Texas Three-attorney law firm wins $66M for church beatings Two former members claimed to be beaten as teenagers with a board

By Sylvia Hsieh

The Daily Record Newswire

BOSTON, MA -- A self-described "country lawyer" in Texarkana, Texas, has won a $66 million jury award for two men beaten as teenagers as part of the discipline and control meted out by the leader of a church ministry.

Spencer Ondrisek and Seth Calagna, both now 21 years old, were born into the cult-like ministry of Tony Alamo, who claimed to be a prophet of God and exercised complete control over the thousands of followers who lived on his several ministry properties, including beatings, verbal abuse, forced labor and withholding of food for days at a time.

The three-day trial stood out for winning attorney W. David Carter, even among the 95 or so cases he has tried in his 25-year career.

"This is dark, dark stuff. It takes a toll on you personally. I felt a terrible burden to make sure these kids' story was told in a way that a stranger on that jury could appreciate just how bad it was," said Carter, of the three-lawyer firm Mercy Carter Tidwell.

Among the difficulties Carter faced at trial was representing two young men who were raised behind silent walls and indoctrinated to believe that contact with anyone outside the ministry, especially government, courts and social services, would subject them to eternal damnation.

But the jury already had a pretty good idea about what happened behind the closed doors of the ministry. Tony Alamo was convicted in July 2009 in the same court for 10 counts of transporting underage girls across state lines for purposes of taking them as his wives in violation of the Mann Act.

According to Alamo's defense lawyer in both the criminal and civil trials, John Wesley Hall Jr., his client is "radioactive" in this community, and despite promising a fair trial, the verdict was based on "passion and prejudice."

Hall plans to file motions to reduce the verdict and appeal based on the denial of a jury instruction he sought that says state law allows people with supervisory relationships over children to inflict "reasonable corporal punishment."

'Ritualistic beatings'

The two plaintiffs testified that they received ritualistic beatings for infractions of Alamo's rules. The beatings, which were called "spankings," were ordered by Alamo but administered by his associate John Kolbek, a 6'4", 300 lb. hulk brought in to swing a 4-foot board baseball-style until the transgressor blacked out or the board broke.

(Kolbek, a co-defendant, went missing and was found in default to the tune of $3 million.)

Ondrisek testified that he was beaten in this fashion three times, including once when he was 14 years old following an incident involving landscape work he was instructed to do. After digging a hole and transferring the dirt to the back of a truck, another member reported to Alamo that the boy was trying to escape by digging a tunnel.

Calagna testified that he received two beatings. During the first beating, when he was 14 years old, his father held him down.

Alamo's two wives (he practiced polygamy) testified that the beatings weren't that bad.

"There was an assortment of followers called for the purpose of disputing the boys' account of just how bad it was. They were saying these were spankings but they weren't as brutal as the boys described," said Carter.

But what the jury may have reacted to most strongly was the testimony of one of the boys' mothers.

According to Carter, Calagna's mother, who had not seen her son since he ran away from the compound nearly three years ago, testified that he "deserved the beatings" and that they "cured him of whatever evil was within him" and that Alamo and Kobek "conducted the beatings as heroes."

"This was a critical turning point in the trial because it gave a clear view of how this boy had to grow up, and his parents not only allowed it, they supported it and participated in it," said Carter.

Hall, the defense attorney, said the plaintiffs' claim that the beatings were bloody was not proven by DNA evidence.

"A search warrant was obtained to get carpet samples, but there was no blood on the carpet," said Hall, although he acknowledged that the samples were taken years after the incidents.

Carter said that while the defense initially claimed that the punishment only involved spanking with a paddle, this argument "pretty much crumbled" as more and more witnesses testified that Kobek beat church members in the face until they were bloodied and bruised.

Another key moment at trial occurred when one of Alamo's wives was on the stand and began talking about an earlier case involving Alamo beating an 11-year-old boy. Alamo failed to answer a complaint brought by the boy's parents and a judge awarded them $1.4 million in a default judgment.

Normally, the jury would not hear evidence of the earlier case, but because Alamo's wife brought it up, it got in.

"They opened the door completely in her direct examination. It was a gift," said Carter.

'Down a rabbit hole'

Carter closed his case by describing the world his clients were forced to grow up in as a "voiceless hell."

"Tony Alamo didn't distinguish between where discipline ends and cruelty begins. To the extent they complained, their own parents didn't listen to them," Carter said.

Hall, on the other hand, read from Proverbs to support his argument that the punishment was reasonable and permitted by the Bible.

"The church recognizes the Bible as the supreme authority and the Bible authorizes children to be paddled if necessary up to 40 times, in Proverbs," Hall said.

But Carter said such an argument would lead us "descending down a rabbit hole into Alice in Wonderland."

"We don't send women into the forest for a week every month," he said.

The jury awarded $3 million in actual damages to each plaintiff for battery, the tort of outrage (intentional infliction of emotional distress) and conspiracy, and tacked on $30 million for each plaintiff in punitive damages.

Carter says he is looking into collecting from properties Alamo he has owned over the years in various states including Arkansas, California, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey and Tennessee.

Published: Fri, Jun 24, 2011


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