TEXARKANA After deliberating less than two hours, a jury Thursday awarded two men $66 million for their claims that evangelist Tony Alamo ordered them to be beaten, placed them on fasts and verbally abused them while they were members of his southwest Arkansas-based ministry.
The verdict came after a three-day trial in U.S. District Court in Texarkana, in which Seth Calagna and Spencer Ondrisek described living under Alamo’s strict control and in constant fear of punishment meted out by John Kolbeck, whom authorities have described as Alamo’s “enforcer.”
During his closing arguments, attorney W. David Carter of Texarkana, Texas, compared Alamo to cult leaders David Koresh and Jim Jones and said Alamo’s supporters are “still drinking the Kool-Aid,” a reference to the cyanide-laced drink that Jones’ followers used to commit mass suicide in 1978.
Carter asked jurors to reach a verdict against Alamo that would “roll his eyes back in his head.”
“The only spanking, the only legal beating you can give him is with a dollar sign,” Carter said.
The jury of five men and three women awarded Calagna and Ondrisek $3 million each to compensate for pain, suffering and mental anguish. They also awarded each man $30 million in punitive dam-ages, meant to punish Alamo’s behavior and deter similar conduct in the future.
After the verdict was read, Calagna and Ondrisek exchanged hugs with other former ministry members who had arrived to watch. Outside the courtroom, Calagna called the verdict “amazing,” even though he and Ondrisek said they are unsure whether they will ever be able to collect the money.
“I’m just happy the truth came out,” Calagna said.
Alamo’s attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock, said he wanted to “chuckle out loud” when he heard the amount of the verdict.
He noted that in a lawsuit by Ondrisek and Calagna against Kolbeck, U.S. District Judge Harry Barnes ordered Kolbeck to pay each of them $500,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. In that case, Ondrisek and Calagna won by default because Kolbeck, who was a fugitive at the time, didn’t respond to the lawsuit.
In January, Kolbeck, 51, died of heart failure at a house near Louisa, Ky. At the time, he was wanted on a second-degree battery charge in a beating that Calagna said happened at a warehouse in Fort Smith in 2008.
Hall said Thursday that he would ask U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Bryant to rule that damages awarded were excessive and reduce them.
“I’m sure David Carter will have that [verdict] framed on his wall tomorrow, but he shouldn’t pay too much for the frame,” Hall said.
The jurors declined to comment as they left the courthouse.
Alamo, 76, 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. He did not attend the trial this week, but his wife, Sharon, sat at the defense table with Hall.
During the trial, Calagna, 21, described being beaten by Kolbeck twice, once when he was 14 and once when he was 17. Ondrisek, 20, said he was beaten three times over a period of several years, beginning when he was about 12. Both eventually fled the ministry.
During each beating, Calagna and Ondrisek said, Kolbeck slapped them in the head several times, then struck them at least 20 times on the buttocks with a wooden paddle.
Church members admitted that the two were paddled but said the punishments were appropriate, were carried out with the consent of the two and their parents, and were in accordance with biblical teachings.
Among other biblical passages, Hall quoted Proverbs23:14: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.”
In his closing arguments, Hall said that Alamo’s followers “believe in the word of God as being absolute.” He said, “That is their right. That is their privilege, and you cannot second-guess that.”
After the trial, Hall said he would appeal a ruling by Bryant to not allow the jury to be instructed that Arkansas law allows children to be disciplined with corporal punishment.
Under Arkansas Code 5-2-605, “A parent, teacher, guardian, or other person entrusted with care and supervision of a minor or an incompetent person may use reasonable and appropriate physical force upon the minor or incompetent person when and to the extent reasonably necessary to maintain discipline or to promote the welfare of the minor or incompetent person.”
The verdict adds to a mounting debt for Alamo and his ministry, which in addition to its operations in Arkansas, maintains outposts in states, including Oklahoma, California and Kentucky. In January 2010, Barnes ordered Alamo to pay $500,000 each to the five women Alamo was accused of taking as his “wives” and transporting across state lines for sex when they were girls.
Alamo was also fined $250,000 in the criminal case. And to collect the $3 million judgment against Kolbeck, Carter has asked a Miller County circuit judge to auction Kolbeck’s ownership interest in ministry properties, including a church complex in Fouke and an apartment complex, house, commercial building and vacant lot in Fort Smith.
Church members have testified that ministry property is held in the names of multiple ministry members, rather than in Alamo’s name or that of the church. That was a lesson the church learned in the 1990s, when a ministry compound in Dyer and other property were auctioned to satisfy a judgment in a civil case - which also involved allegations of beatings - as well as to satisfy tax debts.
Carter said he would search nationwide for property that could be seized to satisfy the verdict handed down Thursday. In cases where Alamo transferred ownership of property to church members, he said, it’s possible that Carter could ask a judge to nullify the transfer so that the property can be auctioned.
“We’re going to explore our options in every state,” Carter said.