FOUKE, Arkansas – State and federal authorities are investigating the possible sexual abuse of minors at a 15-acre evangelical compound run by a convicted tax evader whom critics describe as a cult leader.
The Tony Alamo Christian Ministries complex in southwestern Arkansas was raided Saturday by more than 100 federal and state police, and six children have been placed in temporary state custody and are being interviewed.
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No one was arrested, but U.S. Attorney Bob Balfe said prior to the raid that he expects a warrant to be issued for Alamo, 74, who has a long history of tangling with law enforcement.
State police spokesman Bill Sadler said that if the children in state care need to be held long-term, the matter would have to go before a judge.
The raid, the culmination of a two-year investigation into child-abuse and pornography allegations, was moved up on the calendar after an e-mail about plans for an October raid was inadvertently sent to media late last week.
Alamo told The Associated Press in an interview Saturday that no child pornography was generated at the ministry but that age of consent is puberty when it comes to sex. Alamo, who said he was in the Los Angeles area, said the government is trying to harass him.
Alamo was convicted of tax-related charges in 1994 after the Internal Revenue Service 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.
In 1991, Alamo and his followers disappeared when U.S. marshals stormed his complex near Alma in western Arkansas — taking with them the remains of Alamo's late wife Susan, who had died in 1982 and from whom Alamo anticipated a resurrection. As a condition of his release from his four-year sentence from the tax convictions, Alamo had to turn over his wife's corpse to her family.
A number of people who claimed to have past ties with the Alamo group appeared outside the compound as law officers searched the grounds.
Anthony Justin Lane, 34, said he'd been kicked out for asking too many questions and hoped he could get his three children back. He said they remained with the group and his former girlfriend after he was expelled.
"I see pictures of those kids and I feel robbed — robbed of being a father," Lane told reporters.
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, Roman Catholicism and the government.
During the raid, Fouke Mayor Terry Purvis said he was concerned about the reputation of the town of 800 residents, saying he didn't want the community to be associated with Alamo. But he said four members of Alamo's organization are running for city council on the fall ballot.
On Sunday, services were held at the compound but outsiders weren't allowed to attend. A van ferried members from the Alamo compound to the church facility.