had been issued for Alamo or other members of his church. Balfe said before the raid that he expected a warrant to be issued for the 74-year-old leader.

Alamo and his late wife Susan were street preachers along Hollywood's Sunset Strip in 1966 before forming a commune near Saugus, Calif. Susan Alamo died of cancer in 1982; Alamo claimed she would be resurrected and kept her body on display for six months while their followers prayed.

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

Prosecutors in the tax case argued before sentencing that Alamo was a flight risk and a polygamist who preyed on married women and girls in his congregation.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors the activities of extremist groups in the U.S., describes Alamo's ministry as a cult that opposes homosexuality, Catholicism and the government.

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