Church hostage-taker back in court

State says Onstott violated conditions of his release

Posted: Friday, February 28, 2003

A man who held hostage members of the Juneau Pentecostal Church nearly two years ago was back in court on new charges Thursday.

James Onstott, 63, appeared in Juneau Superior Court on a petition to revoke his probation from a prior conviction. He also was arraigned on a misdemeanor harassment charge.

Onstott is accused of threatening to kill himself and others and destroy property if the head of the United Pentecostal Church did not help him speak with his ex-wife.

He recently was charged with felony assault, but Assistant District Attorney Doug Gardner amended the charge to misdemeanor harassment during the arraignment hearing. Gardner did not give a reason for the change and declined comment on the facts of the case.

Onstott denied he violated the conditions of his probation and pleaded innocent to the harassment charge through assistant public defender Diane Foster.

Onstott was convicted in 2001 of felony assault after holding members of the United Pentecostal Church of Juneau hostage at gunpoint and threatening to kill himself in April of that year. Onstott later said he was distraught over the breakup of his marriage.

He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for the crime and was released in August.

The state is accusing Onstott of violating the conditions of his release by allegedly blocking his ex-wife's path while she was on her way to church Aug. 5.

The state also alleges Onstott wrote several letters and made numerous calls in February to the United Pentecostal Church headquarters in Missouri asking the head of the church to "intercede" with his ex-wife on his behalf. The letters allegedly became threatening when the church did not comply with Onstott's demands. According to an excerpt from a letter, Onstott wrote to church leaders saying he planned to go to UPC headquarters and make a public display of his suicide if his demands for help were not met. He also allegedly threatened to leave a "trail of death and destruction all the way there. ... I have nothing to lose anymore."

Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins set Onstott's bail at $20,000.

"I don't think I can ignore that language (in the letter) in determining the potential risk he poses to the community," said Collins. "I can't order it, but I would encourage Mr. Onstott to seek counseling - given the allegations - if true."

He is lodged at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center.

If convicted, Onstott could receive up to 30 months in prison for the probation violation and up to one year in prison for the harassment charge. His next hearing is scheduled for April 10.

Melanie Plenda can be reached

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