An Arkansas jury yesterday awarded $33 million to each of two men who were ordered beaten as teenagers by cult leader Tony Alamo — a man who is now serving a 175-year sentence for sexually assaulting child “brides” as young as 8 years old and who has a long history of ordering brutal assaults on children.
Jurors were told that Seth Calagna, 21, and Spencer Ondirsek, 20, were beaten by the late John Kolbek on orders from Alamo while they were being raised on the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries compound in southwest Arkansas, according to The Associated Press. Alamo’s lawyer, however, said afterward that the ministry doesn’t have anything like the millions of dollars needed to pay the award.
The Alamo cult, which was described in a lengthy 2007 profile in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report, was violently anti-Catholic and anti-gay. But like many other personality cults, its most horrifying aspect was its abuse of children. The Report profile described, among other things, how 11-year-old Justin Miller was held down by four men and beaten bloody in 1988 on Alamo’s orders for a minor classroom infraction. Alamo was initially charged with felony child abuse, but he fled and the charges were dropped seven years later. Miller’s family sued and was awarded a judgment of $1.46 million in a federal court.
Alamo, whose real name is Bernie LaZar Hoffman, was sentenced to 175 years in federal prison in late 2009. In addition, five women who said they were raped by him as children were awarded $500,000 each.
The hardball tactics of Alamo’s lawyer, John Wesley Hall Jr., raised some eyebrows during the most recent civil trial. In it, Hall argued that the Bible condones corporal punishment and that “the fact there was bruising does not make corporal punishment unreasonable.” Calgana’s mother, Barbara Calagna, also testified on behalf of Alamo in the trial, saying the beatings her son was subjected to were the best thing that ever happened to him. A prosecutor responded tartly that her testimony was “a prime example of how blindly people will follow Tony Alamo when they believe he’s a prophet of God. She turned her back on her own son.”