Image: Tony Alamo
Danny Johnston  /  AP
Evangelist Tony Alamo, left, is escorted from federal court in Texarkana, Ark., on Thursday. A jury convicted him Friday of taking five girls across state lines for sex.
updated 7/24/2009 1:42:25 PM ET 2009-07-24T17:42:25

Tony Alamo, a one-time street preacher who became an outfitter of the stars and fought the federal government over claims he underpaid followers for church work, was convicted Friday of taking five girls across state lines for sex.

Alamo stood silently as the verdict was read, a contrast to his occasional mutterings during testimony. His five victims sat looking forward in the gallery. One, a woman he "married" at age 8, wiped away a tear.

"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.

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.

Jurors were convinced Alamo had 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."

Defense lawyer Don Ervin said the evidence against the 74-year-old preacher was insufficient and that the preacher 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.

The jury of nine men and three women found Alamo guilty of taking girls as young as 9 across state lines for sex, in violation of a nearly century-old federal law. Alamo was accused in a 10-count indictment that said the abuse started in 1994.

The evangelist could spend the rest of his life in prison, since each count is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing will be held in six to eight weeks.

Women ranging from 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.

Alamo never testified. His lawyers told him he should not directly challenge their testimony and they 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. He was later charged with violating the Mann Act, a nearly century-old morality law.

Alamo blamed Vatican
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, which include a four-year prison term for tax evasion in the 1990s.

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. No one obtained food, clothing or transportation without him knowing about it.

At times, men were ordered away from the compound and their wives kept as another Alamo bride. Minor offenses from either gender drew beatings or starvation fasts.

Alamo remained defiant as jurors heard testimony for a week. He openly referred to the Branch Davidian raid at Waco, Texas, muttered expletives during others' testimony and fell asleep at times — while alleged victims spoke from the witness stand and again as prosecutors urged his conviction.

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."

In closing arguments Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyra Jenner described Alamo as a manipulator who dictated everything from what his followers believed to what they could eat. At one point, she turned to stare directly at him.

"Your crimes have been exposed in this courtroom," Jenner said. Alamo sneered and waved her away.

Fell asleep during trial
At one point, his mouth hung wide open as his head rolled back in his chair. A member of his legal team woke him by throwing a pen onto the defense table. When he was awake, Alamo muttered "bull----" at times during Jenner's remarks.

Defense lawyer Phillip Kuhn told jurors not to be swayed by testimony unrelated to the indictment — that Alamo may have had multiple wives, or that he may have set up businesses to evade taxes. He said prosecutors deliberately strayed from the specific charges against Alamo.

"Was it to give Tony a fair trial or was it to turn the jury into a moral mob?" Kuhn asked.

Defense attorneys largely stayed away from challenging the accusers' testimony about sex with the evangelist. Alamo's lawyers rested their case Wednesday after persuading the flamboyant minister not to testify. Though he had told reporters he would take the stand, Alamo said Wednesday afternoon he chose not to testify in an "unjust court."

The evangelist built a multi-state 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 his ministry a "cult."

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