TEXARKANA A woman testified Wednesday that her son getting slapped in the face and struck with a wooden paddle when he was 14 and a member of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries was “the best thing that ever happened to him” and that he later told her he deserved it.
“I just thank the Lord that it happened, because it worked,” Barbara Calagna said.
Calagna was one of several ministry members called to the witness stand during the second day of a trial stemming from a lawsuit that her now 21-year-old son, Seth, and Spencer Ondrisek, 20, filed against the ministry’s imprisoned leader, Tony Alamo.
Seth Calagna and Ondrisek, who were born into the ministry and fled as teenagers, say Alamo ordered them to be severely beaten on multiple occasions by John Kolbeck, whom authorities have described as Alamo’s “enforcer.” Both also say that Alamo verbally abused them and as punishment forced them to fast.
Ministry members admit that the men were “paddled” - a punishment administered to children and adults alike - but contend that the discipline was not excessive and was in accordance with biblical teachings.
Alamo, 76, who is not attending the trial, was convicted in 2009 of taking five underage girls across state lines for sex in violation of the federal Mann Act and was sentenced to 175 years in prison. Kolbeck died of heart failure at a house near Louisa, Ky., in January at age 51.
Seth Calagna and Ondrisek are seeking compensatory and punitive damages. Attorneys for both sides expect to give closing arguments today.
Like Ondrisek, who testified Tuesday, Seth Calagna told jurors Wednesday that Kolbeck began each beating by slapping him several times in the face. Ondrisek testified that he was made to bend over while Kolbeck swung the paddle at him baseball-bat style, but Calagna said he was made to lie facedown while Kolbeck stood over him and swung the paddle downward.
During Calagna’s first beating, which he described as “the most painful thing that I have ever experienced,” Calagna said he was struck at least 40 times and threw up afterward.
In preparation for the second beating, which took place when Calagna was 17, Calagna said, he wore multiple pairs of pants to protect himself from the blows. But, he said, Kolbeck noticed the extra layers and pulled down his pants, exposing his underwear, and then administered several more blows.
Calagna said both beatings left his face swollen and his buttocks bleeding and covered with bruises.
His mother, who watched the first beating, contended that he was struck only about 10 times. While the beating did leave him with a bloody nose and swollen face, she said, his buttocks were not bloodied and he never complained about the punishment.
She said her son was beaten because he had been threatening to “murder” another boy, and the paddling stopped him from making the threats.
“I believe that John Kolbeck and Tony Alamo should be hailed as heroes, not demonized,” Barbara Calagna said. “I don’t believe the church should be destroyed because my son got spanked.”
Under questioning by Alamo’s attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock, Seth Calagna acknowledged that after leaving the ministry, he listed drugs, sex and money as interests on his Facebook page and that he had made prank phone calls, possibly using obscenities, to the ministry’s 24-hour prayer and information line.
He said he uses the Facebook page to “say things to shock people just to see what kind of response I would get.” The phone calls were also a way to vent his anger, he said.