The Ravening Wolf
Trouble with the law -- including accusations of child abuse and tax evasion -- culminated in a 1991 raid on Tony Alamo's compound near Alma, Ark. Alamo fled before the raid and never returned. Today, the heart-shaped swimming pool he built for his wife and himself is overgrown and choked with leaves. Photo by Susy Buchanan
In 1966, Alamo married Edith Opal Horn, a gruff platinum blonde and failed actress who quickly reinvented herself as an evangelist and changed her name to Susan. In 1969, the couple started the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation, which would later be renamed Tony Alamo Christian Ministries. They informed their first handful of converts — and the thousands who came later — that anyone who left the church would burn in hell. Without the holy protection of the Alamos, the devil would kill them, turn them into homosexuals or make them insane.
The following year, the Alamos purchased the property in Saugus and built sex-segregated dormitories for their California followers, who today number in the hundreds. Members collected spoiled food from supermarkets and Dumpsters to prepare communal meals. Living conditions were squalid. Punishment for stepping out of line ranged from fasting to beatings to being kicked out of the group and losing your spouse and children, many ex-members say.
Alamo obligated male members, or "brothers," to rotate two-hour watch shifts patrolling the compound every night, they say. He encouraged followers to file grievances against one other, husband against wife, child against parent.
"We were taught, and we taught our kids, that this is Papa Tony, he's a prophet of God," recalled Sue Balsley, a member from 1971 through 1989. "You were taught to shut off what you felt and believe what they said."
In the early days, cult members worked in small businesses opened and owned by the Alamos, including a gas station. Others toiled as field hands on farms in nearby Bakersfield, turning their entire paychecks over to their cult leaders. The Alamos directed their followers to build them a large, lavish home on a nearby hilltop and drove a fleet of black Cadillac sedans (today, Tony Alamo favors a black Escalade). Ex-members report that Susan Alamo spent thousands of dollars on fur coats, fake eyelashes, plastic surgery and wigs. Tony wore turtle-leather platform boots, diamond pinky rings and a bearskin coat with bear claw epaulettes.
The ministry was booming. IRS records show that contributions to the Alamo foundation soared from $46,000 in 1970 to $1.3 million in 1976.
'Roy Orbison on Speed'
In 1975, the Alamos transferred their headquarters to Alma, Ark., where Susan, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer, said she had been cured of tuberculosis as a child through the power of prayer. The couple moved into a stately Victorian home and built dormitories for their followers. They began opening up businesses and eventually owned 30 in the town of 3,000, including a hog farm, a clothing store, a supermarket, and a large restaurant and banquet room popular with country singers. (In his autobiography My Life, Bill Clinton recalls a trip he made to the Alamo restaurant to see country legend Dolly Parton perform. Clinton describes Tony Alamo as "Roy Orbison on speed.")
But trouble was around the corner. In 1976, the Alamos were accused of violating the Fair Labor Standards Act for failing to pay cult members working in Alamo-owned businesses. Still, while their lawyers battled the case in court — it would only be concluded in 1985, when they finally lost on appeal — the Alamos continued expanding their mini-empire, purchasing property in an idyllic nearby spot known as Georgia Ridge. It was there that Tony Alamo lived high above Alma — and the law — for more than a decade.
Susan Alamo's cancer worsened in the early '80s and, despite Alamo's orders for intense prayer, she died in a Tulsa hospital on April 8, 1982. Alamo was devastated by her death and, ex-members say, blamed the church members. He believed he and Susan to be the two witnesses of the Book of Revelation — immortal prophets — and was convinced Susan would rise from the dead.
So instead of burying her, he took her embalmed body back to his dining room and ordered followers to stand around her casket and pray, which they did in two-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, for months before finally interring Susan's casket in a heart-shaped mausoleum in 1983.
Alamo's grief did little to dampen his entrepreneurial spirit. As the '80s drew to a close, the clothing design business he'd started earlier took off, with celebrities snatching up the Alamo of Nashville label. Alamo had his followers sew denim jackets, which were then airbrushed, embroidered with elaborate cityscapes, and coated in rhinestones and Swarovski crystals. The jackets sold for anywhere from $600 to $5,000 and became favorites among celebrities including Sonny Bono, Hulk Hogan, and Brooke Shields. Ex-members, including a former teacher in the cult, say Alamo dealt with increasing demand by bringing the compound's children (there were around 100 at this time) to set rhinestones in the sewing room, where they worked alongside their parents until 10 at night.
The Law Closes In
Alamo didn't spoil the children of his cult and he didn't spare the rod. Stories of brutal beatings are commonplace, according to ex-cultists' online accounts and interviews with the Intelligence Report.
At the Saugus, Calif., compound in January 1988, for instance, 11-year-old Justin Miller wore a leather scarf without permission and asked a science question during history class — two infractions promptly reported to Alamo. The punishment Alamo dictated via speakerphone was 140 blows with the heavy perforated paddle that Alamo had designed and named "the board of education," while his classmates looked on.
"He said I was a goat among sheep and he was going to have to beat the devil out of me," Justin testified later. The boy was held down by four men and walloped until his buttocks bled. For several days after, Justin bled through his pants and had to be sent home from school to change, a teacher of his recalls. His father, who had recently left the cult, got wind of the beating and notified California authorities. Justin was removed from the compound in late March and reunited with his father, and felony child abuse charges were filed against Alamo in April 1989. Alamo wasted no time, going into hiding almost immediately.
Ultimately, in 1995, the child abuse charges would be dropped. But Miller's family sued Alamo and, in April 1990, a federal court in Fort Smith, Ark., awarded them $1.46 million. "No feeling person could fail to be moved by the testimony in this case or be revolted by the cold-blooded and calculated manner in which the punishment was carried out," U.S. District Judge Morris Arnold said then.
At around the same time, the IRS revoked the Alamo Foundation's tax-exempt status, levied a massive lien against its assets for back taxes and began seizing Alamo-owned businesses and property around the country. Federal authorities also charged Alamo with tax evasion — he had filed a false tax return in 1985 and none at all in the next three years. These legal actions culminated in a raid on Alamo's Georgia Ridge headquarters compound in February 1991.
Anticipating the raid, Alamo ordered his mansion gutted. Followers removed antique furnishings, carpeting and fixtures. Among the items abandoned at the compound were 82 pews, 28 mirrors, photos of Alamo with actor Larry Hagman, a back massager, Bibles, toys, purses, cash and 1,500 Alamo jackets.
Missing, however, was Susan Alamo's body. After U.S. marshals seized the property, ex-members say, Alamo ordered his followers to break into her marble tomb and remove her casket, which he then kept hidden — possibly in a storage unit — for seven years. (Susan's daughter, Chris, later successfully sued Alamo. He returned the body in 1995 and was ordered to pay $100,000 in damages.)
From Alamo Christian Ministries World Newsletter