The New York Times, February 9, 2000

Alabama Deacon Denies Assaulting Teen
By The Associated Press

LIVINGSTON, Ala. (AP) -- A man accused of assaulting a teen-ager at a west Alabama commune pleaded innocent Wednesday as the victim's family raised new questions about a 1998 fire that killed four children at the compound.

Albert Lee Roberts, in a written plea, denied a misdemeanor charge. The boy's mother, Geraldine Wilson, made complaints that prompted a state review of conditions at the religious compound, known as the Holyland.

A judge set a March 13 trial date for Roberts, 48, described by authorities as a deacon at the Pentecostal commune, home to dozens of children and adults.

Former Holyland resident Derrick Wilson, 13, said in an interview that Roberts knocked him to the ground, choked him and struck him 20 times with a paddle for pushing a boy who was picking on a female cousin.

Roberts' attorney, Walter Griess, was not in court and did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

Critics allege widespread abuse of children and the exploitation of poor blacks at the Holyland. Holyland founder Luke Edwards, himself black, contends his foes are jealous of his success.

Outside court, Ms. Wilson and her 15-year-old son, Jeffery, claimed in an interview that Edwards predicted at least two blazes that occurred at the compound. Four children died when flames swept through a wood-frame dormitory in November 1998.

State investigators ruled the deadly blaze an accident started by an electric lamp placed too near a bed, which caught fire.

Jeffery Wilson, who said he was living at the Holyland at the time of the fatal blaze, said Edwards repeatedly predicted the girl's dorm would be destroyed and that children would die.

After questioning the Wilsons about the fires Wednesday, the Sumter County sheriff's office contacted the fire marshal's office, which sent an investigator to talk with the family.

Jerry Brown, a Holyland spokesman, defended it in a phone interview.

``Any time a person stumps his toe at the Holyland, it's automatically going to be local, state, national and international news,'' said Brown.

As for Edwards predicting the fires, he said, ``I haven't heard him make those predictions. I did hear him say one time that he had dreamed of a fire.''

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