The Ravening Wolf
Tony and Susan Alamo were photographed with scores of their followers in 1974, at the height of their power. Today, Tony Alamo is back. Photo by Gilbert B. Weingourt/Zuma Press
LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Clad in matching T-shirts with bejeweled cross logos, members of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries are once again saving souls on Hollywood Boulevard. Since the late 1960s, followers of notorious cult leader Tony Alamo have recruited and distributed literature on this star-studded sidewalk.
On this sunny summer afternoon, they're handing out heavily footnoted, paranoid screeds proclaiming the end of the world is nigh and branding the U.S. government an enemy agent of the "satanic" Catholic Church. Followers of Alamo (pronounced "ah-LAH-moe") tuck these same tracts — which Alamo claims have a circulation higher than "USA Today, The New York Times, L.A. Times and many other national publications combined" — under windshield wipers in parking lots around the country. Claiming "homosexuality is caused by demon possession" and "the Vatican, the one-world government and church are spiritually powered by that old serpent called the Devil," this white-hot propaganda comes straight from the mouth of a self-fashioned prophet and convicted tax cheat. Since his release from prison in 1998, Alamo has secluded himself within a guarded compound in a small town near Texarkana, Ark., as opposition from residents and ex-followers mounts.
Scattered former acolytes have long accused Alamo of mind control, con artistry, and mental and physical abuse of his followers. Now, momentum to hold accountable the man known as "Papa Tony" is on the rise. In the last two years, former followers have come together on the Internet, establishing online forums where they offer mutual support and document a litany of personal horror stories. Even more importantly, a number of ex-cult members and family members of several of those still inside have reported to law enforcement allegations of serious crimes including physical abuse, statutory rape and polygamy. At the same time, neighboring townsfolk in Arkansas are organizing against the cult. Yet despite the controversy once again roiling about their pastor, Tony Alamo's army of followers remain nonplussed, continuing to recruit new members with beatific smiles and energetic cries of "Praise the Lord!"
Salvation With Your Salad
By 6:30 p.m., Alamo's salvation squad has convinced a dozen people to climb into a van for the 45-minute ride north from Los Angeles to Saugus, Calif., to attend religious services and eat a free meal. "Thank you, Lord!" the van driver exclaims as he jumps behind the wheel and cranks up the gospel tunes.
The odor in the van is cloying — sweat, mold and unwashed feet. The setting sun streams through the windows as the driver describes Armageddon with the anticipatory glee of a child on Christmas Eve. "I can't wait to see God destroy the earth," he chortles. "The earthquakes, the floods! Man, that's gonna be so cool to watch!"
The van pulls up to the Saugus church, a converted roadside restaurant, and the passengers spill out. Once inside, they head straight for the coffee maker. Most have been here before and know the drill.
"They're full of conspiracy theories about Waco and Jim Jones and stuff, and they hate, I mean hate, the Catholic Church," offers one man, a diabetic on an irregular income. "They can be a little pushy about the whole saving-your-soul thing. But they do have a really nice salad bar."
It's a strange place. The cafeteria walls are plastered with 1970s glamour shots of Alamo and his long-dead wife, and a bookshelf near the door contains stacks upon stacks of Alamo's doomsday tracts.
Next to the cafeteria are a dozen or so pews, an altar and several musicians tuning their instruments for the night's service. Near the back of the church — where all females must sit, per Alamo's orders — are several "sisters" who move in on a visitor and begin witnessing with intensity. "The Lord called you here," says Mary Jane Scheff, a grandmother in a sweatshirt and heavy makeup. "He wants to give you half his kingdom and bathe your heart in the blood of Jesus."
At their Saugus, Calif., church in the 1970s, the Alamos preached that anyone who quit the cult would be killed, driven mad, or changed into a homosexual. Photo by Gilbert B. Weingourt/Zuma Press
The service is more infomercial than sermon. Scheff and her daughter sing gospel songs and a man named Ivan testifies that since he joined Alamo Ministries, he no longer hears voices and doesn't need to be hospitalized for mental illness. Afterward, Scheff hands out piles of tracts, a free Bible, and a plate of meatloaf. She implores the visitors from Hollywood to stay the night. "If you leave, the devil will start talking to you and tell you not to come back," she warns. "The first night I came here, I got saved and moved right in. And that was 37 years ago."
Heart of Darkness
As cheery and devoted as his Hollywood followers may seem, over the years their pastor's ideology has taken a frightening turn, drifting from Bible-based teachings into the murky depths of Alamo's growing paranoia.
In the early years of Alamo's ministry, his long-time wife Susan did most of the preaching, delivering end-times fire-and-brimstone sermons on their weekly TV show while Tony crooned off-key gospel tunes in the background.
But ex-members say his wife's 1982 death from cancer changed Alamo. "She was some kind of restraint on him," says Susan Groulx, who for years edited and copied Alamo's messages from prison to followers. "After her death, it was like he could do anything and get away with it. He became intoxicated with his own power."
Alamo — who declined several requests to be interviewed for this story — also became convinced of a deeply rooted Catholic conspiracy to persecute his church and grew increasingly paranoid. "Once he started talking about the anti-Catholic stuff, that seemed to be all he talked about," recalls Groulx.