Leaderless Cult’s Future Clouded

Ten days after fugitive cult leader Tony Alamo was arrested in Tampa, Fla., and jailed without bail, WRFA-820 in nearby Largo, an AM radio station featuring religious programming, broadcast its regular 1 p.m. show, “The Watchman.”

“This is Tony Alamo, rightly divining the word of the living God,” said the prerecorded voice of the jailed preacher.

Alamo delivered an hourlong radio sermon, quoting the Bible, admonishing listeners to follow “the law of the Lord” and throwing in a few of his standard barbs at the government agencies that want to dismantle his church’s holdings. But at the end of the hour, he had no telephone number to offer listeners who wanted to help his ministry–as the other preachers who buy air time on the station always provide.

“You can still try to write us,” Alamo said. “The government tore all of our phones out . . . so that you couldn’t get ministered to. But just write 13136 Sierra Highway, Saugus, California, and it might get through.

“Otherwise, we might just see you on the other side.”

The prerecorded radio sermon offers conflicting clues about the cult’s future.

The address Alamo gave was a dead end, that of a boarded-up compound in a remote Saugus canyon that has not been the home base for Alamo’s church for several years. No church members live there, and the Internal Revenue Service has liens against the property for back taxes.

Still, the fact that the preacher was being heard at all indicates that his arrest has not yet silenced his message.

Cult experts say the jailing of Alamo and the seizures of most properties belonging to the Holy Alamo Christian Church will probably mean the end of the cult. They said that without his charismatic leadership, the money needed to operate a church will dry up and many followers are likely to splinter away, leaving only a core of hard-line believers.

But in interviews with several of Alamo’s followers who flocked to a courthouse in Tampa earlier this month to support him, it is apparent that they view the jailed pastor as a near-martyr whose captivity will rally them to the cause. They emphatically denied that his church would founder.

“My faith is stronger now,” said 17-year-old Jennifer Colbeck, a waitress in a church-operated restaurant. “It doesn’t matter to me if Tony is in jail. It doesn’t affect what I believe or what he has said.”

Jennifer, an Alamo follower since her birth to parents who lived at the Saugus commune, likened the pursuit and capture of Alamo by federal authorities to the persecution of Jesus Christ. She said it has served to strengthen the bonds of church members.

“When I see what they are doing to him, I know even more that Tony is of the Lord,” she said. “He speaks the truth. The people who think we will walk away from that are wrong.”

Jennifer’s response to the arrest is not unusual, said Rachel Andres, director of the commission on cults for the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles. The commission has monitored the Alamo cult for several years, and Andres was once unsuccessfully sued by Alamo when she informed stores that sold clothing made by his followers that he was wanted by the FBI.

“A lot of times followers become even more devoted to their leader when he is jailed,” Andres said. “The leader is then put on even more of a pedestal–as if this person has been martyred for the cause.”

But experts familiar with the Alamo followers said the preacher’s arrest, coupled with the seizure in the past year of church-owned communes and businesses in Arkansas and Tennessee, will probably deal a death blow to the cult. Followers will no longer be able to earn their livings through church businesses; money to pay for radio air time and other church activities will soon dry up and Alamo’s message will be stifled.

And though it is believed that Alamo may still be able to direct some followers while jailed, his hold on the flock will slip, they said. Others likened the Alamo group to a corporation or machine in which Alamo and his entrepreneurial, money-making ability was the integral–now missing–part.

“The basis of operation for the cult has been dismantled,” said Cynthia S. Kisser, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network based in Chicago. “It needs a staff in place drawing money in. Without those things, it will be difficult for them to carry on as a machine in his absence.

“There will be a small group or core of followers that will continue to carry out what they think is their obligation to the organization. But they will have a limited effect as a threat to society,” she said.

J. Gordon Melton, a religion researcher at UC Santa Barbara who has studied the Alamo church, said in an interview with Associated Press last week that the incarceration of Alamo “would mean the end of the group.”

Melton noted that for three years, followers had limited access to Alamo while he was a fugitive and therefore may not find it difficult to move to mainstream Christian faiths.

“Tony was not present that much because he was on the run, . . . so his loss probably won’t destroy their faith in Christianity,” Melton said. “They practiced a pretty basic fundamentalist Christianity. I don’t think it was based on his personality.”

Still, said Robert Miller, an Alamo follower for 16 years before he left the cult in 1987, followers are dependent on Alamo for spiritual and economic support. He said Alamo’s arrest and the seizure of property will force followers into the “real world,” where they will fall away from his control.

Miller and some of his relatives successfully sued Alamo, winning a $1.8-million judgment this year for abusing Miller’s children, violating labor laws and attempting to steal a business Miller had started. Miller’s former wife remains a follower of Alamo.

“I think this is pretty much the end of the Alamo cult,” Miller said.

“I think the followers will disband if he remains in jail.”

Experts said it is unclear how many followers Alamo has.

In the 1970s, the church boasted of having thousands of followers across the country. Alamo once lived at the Saugus commune with 500 followers. Federal agents said this month that the 56-year-old preacher still enjoys a nationwide support network of followers. About 50 crowded into a courtroom in Tampa to see him after his arrest.

But experts said the cult’s ranks have thinned in recent years and suggested that those in the Tampa courtroom might be all that remain.

Many of those there disagreed. Alamo followers said the church has no membership but that many support its beliefs.

“This is just the tip of the support,” said Don Sweat, a follower for 20 years. “It’s everywhere you go.”

Sweat and others said many followers of Alamo may pull up stakes in Tampa and go back to Arkansas, where their pastor has been moved to face the first of charges against him.

One indication that the group will not remain in Tampa without Alamo came a few days after his arrest when a van with Oklahoma license plates pulled up behind the Big Time Discount hardware store in nearby Pinellas Park. Authorities said Alamo had opened and operated the store through members of his church.

The store had been closed since Alamo’s arrest, but five men got out of the van, used a key to open the back door, then began clearing the shelves. They loaded the van with cans of paint, tools and other supplies.

When a reporter approached, the men refused to say why they were clearing out the store. One man, Rick Tiner, a follower of Alamo for 20 years, said he didn’t know where the inventory was being taken. But he said he did know that the arrest would not deter Alamo’s followers.

“Tony’s arrest means nothing,” Tiner said while taking a break. “It will have no effect on how we worship and what we worship. He told the truth and nothing can take that away. We can worship that driving down the street.

“The end? That’s what they said about Jesus. That’s what they said about the disciples. But 2,000 years later, the Scripture is still being read. It’s still the truth. That is not to liken Tony to Jesus. He’s just a preacher. There’s only one Jesus Christ.”

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