A new lawyer hired by cult leader Tony Alamo following his conviction for federal tax violations in Memphis, Tenn., told a judge Friday that it will be months before the evangelist returns to Los Angeles to face child abuse charges.
Appeals in the federal case will keep Alamo, 59, the flamboyant leader of the Saugus-based Holy Alamo Christian Church, in Memphis for at least six more months, and "probably longer," attorney Susan James told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Pounders.
Alamo's church started as a street ministry in the 1960s and earned millions of dollars in later years through communes and church-owned businesses. In the latest of several legal battles, Alamo was convicted June 8 of falsifying his 1985 income tax returns and failing to file returns for the next three years. He is scheduled to be sentenced in the federal case Aug. 26.
Alamo is charged in Los Angeles with ordering four men via telephone to strike Jeremiah Miller, then 11, 140 times with a large paddle in 1988 at the Saugus church. But pretrial proceedings were interrupted when federal officials arrested Alamo in April.
Alamo, whose real name is Bernie Lazar Hoffman, faces up to six years in prison and a $550,000 fine in the federal case. He remains in custody pending sentencing and the appeal.
In Los Angeles, he is charged with felony child abuse and inflicting corporal injury on a child. If convicted on those charges, Alamo could receive up to 12 years in prison.
Deputy Dist. Atty. John Asari said he would like to bring Alamo to Los Angeles following his sentencing in the federal case. But he said discussions with James started Friday to seek "an ending other than a trial" on the child abuse charge.
Asari said the prosecution's willingness to offer a plea bargain, or dismiss the case altogether, might depend on the sentence Alamo receives in the federal case.
A status conference on the abuse case is scheduled Sept. 26. Asari said the frequent delays might cause problems at trial, another reason he might be willing to negotiate an ending to the case.
"Typically, it harms or hinders the prosecution," he said. "I think witnesses tend to forget things, or they become frustrated, and that's something we will certainly take into account while we're deciding what course of action to take."
James said Alamo has expressed no interest in a plea bargain, although she will continue to keep options open.
Alamo fired Tulsa, Okla., attorney Jeffrey Dickstein following the evangelist's conviction on tax charges. James, a Montgomery, Ala., attorney, declined to speculate on the reason for the change in attorneys, except to tell Pounders, "Mr. Alamo has wanted a change of counsel."
Dickstein could not be reached for comment Friday.
Alamo and his wife, Susan, founded the Holy Alamo Christian Church in the 1960s, taking in young dropouts and drug users off Hollywood streets and giving them food, shelter and anti-Catholic sermons. During the next two decades, the church prospered, especially with earnings from glitzy clothing such as rhinestone-studded jackets that sold for as much as $600 in fancy boutiques.
Susan Alamo died of cancer in 1982 and her body was placed on display in the Alamos' Arkansas mansion for several weeks after she did not rise from the dead as rumored. Her body was stolen from a marble mausoleum in 1991 and has not been recovered.
Tony Alamo has since married eight of his followers, including one woman who already had a husband, and at least two 15-year-old girls.
The church is still operating in Saugus and led, to the extent possible, by the imprisoned Alamo, said Don Sweat, a church volunteer at Friday's hearing. He said Alamo's religious convictions have not been dampened by the years of legal battles.
"The more persecution he endures, the more resolute he gets," he said.
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