He’s a convicted tax evader and a flamboyant evangelist who once ran what authorities called a multimillion-dollar, Saugus-based cult. Now Tony Alamo is also a grave robber–at least in the eyes of an Arkansas judge, who has ordered him to lay to rest his wife’s missing 13-year-old corpse.
“It’s putting closure to it, finally,” said Alamo’s stepdaughter, Christhiaon Coie of Reseda, who sued Alamo literally over her mother’s dead body and for whom the legal decision represents a symbolic burial of her mother’s and her tortured past.
According to the Sept. 14 ruling by Arkansas Chancery Court Judge Jim Spears, Alamo illegally removed his wife Susan Alamo’s body from its mountaintop mausoleum in Dyer, Ark., four years ago, and will be held in contempt of court until he produces it.
The state’s medical examiner will have to verify that the remains are those of Susan Alamo, who died of cancer in 1982, more than a decade after she and Tony founded the fire-and-brimstone Holy Alamo Christian Church in Hollywood. The 61-year-old Alamo–now serving a six-year sentence in Colorado for failing to file tax returns and submitting a false one–must also arrange for her “proper and legal entombment,” Spears ruled.
Just why Alamo had the corpse–which he claimed spoke to him from the grave–removed from its tomb was not explained in Spears’ order. But Coie said she believes the dark-haired preacher did it “because he knows no bounds of decency, because he could use her [Susan Alamo] two times around like a marionette to control [their followers].”
Regardless of his motive, if Alamo doesn’t comply with Spears’ ruling, he’ll go straight to Crawford County Jail in Arkansas after completing his federal prison sentence and be held there indefinitely.
“The civil contempt differs from his criminal incarceration in that Mr. Alamo holds the key to the jailhouse in his possession,” Spears wrote.
Attorney Susan James of Montgomery, Ala., who represented Alamo during the trial in Ft. Smith, Ark., noted that Alamo was challenging Spears’ decision and said he had denied all of Coie’s allegations.
“For every Chris Coie out there, there are hundreds of people who would say just the opposite with regard to her allegations about the church and about Tony,” James said. “There are still many, many people nationally and internationally who have great admiration for him.”
But Spears also ordered Alamo to pay Coie $100,000, finding that he had committed a so-called tort of outrage against her by withholding her mother’s body–“outrageous conduct that any person knows would cause much grief and anguish to a child.”
Coie, a 45-year-old singer, said last week she had not expected a monetary award but sued to preserve some semblance of her mother’s dignity.
“I didn’t respect anything she ever did in her life but she’s still my mother and I loved her completely. I still do,” said Coie, who last saw her mother in 1971 when she quit the sect against her parents’ wishes.
Susan and Tony Alamo met in a Hollywood Boulevard bar in the 1960s when Susan was pressing her then-teen-age daughter to become “a kid performer” and he was a self-styled promoter whose real name was Bernie L. Hoffman, Coie recalled last week. At the time, Susan was married to Coie’s late father, Solomon Samuel Lipowitz, whom she described as a good man and a prizefighter who was also a mobster.
“My mother learned strong-arm tactics from my father and then finessed it with religion,” Coie said.
Married in Las Vegas, the Alamos soon established their church, also known as the Susan and Tony Alamo Foundation. They scooped up runaways and drug users off the streets of Hollywood, giving them food, shelter and fundamentalist religion tinged with anti-Catholic and anti-government messages.
In their prime during the 1970s and early ’80s, the oddly paired Alamos–he a puffy Elvis look-alike and she a platinum-haired matron–commanded hundreds of followers, many of them living in what the government called a commune in Saugus’ remote Mint Canyon. They also ran a nationwide network of lucrative, church-owned businesses, authorities said, including a distributor of designer denim and leather jackets, studded with rhinestones, that sold for $1,000 or more.
But the church began to falter in 1985, when the Internal Revenue Service stripped it of its tax-exempt status, charging it was nothing more than a front for Alamo-owned businesses. Meanwhile, lawsuits filed by former church members accused the couple of controlling their flock with intimidation and beatings.
Coie said that when she was trying to leave the sect years ago, her mother and stepfather tried to keep her there by threatening to take away her young daughter.
Today, the girl born into the Alamo church is a grown woman, as is her younger sister, and Coie’s pride in both her daughters is immense. She said last week that the financial award from her suit against Alamo, if it comes through, might see her daughters through college, or help pay her lawyer Charles Karr, whom she credited with sticking by her throughout the bizarre “body case.”
The saga began in 1982 when, instead of burying his 59-year-old wife, Alamo brought her embalmed body back to his compound near tiny Dyer, Ark.
“Like a cheap carnival act,” Coie recalled last week, he kept it on display in an open casket, telling church followers that Susan Alamo would rise from the dead. About 18 months later, his prophecy unfulfilled, Alamo erected a mausoleum on the property and entombed her there.
Then in 1991, as federal authorities moved to seize the church’s myriad assets, the mausoleum in Dyer was broken into and Susan Alamo’s body disappeared. Alamo was living at the time in Tampa, Fla., a fugitive from charges that he had ordered the beating of an 11-year-old church member at the Saugus commune.
Sensing that a panicky Alamo might move the body, Coie had obtained a restraining order, taped to the tomb, that forbade anyone from disturbing it. “I knew how he thinks, and what he might do,” she said.
Authorities said the body was removed from its quiet hilltop the same night that dozens of Alamo followers fled the Dyer compound.
Over the years, Alamo has alternately admitted and denied that he knew of the corpse’s whereabouts–most recently maintaining he had no control over the theft or return.
But last month Spears concluded after a weeklong trial that “Mr. Alamo had the body of Mrs. Alamo removed from the tomb. Mr. Alamo presently has the ability to have the body produced.”
Spears also rejected Alamo’s $3.5-million counterclaim that Coie had slandered and defamed him.
“You know, what gets me about this is [my mother] made him a multimillionaire many times over,” Coie said. “He professed this great love for my mother. This is how he shows his gratitude? To treat my mother like a bag of garbage?
“What my mother did was wrong. I mean, you can’t put a good face on that,” she continued. “But she died a hard death and what she did is between her and God, and what he’s done is so apart from anything human, anything decent. This is so perverse.”
Although Alamo was unable to bring his wife back to life, he intends to keep the controversy over her body alive in court, according to Coie and one of her lawyers, Asa Hutchinson of Ft. Smith.
From his cell at the federal maximum-security prison in Florence, Colo., Alamo has not only filed an appeal of Spears’ ruling but also is seeking a new trial without Spears as its judge. His motions allege that Spears cannot objectively judge the case because he was endorsed by local newspaper editor Jack Moseley. Moseley testified during the missing-body case that Alamo had phoned him after the corpse’s disappearance and acknowledged ordering its removal. Alamo denies it.
Alamo’s church also lives, if in a far smaller and less organized fashion, said several sources including Alamo’s own lawyer. Alamo followers still pepper the IRS with legal challenges, help with his defense, and make their presence known through their trademark brochures.
Said Hutchinson: “We get their literature on our windshields about every Sunday morning.”