LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Parents or followers of a jailed evangelist have been hiding children sought by state welfare officials, the state director of human resources said Wednesday.
John Selig said the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries routinely ferries members across the nation to churches in California and elsewhere. The practice and the ministry's secrecy have stymied officials trying to find as many as 100 children named in court orders allowing the state to take them into protective custody, he said.
"They may have gotten some word that we were about to come in, whether they knew about the court order or not," Selig told The Associated Press. "They may have just said, 'Let's take them somewhere else."'
Protective orders filed in Arkansas courts carry no weight outside the state, further complicating the effort. Selig said his agency has talked with other states about locating the children. So far, 36 children from the ministry have been taken into custody, six of them from outside Arkansas.
Initially, Arkansas officials took six girls into custody when state police and the FBI raided the ministry's compound in Fouke on Sept. 20. Another 18 children from passenger vans traveling in Arkansas near the line with Texas were seized Nov. 18. Family members said the ministry wanted to take the children to a park. A total of six other children were taken elsewhere in the state that same day or on Dec. 12.
Miller County Circuit Judge Joe Griffin, who is presiding over a hearing in Texarkana to decide the fate of 23 of the children, ordered the father of one of them jailed Tuesday after the man refused to say where two of his other children were. The judge found the man in contempt of court.
Selig on Wednesday would not comment on the father's contempt citation but said finding the children continues to be difficult because the juveniles "seem to have disappeared rather quickly."
"The problem is we don't have real good information," Selig said. "We work closely with the FBI, but it's hard to get real good information where the kids are at any particular time because they move around in the ministry a lot anyway."
Alamo is said to have ministries and business operations in a number of states, including Colorado, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Child welfare officials in California previously visited an Alamo compound north of Los Angeles to search for children, but none were taken into custody.
Alamo, 74, remains held without bond on a 10-count federal indictment accusing him of violating the Mann Act when he allegedly took five young girls across state lines for sex. The preacher has denied the allegations. He has said females should be married off at puberty to avoid living in sin but maintains that his ministry has always followed the law.
Former followers have accused Alamo of ordering beatings and taking child "brides."
John Wesley Hall Jr., a lawyer representing Alamo, dismissed the idea that Alamo would issue orders to hide children from jail.
"Does anyone think he's counseling anything like that when his calls are recorded?" Hall wrote in an e-mail to the AP.