TEXARKANA — Calling the abuse that two former members of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries say they endured “almost beyond my comprehension,” a judge Thursday entered a default judgment against a fugitive described as the ministry’s disciplinarian and ordered him to pay the two teenagers $3 million in damages.
U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes issued the judgment at a hearing at the federal courthouse in Texarkana in a lawsuit filed by Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna, both 19, against John Kolbeck, whom authorities have described as evangelist Tony Alamo’s enforcer. Both teens say Kolbeck, 50, beat them on multiple occasions over several years with an open hand and an inch-and-a-half-thick board at Alamo’s direction.
Kolbeck, who is wanted on a second-degree battery charge in one of the beatings, has not responded to the lawsuit despite a warning notice about it that was published in the Texarkana Gazette on June 11 and June 18, and was not represented at Thursday’s hearing.
Barnes issued the judgment after listening to Ondrisek describe from the witness stand how he was beaten by Kolbeck on three occasions, beginning when he was age 12, while Ondrisek’s parents and Alamo watched. The teens’ attorney, W. David Carter of Texarkana, Texas, also submitted an affidavit by Calagna describing the two beatings he endured.
Barnes said he didn’t like entering a judgment without hearing from the defendant but Kolbeck’s absence left Barnes with no choice.
As the father of four children, Barnes said, he understood the need to discipline children but the testimony about the damage Kolbeck has caused “emotionally, physically, spiritually ... is almost beyond my comprehension.”
“I don’t think there’s enough money that can be poured in this courtroom that would wash away the emotional horror” the teens have experienced, Barnes said.
He ordered Kolbeck topay each teen $500,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages - the amounts Carter had requested.
Carter said he will file the judgment in Miller and Sebastian counties and seek to collect on it by auctioning off Kolbeck’s ownership interest in several ministry properties.
At one time, Kolbeck was listed along with several other ministry members as an owner of the properties, but Kolbeck’s ownership was transferred to other members after the lawsuit was filed, Carter said.
Carter said he will ask judges in Miller and Sebastian counties to void the property transfers as fraudulent transactions meant to prevent Calagna and Ondrisek from collecting on a judgment in the lawsuit.
“We will be asking that any conveyance from John Kolbeck to anyone else within the past couple years be set aside and then execute on his interest in that property,” Carter said. “I would expect that he has enough interest on enough pieces of property that we will satisfy some of this judgment. It remains to be seen whether he has enough money in property interest to satisfy all of it.”
Alamo, 75, was convicted in July of transporting five underage girls across state lines for sex and is in jail awaiting a sentencing hearing beforeBarnes on Nov. 13.
Alamo had a default judgment entered against him in federal court in Fort Smith in 1990 in another case involving allegations of beatings as well as of unfair labor practices and other misdeeds at the ministry’s compound in Saugus, Calif. In that case, U.S. District Judge Morris Sheppard Arnold awarded six former ministry members $1.4 million in damages. At the time, Alamo was being sought by authorities in connection with one of the beatings although the charges in that case were eventually dropped.
Federal marshals auctioned the ministry’s compound in Dyer and other property to pay the 1990 judgment, but some of the money ended up going to the IRS to satisfy tax debts owed by Alamo and the church. Captured in Florida in 1991, Alamo was later convicted of tax evasion and spent four years in prison.
The lawsuit by Ondrisek and Calagna was filed Nov. 28, 2008, just over two months after federal and state authorities raided the ministry’s compound in Fouke in search of evidence that children had been physically and sexually abused there. The lawsuit initially named Alamo and Kolbeck as defendants, but Barnes split the lawsuit into separate cases against each defendantafter a clerk entered a finding of default against Kolbeck. The suit against Alamo is set for trial in July 2010.
While Alamo’s criminal trial in July was often packed with spectators, only a handful of people attended Thursday’s hearing. Among them was Alamo’s attorney, Phillip Kuhn of Lakeland, Fla., who did not participate but watched from the gallery.
The only ministry members in attendance were Ondrisek’s parents, Richard and Debra, who listened impassively, taking notes in small spiral notebooks while their son testified. They declined to comment after the hearing.
Wearing a light-blue, opencollared shirt and bluejeans, Ondrisek, who was born into the ministry, testified that he was beaten in the church gym in Fouke at age 12 for digging a small hole, at age 14 for squirting a boy with Windex and at age 17 after he was accused of fighting with another boy. Each time, while Ondrisek’s parents and Alamo watched, Kolbeck would slap him more than a dozen times, bloodying his face, then hit him with a 3-inch wide, inch-and-a-halfthick board 30 or 40 times. The last time, he said, Alamo introduced Kolbeck by saying, “Here’s Johnny!”
Calagna said in the affidavit that Kolbeck beat him with a board at the compound in Fouke when he was 14 because of a comment he made about another boy. Afterward, Calagna threw up, he said. During a beating at a church warehouse in Fort Smith, when Calagna was 17,the board broke, and Kolbeck continued beating him with the broken end.
Both teens also testified that they worked for the church more than 40 hours a week in exchange for clothing, shelter and “bonuses” of as much as a few hundred dollars a year.
Ondrisek’s sister, Alys, has been identified by authorities as one of Alamo’s wives, and authorities have placed his younger siblings in foster care. After leaving the church, Ondrisek said he had spoken with his parents twice. The first time “they didn’t seem like they wanted to talk to me at all,” he said. The second time, he said, they tried to get him to drop the lawsuit.
“I do wish that I could have a family relationship with my whole family and we could eventually be together again,” Ondrisek said. “Right now, it’s kind of split up.”
Front Section, Pages 1 on 10/23/2009