Religion: Ex-followers recall Tony Alamo’s path as harsh and narrow.
“. . . the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die.”
–Deuteronomy 18:20, quoted by an ex-follower of Tony Alamo.
Hounded by government agents, faced with financial ruin and slandered by some of the very souls he labored to save, controversial evangelist and accused tax dodger Tony Alamo says Satan has unleashed a fierce counterattack on his soul-saving enterprises.
The U.S. marshal’s office in 1991 seized cash, merchandise and millions of dollars worth of his property, as well as the Alamo clothing businesses, gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores, the auto shop, the construction firm, the candy company, the nursery and landscaping business. Even the hog farm.
Much of the seized property has ended up in the hands of former church members who won a $1.5-million court judgment against Alamo in U.S. District Court a year earlier in Fort Smith, Ark., and the Internal Revenue Service wants the rest.
He faces trial this fall on tax fraud charges in Tennessee.
Those Alamo setbacks, coupled with child abuse charges pending against him in Los Angeles Superior Court, have prompted many longtime ex-followers to come forward and tell, for the first time, of their experiences living in the religious community founded by the 59-year-old preacher and his now deceased wife, Susan.
And Alamo, in a rare interview, told his side.
Although these are trying times, he is not letting on. The government, he said, has been after him for years.
“Never let the devil see you cry,” he said.
Theirs was a match made in heaven. God, Himself, said so. “I had a vision of her and me kissing, a profile of us that looked like black and white wrought-iron, all shimmering,” recalled Tony Alamo. “I told the Lord, ‘She’s smarter than me.’ He said, ‘That’s good for your ego.’ “
And so began the divinely inspired union of Bernie Lazar Hoffman and Edith Opal Horn, a.k.a. Tony and Susan Alamo–a partnership deserving of an eternity in heaven or hell, depending on whom you believe.
From their Las Vegas marriage in 1966 until Susan’s death from cancer in 1982, critics say, the Alamos used street smarts and conceit to build a religious following that numbered in the hundreds and a string of businesses that earned millions.
Internal Revenue Service officials have determined that the Alamos used their church to get rich, and then stiffed the IRS for about $10 million. He is free on $50,000 bail, which his followers paid in cash.
A federal grand jury in Memphis, Tenn., charged Alamo with filing a false income tax return in 1985 and failing to file returns the following three years.
Alamo says he is innocent, that Satan is behind a plot to squelch his work spreading the Gospel.
He also scoffs at the notion that he ever lived high on the hog. Besides, everything he used–the fancy clothes, jewelry, cars and so on–belonged to the church, he said. In 1987 divorce papers, Alamo reported drawing no salary. He said he received about $500 a month in room, board and travel expenses, which was about the same as any other church member.
Whatever the outcome of his tax fraud trial, it is not likely to change any minds on whether the former Hollywood promoter is a courageous prophet or a lying profiteer.
Either way, his story is a testament to the power of faith.
The labor of church members helped the Susan and Tony Alamo Foundation and its affiliated church organizations grow from a dingy Hollywood crash pad in the 1960s to a self-supporting enterprise with residential housing in California, Arkansas and Tennessee on properties worth an estimated $20 million. In time, the arrangement prompted a Department of Labor civil complaint.
These days, some ex-members describe a path to salvation that was harsh and narrow.
The Alamos, who were born Jewish, used the threat of hell to keep a tight rein on their Christian community, holding power over matters large and small, from approving clothes to selecting jobs and marriage partners.
Followers believed the couple got their orders directly from God. Any disobedience chanced eternal suffering. Church members were told that thoughts critical of the Alamos were planted by the devil.
Fasting was a common remedy for slackers and backsliders. Single men and women were not allowed to be alone together or even engage in conversation. Television was for years forbidden, and the only reliable interpretation of the Bible, as well as current events, came from the Alamos.
Tony Alamo told followers the U.S. government staged the Persian Gulf War as a diversion so the world would not notice the seizure of Alamo church properties to satisfy a court judgment.
While preaching a message of austere fundamentalism, Tony and Susan Alamo amassed for themselves a host of earthly treasures: Cadillac and Lincoln limousines, properties, jewelry, antiques, furs, silver and gold. Tony Alamo–a big Elvis Presley fan–could afford to indulge in his dream of being a pop singing star, hiring some of Nashville ’s best musicians to play on records he financed and then advertised in music trade magazines. Susan Alamo could enjoy shopping sprees.
The Alamos told the congregation that their material rewards reflected their exemplary spiritual condition, ex-members said.
But their blessings could hardly be called providential. The Alamos had persuaded followers to work at church-owned enterprises for years in exchange for room, board and a few dollars a week.
Members were told they were doing God’s work. But IRS and Department of Labor officials say they were serving the Alamos. Disgruntled former members began reporting church operations to authorities in the late 1970s. Federal law requires that workers be paid and paychecks taxed. “He could have made a ton of money if he had paid his taxes, paid minimum wage and had those in the church turn over their checks, which they were willing to do,” said Peter N. Georgiades, a Pittsburgh, Pa., attorney who successfully sued Alamo on behalf of six former followers. “Instead, he has lost everything. I think it was greed, and part of it was stupidity.”
As Alamo tells it, he is a modern-day Job–an innocent man being stripped of material comforts in a test of faith. He is charming and funny during interviews, a gifted salesman who apologizes for having to wear dark glasses indoors because of his glaucoma, which also prevents him from driving.
‘Little Yankee Girl’
He said he was a success in the Hollywood record industry during the early 1960s–a promoter and a singer–after changing his name to sound show biz. He claims he recorded a hit record “Little Yankee Girl,” but the tune appears in no standard pop music reference book of the era.
He also denies taking advantage of followers, saying their work for the church was job training and rehabilitation. He said God seized him, shook him and then told him to abandon his Hollywood life in the middle of negotiating a record deal for one of his clients. He was told his mission was to save as many souls as possible during these, the Earth’s last days. He and Susie, as he calls her still, were just following orders.
Alamo is probably best known nationally for having followers distribute leaflets on car windshields blaming much of the world’s problems on the Roman Catholic Church, saying, for example, that the Pope controls the U.S. government. Alamo remains highly critical of other Christian churches.
“They’re busy worshiping this plastic, fake, loving Jesus that doesn’t exist,” said Alamo, who uses the title World Pastor but has no denominational affiliation or formal religious training. “The Jesus of the Bible is rough and tough, telling people to shape up or else. Repent or perish.”
That message has stirred the forces of evil, said Alamo, and the devil is apparently putting up one hell of a fight.
The Chicago-based Cult Awareness Network said Alamo in his heyday was a member of the group’s Top 10. But now the network, which once warned people about joining the Alamo organization, says his numbers have dwindled, largely due to repeated legal setbacks.
U.S. Tax Court authorities ruled last year that all Alamo church organizations were operated to benefit Tony and Susan Alamo. After a protracted appeal process, the tax-exempt status of the existing Alamo organization was stripped for good in a tax court ruling last year.
Alamo’s attorneys argued in court hearings stretching from 1985 to 1992 that the church-owned enterprises were exempt from paying federal income taxes because they were churches in disguise, drawing converts through examples of Christian enterprise. But in the final tax court ruling on the dispute in 1992, Special
Trial Judge Larry L. Nameroff wrote the entire Alamo organization “was operated for Tony and Susan’s private benefit . . . there is credible, corroborated evidence of substantial amounts of jewelry, furs, clothing, automobiles, personal residences, antiques and currency being used exclusively by Tony and Susan.”
Besides facing the tax fraud charges, Alamo must also contend with a claim by the IRS asking for $10.2 million it says he owes.
So far, the IRS has collected a warehouse full of the glitzy, rhinestone-and-airbrush denim jackets that Alamo once sold in trendy boutiques and $8,600 collected from an auction of church pews, altars and office furniture.
Alamo owes another $5 million in restitution for the unpaid work of church members, part of an agreement he signed in June last year with the U.S. Department of Labor. He filed for bankruptcy protection five weeks later, listing his total assets at $8,950.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles County prosecutors are pressing for a prison sentence in the pending child abuse case stemming from an alleged beating at Alamo’s Saugus commune in 1989.
Alamo said he is not worried. He was acquitted two years ago of a charge of threatening to kill a federal judge in Arkansas. And he refused to consider a plea bargain in the upcoming child abuse case, saying that prosecutors have little medical evidence.
Alamo just shakes his head at the child abuse and tax fraud allegations. He is just a simple man of God, he says.
That account does not square with recollections of former members. Even in the beginning, when church members lived in converted chicken coops and ate food scavenged from supermarket dumpsters, the Alamos had decent housing and fresh food, ex-members said.
When the church prospered, they said, the gap remained. Many who left the group say they feel cheated of the years spent in the Alamo church. Most longtime members joined as young adults during the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Alamo crews scoured Hollywood streets offering free meals and eternal salvation to hippies and other dropouts.
Early followers say they were attracted by the communal lifestyle of the Alamo church and the sense of purpose they felt winning over converts and dedicating their lives to God. Some ex-members say they joined after having a profound religious experience.
“It was like someone pouring water straight through me, like a colander,” said ex-member Oscar Lerma, who joined in 1969 at age 19 and left 11 years later. “I didn’t take any drugs or anything. I just felt this clean feeling. When that happened, everything seemed so truthful, so real.”
Members lived in shared housing and ate meals together cafeteria-style. Every night at 8, they held a rousing religious service with music and testimonials.
They were assigned to work on crews to harvest agriculture or plant trees. Others worked in the building trades or in retail. Children born from Alamo-arranged marriages and their families lived in Alamo compounds and worked in Alamo businesses. The church purchased property in Saugus, then expanded its holdings to include communes in Arkansas and Tennessee.
But as the years passed, the church made greater demands on its members. Followers who were attracted by the commune’s similarity to a large family found they had little or no time to spend with their own children because of long hours required for work and commune service such as standing guard at night.
Many quit the group, often in secret and with the help of relatives. The Alamos would always give the same explanation to followers, that the quitters were evil and had gone the way of the devil.
Members were encouraged to report each other’s misdeeds to Alamo, with children snitching on parents and neighbors telling on neighbors.
Complaining or slacking off in work were grounds for punishment, usually a criticism by Alamo in front of the congregation–a practice known as rebuking–and then assignment to work peeling potatoes or scrubbing toilets.
So strong was the personal grip of the Alamos that many say they feared the Almighty was going to strike them dead in the first hours or days after quitting the group.
“We were taught that you didn’t know if someone would just shoot you, or you’d be run over by a truck, but that God was going to get you for leaving,” said former member Jim Griffin. “He kept me captive that way for 18 years.”
Other former members, such as Jack Baxter, said the Alamos cannot be totally blamed for the troubles of followers.
“We did this to ourselves and anyone that says different is a liar,” said Baxter, a member from 1972 to 1978. “We lived this thing because we believed what we were doing was a call from God.”
Others, such as Susan Alamo’s daughter, Christhiaon Coie, say the church was hatched as a fraud from the start.
“Was it a con? Absolutely,” said Coie, who became estranged with her mother in 1971 and never saw her again. “But she also bought into the spooky side of it. She’d say, ‘I’m standing between you and hell.’ “
Most agree it was Susan Alamo who wielded the real authority in the church. She came to Hollywood from a poor Arkansas family, hoping to become a successful actress. Coie said she and her mother–twice divorced–ended up playing a con on local churches, posing as a missionary and her daughter to collect offerings.
Followers, past and present, say Susan Alamo was a charismatic leader, able to persuade followers to obey her commands. She delivered the sermons on the Alamos’ syndicated TV program during the 1970s, while Tony appeared to sing a gospel song.
“She was the smart one, the shrewd one,” said Bob Miller, a member from 1971 until 1987 who won the lawsuit against Alamo. “Tony can only rule by threats. She could always manipulate.”
Tony Alamo concedes that Susan, who was nine years older, was the church’s leader. “She would rebuke me and she would keep everybody in line,” he said.
Now that is his job.
During a recent court appearance in Los Angeles, Alamo was accompanied by a half dozen followers, men in suits, one or two carrying Bibles. They formed a protective circle around their leader, opening doors, all chuckling when Alamo joked with a reporter.
But they turned serious when Alamo talked about government persecution. He said it will probably try to assassinate him if it cannot put him behind bars.
“I’m not worried,” Alamo said. “I want to go to heaven.” Alamo knows because he said he has seen it.
“I saw heaven and I saw me there,” said Alamo. “My hair was metallic silver, in ringlets, my face was golden, my eyes were perfect. Every movement was perfect, every feature was perfect and every gesture was perfect. You could just look at it for hours.”