TEXARKANA - Five buildings and a parking lot in Fort Smith should not be auctioned to satisfy a $30 million judgment against evangelist Tony Alamo because the property belongs to Alamo’s ministry, not him, an attorney for the preacher told a judge Tuesday.
At a hearing in U.S. District Court in Texarkana, attorneys for the two former ministry members who won the judgment responded that the ministry can’t be the owner because it is not a legal entity.
“That’s just a new angle” to avoid paying his creditors, attorney Neil Smith, representing former ministry members Seth Calagna and Spencer Ondrisek, told U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Bryant at the hearing.
Calagna and Ondrisek won the judgment against Alamo for their claims in a lawsuit that Alamo ordered them to be beaten and forced to fast while they were children and members of the ministry, which has branches in Fouke and Fort Smith in Arkansas, and in California.
In a court filing in February, they asked Bryant to issue a “writ of execution” allowing for the seizure and auction of the Fort Smith property to satisfy the judgment.
Bryant did not issue a ruling on the request Tuesday. Instead, he asked attorneys for Alamo and the former members to submit written arguments on whether the ministry could be considered to be the property’s owner.
The property at issue includes a church, a gym building, a warehouse, a restaurant, a house and a parking lot.
Alamo, now an inmate in federal prison, did not attend the hearing, but Smith played a video presentation, titled “The Quitclaim Scheme,” in which the evangelist testified in a deposition that ministry property is listed in the names of multiple church members who have been with the ministry for at least 20 years.
Each member signs a quitclaim deed that could be used to relinquish his ownership, Alamo explained in the deposition.
The date and space for a notary signature on the quitclaim deed is left blank. As long as the member remains in good standing, the deed is not filed, Alamo testified.
“If they act up or they become, like, anti-Christ, which means they don’t want to serve the Lord anymore, then, boom, the title is in someone else’s name,” Alamo said in the deposition.
Alamo also testified thatthe members did not hire him to be the church’s leader and cannot fire him.
“Nobody hired me,” Alamo testified. “God did.”
Steve Johnson, a former ministry member, is listed on deeds as one owner. His attorney, David Crisp, said Johnson would not object to relinquishing any claim to the property’s ownership, but he noted that some of the buildings have mortgages, and Johnson would want to be assured that he would not have any responsibility for paying them.
Smith said Calagna and Ondrisek want Bryant to order the transfer of Johnson’s ownership interest, but not the ownership interest of the current church members who are also listed as owners.
Alamo’s attorney, John Rogers of Clayton, Mo., agreed that Johnson and the church members listed on deeds are notthe true property owners. He contended that the property is owned collectively by all of the ministry’s members, some of whom continue to use the property.
As one member, Rogers acknowledged that Alamo has a “nebulous” ownership interest in the property. He said he would need to consult with Alamo about whether Alamo would contest having that interest auctioned to satisfy the judgment.
W. David Carter, another attorney for Calagna and Ondrisek, said that once a writ is issued, the U.S. Marshals Service would issue a public notice allowing anyone with a claim to the property to step forward.
He said it wouldn’t be practical to notify each church member, noting that the ministry claims on its website to have “200 million” followers, many of whom, it says, are in Africa.
Alamo, 78, 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.
The accusers in the criminal case, along with other former members, have filed a lawsuit against Alamo and several church members that is set for trial in January 2014.