Tony Alamo operates the "strongest Fundamentalist Christian organization in the world." Tracts, pamphlets, and posters bearing the logo of the Holy Alamo Christian Church dot the American landscape.
One tract showing up in mail boxes and on windshields is Nailed!! It accuses the Vatican of controlling the White House in a plot to "attack all religions in the world." Alamo insists this is not hate literature and that he is not an anti-Catholic. The 55-year-old former singer and record promoter says, "If we are anti-Catholic," he says, "so is the Bible. I love the Catholic people."
After I discovered Alamo's Nailed!! in my mail box, I struggled with an emotion far akin from love. I decided to pay a visit to the Holy Alamo Christian Church Foundation headquarters in Dyer, Arkansas, a place where visitors are not welcome. I wanted to learn more about Tony Alamo and the inner workings of his organization. (By the way, his surname is pronounced not AL-uh-moe, which is the pronunciation of the historical site in Texas, but Uh-LAH-moe.)
Standing in a circle of Dyer residents (and their pit bulldog), I posed as a concerned Christian interested in joining the Church. Once Alamo's people searched my car, jotted down my license number, and asked me several questions, they handed me a cassette tape, "The Praises of the Saints," which contained a "Christian message" by Tony Alamo. I was invited to attend worship services which would "fill me with the Spirit." I declined.
Born Bernie Lazar Hoffman in 1934, Alamo left his hometown of Joplin, Missouri when he was a teen. It was on the West Coast that he began a career as a singer and record promoter. In 1966 he married former Arkansas resident Edith Opal Horn, who later became known as Susan Alamo. She reportedly was an actress before becoming interested in religion. Tony and Susan started preaching on Hollywood's Sunset Strip. They attracted young followers and in 1969 formed a commune called the Holy Alamo Christian Church. The organization relocated to Arkansas in 1975.
In the Ozark town of Alma the Alamos set up a restaurant, clothing store, two gas stations, and assorted small businesses.
They established a religious foundation in Dyer, a hamlet located between Van Buren and Alma. Foundation headquarters are housed in a compound located on Georgia Ridge, two miles north of Dyer.
The compound includes residential quarters for church workers, a school (with Olympic-sized swimming pool), a chapel, and the main office, which houses a 24-hour phone room where Alamo workers keep a head count of callers who are "saved" as a result of calling the headquarters.
Perhaps callers can be saved, but visitors can't because the roads leading to the compound are barricaded. Visitors are not allowed on the grounds. "A Jesuit deacon tried to set us up for a massacre there on three different occasions," Alamo told the Arkansas Gazette. "We just don't want anybody up there at all. I don't tell my guards to be armed, but when I went to the Vatican to see the pope, they put machine guns on me."
What began as a small-time ministry with California drug abusers is now a multi-million dollar business. Routinely falsified ledgers, forged receipts, and duplicate books prevent the IRS and the Department of Labor from accurately determining Alamo's net worth, but it is substantial.
According to Alamo followers living in the compound, most Foundation members work without pay (relying on "benefits" instead), accept "assigned" marriage partners, and willingly move their families across the country with no advance notice when the Foundation needs workers in a particular area.
"I was on the streets when Tony Alamo found me," says Joan, a resident of the Dyer compound, a place where last names are rarely used. "I was into drugs real heavy when Tony took me in. Tony gave me food, shelter, and a Christian husband." Eighteen years and three children later, Joan remains a pawn in the Alamo organization. She spends her days, nights, and weekends working for the Foundation while raising her children to become "worthy followers of Tony Alamo." New converts, called "baby Christians," are placed under the watchful eyes of "older brothers and sisters in the Lord."
Foundation minister Ian Mann helps prepare new members for ministry work. "We don't have a seminary or anything like that," he says. "Once they're saved, we just pray a lot with new members, teach them how to read the Bible, show them how we minister, and then send them out [into the field]." Mann teaches the new recruits to forsake their parents and to cling to the Foundation. The converts are warned that if they leave the organization, they will lose their salvation.
The controls may work well on those within the compound, but don't impress those outside, some of whom fight. Shortly after moving to Arkansas, the Alamo Foundation faced a child custody fight against parents who tried to remove their children from the Alamo organization. After extended appeals, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that the state's child custody law did not apply to non-minor children.
Arkansas law again sided with Alamo in 1981, when the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld dismissal of an alienation of affection suit brought by the parents of 17-year-old Joseph Orlando, Jr. His parents, Joseph and Ann Orlando of Brooklyn, claimed the Foundation was responsible for their son "repudiating his family in a way that caused them severe emotional distress."
They said the Alamos had subverted their son's mental capacity to the point that he functioned as a zombie. Their complaint was dismissed by a court which determined that Arkansas law did not recognize alienation of a child's affection.
On March 25, 1988, Sheriff's deputies seized three boys in a surprise raid of the Saugus, California, commune and reunited them with their natural fathers, Robert and Carey Miller. Court records show the boys were physically and emotionally abused.
The Miller brothers had been "excommunicated" from the church and banned from the Dyer compound in 1987. Their wives were remarried to trusted Alamo aides before being relocating with their children to California. (A "trusted aide" is a person who has proven his loyalty to Alamo and who is rewarded by being told how the Foundation works.)
U.S. District Judge Morris Arnold awarded damages of $597,606 to Robert Miller's 11-year-old son, Kody. Carey Miller's son, 12-year-old Justin, was awarded $53,606. During a telephone conversation with the Southwest Times Record, Alamo claimed members of his church live "hand-to-mouth" and have no assets with which to pay the Miller judgment. He declared "a legal war" on the nation's court system, vowing to buy newspaper ads throughout the nation and circulate petitions to Congress and state legislatures demanding reform of local, state, and federal courts and judges.
In 1977 the federal Labor Department brought suit against the Foundation, seeking at least $19 million in back wages and overtime pay for unpaid employees. The Labor Department contended the money was owed to several hundred workers at 32 Foundation businesses in several states.
One former Foundation employee testified that he and other workers were forced to "sleep on the floor and eat food out of garbage cans. Workers suffered from lack of sleep, very poor nourishment, and a constant work schedule. You really couldn't think for yourself. You lived in fear. The Foundation browbeats people, stands them up and belittles them. They get a good grip on your mind."
A 1985 U.S. Supreme Court ruling stated that Foundation workers were covered by federal labor laws. The ruling had little practical effect on past workers because their non-cash benefits--room and board--were deducted from their claims.
Secrecy surrounding the activities at the Dyer compound makes it difficult to count the number of followers living on the grounds at any given time. According to Foundation member Lydia Willis, the number of followers in any one place fluctuates, sometimes daily.
Odd things have occurred within the compound. In 1982, Susan Alamo died at a Tulsa hospital. Her body was returned to the compound, where her husband and his followers held a round-the-clock vigil beside her casket. News reports of the vigil prompted Alamo to claim that Foundation members were "keeping the commandments of the Lord in praying for the dead."
Former Foundation members have said Alamo was hoping to resurrect his dead wife. Weeks after her death, Alamo ordered a mausoleum built on the Dyer property, and there Susan's body was finally entombed.
That same year, Alamo went into the child care business when the Holy Alamo Christian Church issued an eight-page tract of small print under the title of Tricked!! The literature accused atheistic agencies of tricking citizens into believing there were not enough resources to care for future generations. Alamo further accused these agencies of inviting thousands of aliens into the U.S. while encouraging Americans to eliminate two million babies a year by abortion. The tract said that Alamo would pay for "the delivery of the child" and "take care of the child for life."
After the state of Arkansas ordered an investigation into whether the commune was operating a child care center, Alamo refused to allow Arkansas Social Services workers onto the compound, claiming that the Foundation was exempt from the regulations of the Child Care Licensing Act of 1969. "What we have is a church facility where mothers and fathers and their children come," Alamo was quoted as saying. "This is a clubhouse, no day care center."
In 1984 Alamo married Birgetta Oyllenhammer, owner of a clothing design and manufacturing company in Southern California. The marriage lasted only a short time. Two years later, during a child custody fight involving Alamo's next wife, Elizabeth, Oyllenhammer alleged her divorce from Alamo had never been finalized. She claimed Alamo beat and drugged her and that his converts "became like zombies." She also said Alamo tried to force her into having unnecessary plastic surgery so she would look like the deceased Susan Alamo. According to a 1986 Arkansas Gazettereport, Oyllenhammer was Alamo's sixth wife. He has since remarried--twice.
Beginning in 1984 Alamo distributed some 50 million copies of a tract entitled, The Pope's Secrets. He warned newspaper editors: "This story contains objectionable language." The tract claims "The Vatican is posing as Snow White, but the Bible says that she is a prostitute, the great whore, a cult."
Nine Foundation members were arrested for illegally distributing the tract in Canada during Pope John Paul II's visit. Three men charged with illegal entry into Canada were turned over to immigration officials. Alamo voiced concern over the members remaining locked up until after the Pope's visit and accused the government of harassment.
Following the subsequent arrest of two Foundation members in Rapid City, South Dakota, for illegal pamphlet distribution, Alamo altered his methods. "They'll come by mail," he said, referring to his tracts. "We're always coming out with new literature, so we'll mail them to every household. We'll show people that we are not criminals." In fact, most tracts are handed out or placed on cars.
In 1985 Alamo targeted the Pope and then-president Ronald Reagan. "Did you know that the Pope and Ronald Reagan are a couple of Anti-Christ Devils and that they are selling us all down the drain?" asked a tract entitled Genocide. Alamo accused the Vatican of controlling the White House, the Supreme Court, the United Nations, the FBI, and the CIA. Thirteen Alamo church members were arrested in five communities across the country for illegally placing the posters on private property.
Tony Alamo's marriage to Elizabeth Amrhein set the stage for a child custody battle and kidnapping charges. After repeatedly failing to comply with court orders which included demands for psychological testing, Tony and Elizabeth Alamo lost custody of the woman's two children.
Nick Amrhein, the children's father, became concerned when the children, who had been raised Catholic, began exhibiting unusual behavior. Twelve-year-old Nicholas and ten-year-old Amanda began telling their father he was no longer saved and that he would go to hell. Amrhein gained custody of the children after Elizabeth was arrested in New Orleans on child abduction charges as she attempted to obtain passports.
Children have often been in the spotlight at the Alamo compound in Arkansas. In August, 1987, Mary Lou Broderick signed a waiver relinquishing all parental rights and giving her husband, Brian, custody of the couple's two children. Broderick later told a judge she was "forced to sign the form or they wouldn't let me leave [the compound]."
Broderick wanted to leave the compound because Alamo ordered severe spankings of the children. She claims she once saw three Foundation members strike a child with a paddle 60 times for talking about the subject of racism.
"People at our church use their hands or straps or sticks to spank their children," Alamo was quoted as saying. "We don't just use a board." But in Nailed!! Alamo says that without paddling "we will never see an end to the crime" in society. "If President Bush and the citizens of this country would allow me to have charge of our youth, then shall the world see law and order. Violence and rebellion will cease, just as it has in all of the church facilities that I have ever pastored."
The court ordered the children to be returned to their mother. Six weeks later, state police arrested three gatekeepers at the Dyer compound after the gatekeepers hampered a search of the grounds for the Broderick children. Alamo retaliated by issuing a tract claiming that the Vatican was behind the search.
Alamo's anti-Catholic tracts are the most visible method Alamo has used to fight intrusion into his compounds. Mostly, he has fled. Last year Alamo was named in a federal bench warrant for unlawful interstate flight to avoid prosecution on charges of child abuse. The charges stem from a string of incidents involving the Holy Alamo Christian Church. Las Vegas FBI agents staked out and raided a home rented by Alamo, who was operating under the assumed name of Clarence Williams.
Alamo fled before the agents arrived and the next day released a statement saying he had been libeled by the media. Ten days after that he issued a tract repudiating all charges against him and attacking the Catholic Church, the United States armed forces, and the FBI. For good measure, the tract said that "The American Disc Jockey Association feels that Tony Alamo is a better singer than Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, or Andy Williams."
Tony Alamo is no slouch when it comes to penning a rambling discourse designed to confuse, threaten, or titillate impressionable young people who need acceptance and love. In a tract entitled Tony Alamo, My Side of the Story, Alamo maintains his righteousness. "I'm not guilty," he says, of charges brought against him by the FBI. "I'm not hiding. I'm currently distributing millions of pieces of literature and tapes, thousands of Bibles, still feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and housing those that wish to serve the Lord."
An Arkansas resident and mother of four children, Cathy Naccarato, views the self-proclaimed minister with disdain. "In my opinion, Tony Alamo is a prime example of someone caught in the throes of paranoia," she says.
"Mr. Alamo certainly seems to feel that everyone is persecuting him and that he has done no wrong. In reality, a person such as Tony Alamo is someone who is hurting inside in a very deep way. The anger and bitterness toward society continue to grow within his mind and heart. In retaliation, he seeks to exert authoritarian or dictatorial influence on those around him."
Carefully choosing her next words, Naccarato continues, "My real concern is the amount of influence someone like Mr. Alamo and his Foundation can exert on a person who might be psychologically, intellectually, or emotionally in a deprived or weakened state of mind. Foundation members attest to the fact that they are getting calls everyday from people who are feeling persecuted. These people become easy targets for indoctrination into a radical belief system which is based on a paranoid state of thought."
Of particular concern to Catholics and Jews has been Alamo's recent attack on the "Jewish Federation's Catholic Cult Awareness Network." In fact, there is no such entity. "Apparently, Tony Alamo is trying to smear us as well as Jews and Catholics with his latest tract, Nailed!!," said a spokesman for the National Cult Awareness Network.
Jeannette Hartman of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles said that, based upon the telephone calls the Council has has received, Alamo Foundation members "leaflet an area very heavily and then disappear." Hartman said her office had received calls from as far away as Rhode Island, Miami, and Phoenix.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Hector Tobar said the current campaign to discredit the Jewish Federation Council stems from an ongoing dispute between the Council and Alamo Designs, a clothing manufacturing company. Alamo followers filed suit against the Council for the Jewish Federation's Commission on Cults and Missionaries' involvement in urging retailers to discontinue stocking Alamo's high-priced, air-brushed jackets.
Upscale boutiques and major department stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy's, and Bullock's, have dropped the Alamo clothing line. Sales of the designer jackets, which cost as much as $1,000, help support Alamo's church. "Our clothing is so groovy everyone wants it," Alamo once said. "No matter what they think I am."
Maybe not. Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Robert Foltz believes Alamo Designs is about to become a non-entity. "The Alamo church's principal funding source is Alamo Designs," he noted. "Without Alamo Designs, there are certainly insufficient assets to feed, clothe, and house his people across the country."
Foltz might be right. Tony Alamo's Western Wear store in Alma, Arkansas, now an eyesore with its boarded windows and peeling paint, has been closed. His once-thriving eatery, the Alamo Restaurant, stands deserted in a weed-strewn parking lot. Alamo Discount Grocery, its shelves empty, remains a mute reminder of days gone by.
The telephone number listed on Holy Alamo Christian Church pamphlets is answered with a curt "8118." After being put on hold, the caller is asked for a name and address so the Foundation can "send some material." If the caller asks for more information, he will again be put on hold until Susie comes on the line. She apparently is assigned to handle persistent callers; she invites callers to attend Sunday services at Holiness Tabernacle Church in Dyer.
"We don't believe that all religions are the same," she says, vaguely echoing Tony Alamo's warnings that the Vatican is building a "one-world society." "Our church is on fireworks for the Lord. We are really doing something about sin. We are seeing results, even though we are being persecuted. We very firmly believe that the media get their instructions straight from Rome. Our church gets calls every day from people who are persecuted. Our organization helps people by taking them off the streets and rehabilitating them. We have helped alleviate the drug problem and the welfare problem, even though government agencies stick their noses into our business and try to persecute us."
Persecution is everywhere. "We are not afraid to stand up and point out the sick situation with Catholicism," she says. "You can't believe how the Catholic Church is persecuting people in Africa. Let me send you some literature. Then come see us. But don't forget--call first."
Susie blithely accuses the Catholic Church of persecution, but what about the psychological persecution taking place at the Holy Alamo Christian Church communes scattered throughout the United States? During my visit to Dyer I met two teenage girls who had been reared and schooled under the auspices of the Alamo organization. Tina and Lisa were well-groomed, wore make-up, and were fashionably dressed--one sporting a pricey Alamo jacket.
"Our school has a swimming pool," Tina said. "We have sports and and other stuff like people on the outside do."
What about boyfriends? "We don't have boyfriends," she said. "Tony will give us Christian boyfriends when we are old enough."
What about transportation? "We rarely leave the compound, so we don't need a car."
After spouting memorized phrases concerning the Foundation, the girls looked to an adult member for approval. It was given by an almost imperceptible nod of the head. Neither girl would make eye contact with me. At no time during my visit were the girls allowed to speak with me privately.
Alamo has a history of hiding behind the Bible when responding to legitimate questions concerning his organization. Actually, Alamo has a history of hiding, period.
"Tony Alamo is a California fugitive," says Ron Scholtens, an FBI investigator in Fort Smith, Arkansas. "State authorities indicated that he had fled the state of California, and the FBI filed an unlawful flight charge against Tony, and we have been looking for him ever since."
Although no one can find Tony Alamo, Tony Alamo is finding plenty of targets for his tracts. Jeri, a rural Arkansas farm woman, used to make the 38-mile round trip to Mass each Sunday--that is, untilNailed!! appeared in her mail box one day. Jeri's husband, a non-Catholic, read the tract and issued his ultimatum: "If you want to stay married to me, never step foot in a Catholic church again." Jeri no longer attends Mass.
How quickly young people get sucked into Alamo's organization became clear when I visited the compound in Dyer. A University of Arkansas journalism student, Patricia, accompanied me. Her dream, she said, was to become a newspaper writer.
By the time I had finished my interviews with Alamo's people, others had nearly convinced Patricia, whom they had taken aside, to forsake her.aspirations and to join them. Like buzzards circling a wounded animal, the Alamo followers pulled and picked at Patricia, promising her a hassle-free life complete with eternal salvation. This is heady stuff for an impressionable young woman.
When told of these incidents, Fr. Richard Oswald, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Rogers and St. Stephen Mission in Bentonville, Arkansas, was asked what Catholics could do. "We should pray for those who are writing and disseminating this literature," he says. "Pray that their hearts will be changed. We should also pray for those who receive this material, that they will not become confused or misled."