LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Since Tony Alamo‘s start as a California street preacher more than 40 years ago, the self-styled evangelist’s story has been colorful and checkered.
When his wife died of cancer, Alamo claimed she would be resurrected and kept her body on display for six months while their followers prayed. It would be 16 years before her body was returned to her family.
For a time, his elaborately painted denim jackets were a must-have in Hollywood, but sales contributed to tax problems that landed him in prison for four years in the 1990s.Julie Banderas interviews Tony Alamo
Alamo was charged but not convicted of other crimes, including child abuse. Now the 74-year-old is accused by former church members of abusing children and running an organization in which girls who just reached puberty can marry. Agents raided his southwest Arkansas compound on Saturday and placed six girls in state custody.
In an interview Monday, Alamo spoke of the allegations with a mix of denial and defiance, saying he never promoted sexual abuse but that he believes there’s a mandate from the Bible for young girls to marry.
“In the Bible it happened. But girls today, I don’t marry ’em if they want to at 14-15 years old. Because we won’t do it, even though I believe it’s OK,” Alamo said.
In an AP interview on Saturday, he had said that for girls having sex, “consent is puberty.”
On Monday he bristled at descriptions of his organization as a cult, saying enemies want to cast him as a “weirdo for preaching what the Bible says.”
People who have left Alamo’s organization say they have witnessed older men marrying girls who just reached puberty. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in an e-mail that was inadvertently sent to media last week said agents expected to find children ages 12-14 who had been abused and that they expected to file charges. The e-mail said agents believed child pornography was being produced at the compound in Fouke.
Alamo also denied creating any pornography.
“They (government agents) have got six of our girls in custody. Little girls. They probably disrobed them. I mean it’s the most filthy bunch of devils that I’ve ever heard of,” Alamo said.
As for former followers making the allegations, Alamo said, “I’ve kicked a lot of people out of the church and they’ll say anything to get back at me.”
Under state law, investigators have to make a court filing after a search warrant is executed that details what the search found. But Circuit Judge Jim Hudson said the document would be kept under seal because of the juveniles involved.
The six girls taken into state custody will require a hearing if they remain with the state on a long-term basis but there was no indication Monday that a hearing had been set.
Arkansas Department of Human Services spokeswoman Julie Munsell said the children were taken from the compound because they were “in harm’s way or in imminent danger.” She said the state is trying to identify the children’s parents.
As for what would inspire people to follow Alamo or other charismatic leaders, there is no single or easy answer, said David Bromley, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“These groups vary, and when they are at the hot stage, there is intense commitment. When people leave, when you have that kind of intensity, they tend to be rejected by the group and they tend to be quite hostile when they leave,” said Bromley, who is writing a book on why people join such movements.
SANTA CLARITA – Windowless, white commercial vans glide through the dry canyons north of Santa Clarita, stirring up suspicion and gossip among the locals.
The vans transport the faithful – many of them homeless and runaway young people – in and out of Tony Alamo’s New Jerusalem Christian Ministries. The reclusive sect has made its home deep in Mint Canyon, amid tall oaks, for more than 40 years.
Alamo, the charismatic 74-year-old church leader, has spent most of his time in recent years at his church and residence in his wife’s home state of Arkansas. On Saturday, federal agents investigating allegations of child pornography raided the compound and child-welfare workers took six children into custody.
Alamo’s earlier brushes with the law in the 1990s include a four-year prison term for tax evasion and being a fugitive from Justice.
And as federal agents hinted there could be a warrant for his arrest soon, Alamo told the Daily News by phone that the allegations were baseless persecution.
“Every true Christian church gets that. Jesus got it. Everybody gets it,” said Alamo, whose followers believe he has direct contact with God.
Monday, Alamo said he and his followers have been constantly besieged by the forces of the Dark Lord: Catholics and the law.
As peculiar as many neighbors to the church find it, Alamo and his followers have made positive contributions to the Santa Clarita Valley, helping nearby residents evacuate during fires and even volunteering to build Canyon High School’s football field in the early 1970s.
The church’s dogma and odd habits have aroused curiosity, suspicion and even disgust. Alamo outlined some of his church’s beliefs during phone calls to the Daily News on Sunday and Monday.
Polygamy is OK in God’s eyes.
Homosexuals are Satan’s tools.
The pope is a homosexual who could be the Antichrist himself.
Girls should be allowed to marry and have sex as soon as they have their first menstrual period, regardless of their age, as long as they’re born-again Christians and mature enough to carry on an interesting conversation.
“When they reach puberty, they’re able to have children,” he said. “Why would God prevent anyone?” But when asked whether he or any of his followers has ever had sex with a girl under 18, he said no.
When asked whether he is a cult leader, Alamo bristled.
“No, I’m not,” Alamo said. “A cult (leader) is like the pope.
“If we’re a cult, then Jesus and his followers were a cult.”