A notorious anti-Catholic cult has reemerged in several states since the release of its founder from prison. Now, former members and others are organizing against it.
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."
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.
"The Vatican is posing as Snow White, but the Bible says that she is a prostitute," reads an Alamo tract entitled "The Pope's Secrets" that has been circulating since 1984. "The more power and control she gets in government, the more she will fade away into the background in her 'Snow White' disguise so that government will be used and blamed for all her evil deeds."
Alamo blames the Catholic Church for every evil imaginable, including communism, Nazism, the two world wars and even the Jonestown Massacre. "Narcotics, prostitution, pornography, booze and black market - every filthy thing – can be traced right back to the Vatican," the cult leader has written. Hatred of Catholics isn't Alamo's only unorthodox belief. In 1993, he published a tract called "The Polygamists" which argued, "the Holy Scriptures proclaim polygamy to be righteous." Fourteen years later, he still pushes that message, producing daily radio broadcasts that are beamed around the country and the world and proclaim a holy man's right to take multiple wives.
"They're condemning polygamy where it's never condemned. God never says, 'No polygamist shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven,'" Alamo declared angrily in one recent broadcast. "But these bastards, these homosexual Vaticanites, they condone homosexuals and they condemn marriage and a man that would take care of his… . [T]hey … say, 'You're a polygamist,' that I married too many wives. Well, find out! Prove it! And even if I was, there's no law in the Bible [against] it."
Tony Alamo Speaks
It doesn't stop there. Alamo, who has three children by three different, current "wives," also has been justifying sex with underage girls over the radio waves in recent years. It's hard not to be reminded of similar attitudes among other cult leaders, from Warren Jeffs, the jailed leader of the polygamist Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints, to David Koresh, the late apocalyptic chief of the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas, and a man Alamo says was "like a brother to me." Both Jeffs and Koresh have been accused of having sex with children.
Alamo argues that girls should marry once they start menstruating — even if they are as young as 10. In one September 2006 broadcast, he put it like this: "God impregnated Mary when she was about 11 years old. So the government idiots, the people that don't know the Bible, what you're going to have to do is get a hold of God now, you're going to have to get up there and 'cuff him and send him to prison for statutory rape."
It's a theme that Alamo keeps coming back to. In a radio show just this Feb. 24, the preacher cited the alleged promiscuity of first-graders as grounds for marrying them before the legal age of consent. "I've found out from people's parents that their daughter started having sex when she was 6 years old and had sex every day of her life," he said at one point. "So right there, by the time she's 15 years old, she's had sex thousands of times. I mean, this is just reality."
It's these kinds of statements from the purported prophet of God that have helped drive mounting concerns among ex-followers and others familiar with Tony Alamo, even as his churches — in Saugus, Calif., Elizabeth, N.J., and Ft. Smith and Fouke, both in Arkansas — continue to grow. Some with long memories recall the end of Alamo's first reign, when a 1991 government raid on a mountain ridge in Arkansas left his headquarters compound abandoned and in disrepair, and wonder whether the same thing is coming again soon.
Alamo's Georgia Ridge compound was built at the peak of his cult's power in the 1980s. Today, a visit to this Edenic spot shows the decay of 16 untended years — and, for many ex-followers, suggests where Alamo is heading once again.
Although the views from the ridge are still postcard-ready panoramas of the misty greenery below, the holy empire Alamo ruled over is crumbling. The walls of his abandoned 16,500-square-foot mansion are streaked with mold. Next to the driveway is a large pool built for the exclusive use of Tony and Susan Alamo. Today, its heart-shaped concrete border is deeply fissured, the heart's interior choked with rotting leaves lying listless in the stagnant, black water.
The Construction of 'Papa Tony'
But the story of Tony Alamo began long before Georgia Ridge.
Born Bernie LaZar Hoffman, Alamo claims he worked as a rock 'n' roll promoter in the '60s. He writes of how The Beatles and The Rolling Stones begged him to manage them, and claims he traveled in limousines with a huge entourage and police escort: "The bodyguard would open the door, throw down a big velvet pillow; we would step into the velvet pillow. The barber would comb our hair, the nurse take our pulse. One of the fellows would spray us with cologne, another strew flowers in our path, and the cops would stand at attention."
But the high roller became a holy roller in 1964, when he says God dropped in on a business meeting he was conducting, temporarily struck him deaf and issued an ultimatum: Tell everyone that Jesus is coming back to earth, or die.
"I think it was a scam all along," says Susan Groulx, the ex-follower. "I don't think he had a vision from God. Tony's a megalomaniac, a con."
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.)
Alamo himself was not easy to find. A FBI "Wanted" Poster at the time listed 10 aliases for him and warned: "Alamo is always accompanied by bodyguards who have access to numerous weapons to include M-14 rifles. He is known to be hostile to law enforcement and is considered armed and dangerous."
In 1994, after finally being arrested in Florida where he had been living under an assumed name, Alamo was convicted on the tax charges. The court also found that his "church" had raked in more than $9 million during the four years he'd cheated on his taxes. He was sentenced to six years in prison, of which he ultimately served four.
At his sentencing hearing that year, former church members, including ex-"wife" Jodie Fryer, testified that Alamo had recently begun practicing polygamy and had taken multiple wives, several of them barely into their teens. When questioned in court, Alamo — who had nine wives at the time and publicly preached that polygamists are "blessed by God" — refused to answer.
One of those nine wives was known as Tami Hunt while she was a member of the cult. Today, at 31, she prefers to be called Jael — she was born into the cult with that name and has reclaimed it in the years since she escaped. It seems to suit the articulate, determined mother of six, whose parents named her for the biblical figure Yael, who killed Sisera to save Israel, beguiling him with a dish of milk, then pounding a tent peg through his skull while he slept.
Jael is one of at least a dozen ex-followers — and several alleged child brides — who say they have contacted criminal investigators with the Arkansas State Police since 2003 to report what they endured and witnessed inside Alamo's cult. Jael lived as Alamo's wife for more than two years as, by her account, she witnessed him slide deeper and deeper into polygamy and a taste for young girls.
"I've forgiven him for what he did to me, but I don't forgive him for what he's still doing to those girls," she told the Report. In 1993, Jael says she had just given birth to a daughter when Alamo kicked her husband out of the cult. Desperate to reunite her family, Jael went to visit her pastor on Oct. 15 "to beseech him to let my husband back in," she says.
Alamo heard Jael's pleas to bring her husband back into his good graces, she says, and told her that although her husband was cast out, there was, in fact, a way for her and her baby to get right with God.
She would have to "marry" him.
Alamo's five wives played with her young daughter in another room as she pondered her fate. "It's like having a loaded gun to your head," she says now. Refusing Alamo meant "not only you might get beat half to death, but you'll go to hell on top of it," she recalls.
Finally, she agreed. Alamo, she says, told her the Lord wanted the marriage consummated right away and led her into his bedroom.
Her memories of that night are detailed — the sound of the air conditioner, the texture of the purple velvet curtains, the red numbers on the clock, the ornateness of a bedside lamp, the way Alamo licked his teeth as he paused over her body before shouting, "The blood of the Lord Jesus Christ is against you, Satan! Thus saith the Lord: 'She is mine!'"
"I wrestled over [the question] was I raped or did I want this?" she says now. "I don't think it matters. I was 17. He was 60. I feel raped."
Alamo took several more "wives" while he was "married" to Jael, she says, including a 9- and a 10-year-old girl.
Alamo was calculated and adept when he began to groom young girls, Jael says. "Every little girl starting to develop wants to feel beautiful, and he was very good at making them feel that way," she recalled. "He preyed on the fact that we were alienated from our parents … [T]hey worked and worked, and some of us hadn't seen our parents in a very long time."
Although he was incarcerated during most of their "marriage," Alamo kept in touch through regular prison visits where Jael and other wives present at the time allege that he would fondle the younger girls as older wives blocked the view of the prison security cameras. He allegedly spoke to the girls in graphic terms about group sex and whips, says Jael, who became terrified of him.
At the time, Jael says, she was still in awe of Alamo. She worked 18-hour days transcribing the tapes Alamo would record for his followers, she says, editing out his curse words. "I would have killed for him. I would have killed my child or anyone for him, even though I hated him," Jael says now. "I'd become his little demon, finding sick joy in telling people horrible things on orders from Tony."
Finally, in 1998, Alamo walked out of prison a free man. This time, the cult leader decided to set up shop in the little town of Fouke, Ark.
Stranger in a Strange Land
Residents of Fouke, where Alamo has built a small empire over the last nine years, were unaware of Alamo's history until recently. In February 2006, the town even presented Tony Alamo Christian Ministries with an official certificate of appreciation "for all the deeds that you and your church have done to aid those in need within our community, for your Christian love and kindness."
But Alamo's relationship with the residents of his new base of operations began to sour later in 2006, when he posted armed guards along the public street leading to his compound. Judy Frazier, who runs Fouke's general store, told the Report that in the spring of 2006 she drove past the compound to admire flowers that Alamo's followers planted. "As I was turning around, a guy got out of a pickup truck with a gun, a rifle, and wanted to know what I was doing," she recalls. "I was livid and came back and told my husband, [and] he told a [town] councilman. It was pretty much ignored, but a few months later it happened to other people, a lady and her niece out looking for a lost dog."
Frazier began looking into Alamo Ministries online. There, she found a shocking litany of accusations and detailed accounts of serious physical abuse.
In addition to Jael's account, a former schoolteacher at the compound told the Report that Alamo ordered her epileptic daughter beaten, claiming that the girl's seizures were the devil's doing.
Ex-follower Sue Balsley told the Report that her teenage son was suspended in the air by four men as he was allegedly given 140 blows on Alamo's orders for sending a love letter to a female classmate.
Cyndi Jo Angulo wrote she was 15 and already married to someone else when she was summoned to Alamo's house to become his "wife" in 1995, only to discover that her 11-year-old sister had already been taken as his "bride." She also says she was one of the girls Alamo allegedly fondled during prison visits.
Nikki Farr told the Report of fleeing Alamo's house in 1999 when she was 15 years old, after enduring what she described as three years of lewd talk during prison visits. Determined not to marry her then-65-year-old pastor, she says she escaped from the cult by crawling through ditches and over barbed wire after Alamo caught her making an unauthorized phone call and knocked her unconscious.
It's a pattern of abuse that many suspect continues to this day. The thought that this might be going on in their hometown is both frightening and heart wrenching to Fouke residents, including Frazier.
And then there are the mattresses.
This February, Alamo was linked to 3,000 apparently stolen mattresses stored in an Arkansas warehouse owned by two of his current "wives." The mattresses, it turns out, were part of a lot of 8,000 donated to Katrina victims by the Tempur-Pedic mattress company through a New Jersey company called Waste to Charity. Tempur-Pedic filed suit in federal court seeking to recover the $15 million it said the inventory it donated was worth. The complaint alleges that one of the defendants, Alamo right-hand man Thomas Scarcello, sold 4,000 of the mattresses to a buyer for $500,000. The lawsuit is scheduled to be tried next January.
"Now that I know what is going on, I feel an obligation to help," Frazier says. "His people are as much victims as the little girls are. They are brainwashed [to believe] that he is the anointed of God and if they leave they face hellfire."
Shining a Light
As Frazier and others spread the word around town about Alamo, more and more Fouke residents became alarmed. One of the small town's eight City Council members is a member of Alamo's cult and anti-Alamo residents claim that four other council members also are beholden to the cult leader. Alamo has become a hot button issue in Fouke. Attendance at recent monthly City Council meetings has been so high that residents bring their own chairs and wait patiently in a long line outside City Hall for the doors to open.
"I'm so sick of having his literature plastered on our cars while we're at church," said Sherry Potts, the most vocal member of a growing group of residents opposed to Alamo. "It made me angry so I went home and called the number listed on the back. I told them, 'I don't want any more of your filth. The Bible is the word of God. Yours is the word of a pervert.'"
Alamo now counterattacks his detractors in Fouke regularly on his radio broadcasts, suggesting that God will exterminate his "Vaticanite" detractors.
"Now God said he's going to destroy those people, all of them," Alamo said in one rambling diatribe this summer. "God is going to get them. They're going to get cut down one of these days."
Cult expert and deprogrammer Steve Hassan, the author of Combating Cult Mind Control, has followed the activities of the Alamo cult since Alamo's release from prison in 1998. Like many others, he is surprised Alamo is still free.
"Tony Alamo is power-hungry, deluded, paranoid and exploitative, certainly as far as what he's doing with young girls," says Hassan. "I don't know if law enforcement is either corrupt or [too] nervous to pursue him."
Officials with the Arkansas State Police, where ex-followers have made a series of complaints against Alamo in recent years, would not say if the cult leader is under investigation. "As a matter of policy, the Arkansas State Police does not address questions or publicly discuss elements of any investigation that may be open," said spokesman Bill Sadler.
So, for now, Fouke residents and ex-Alamo followers plan to continue turning up the heat in hopes of bringing increased scrutiny to Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and its leader. "I'd like to see him arrested immediately," Susan Groulx says. "There's no reason why he should be free and no reason why this should drag on any longer."
EDITOR'S NOTE Based on evidence compiled recently by the Intelligence Report, the Southern Poverty Law Center is adding Tony Alamo Christian Ministries to its list of hate groups. Future listings will include active chapters of the group.