Tony Alamo was a well-known evangelist who, after a radical conversion to Christianity, founded what is now called Tony Alamo Christian Ministries with his wife, Susan, later establishing its headquarters in Dyer (Crawford County). Widely regarded as a cult, Tony Alamo Christian Ministries was at the center of a number of lawsuits and government actions, and its leader was jailed on a variety of charges, including income tax evasion, the theft of his late wife’s body, and taking underage girls across state lines for sex.
Much of the information on Alamo’s early, pre-conversion life is spurious at best, on account of Alamo’s constant exaggerations of his importance and/or sinfulness. He was born Bernie Lazar Hoffman on September 20, 1934, in Joplin, Missouri. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Romania who, Alamo claims, had been dance instructor for Rudolf Valentino. When he was a teenager, Alamo left Joplin for the West Coast. He apparently adopted the name Marcus Abad for some time and achieved some modicum of success as a “big band crooner” in Los Angeles, California. Alamo went on to own a health club and work in the music industry. He claimed that he recorded a hit record single in the early 1960s, “Little Yankee Girl,” and that he was asked to manage musical acts including the Beatles, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones.
In 1966, after serving jail time for a weapons charge, Alamo married Edith Opal Horn from Alma (Crawford County), also of Jewish descent. Nine years his senior, Edith Horn, a two-time divorcée who already had a daughter, had moved to Hollywood to become an actress but ended up supporting herself partly by scamming churches into believing her to be a missionary in need of money. Some sources say that they changed their names to Tony and Susan Alamo after their marriage, though Tony Alamo has claimed that he changed his own name earlier to mimic the Italian-American singers who were popular at the time. According to Alamo, while he was in a meeting at a Beverly Hills investment firm, Jesus came to him and told him to preach the second coming of Christ. After both he and Susan converted to Christianity, they established the Music Square Church and began a Hollywood street ministry, passing out religious tracts and preaching especially to drug addicts, alcoholics, and prostitutes. Their ministry was part of the “Jesus People” movement, in which many of those involved in the counterculture of the 1960s began proclaiming a spiritual transformation and an allegiance to Jesus.
Alamo’s Pentecostal theology includeed a virulent paranoia and extreme anti-Catholicism that placed the Vatican as the real power broker behind the White House, the United Nations, and the media. The various publications his ministry offered, such as The Vatican Moscow Washington Alliance, detailed his conspiracy theories. Alamo also claimed that UFOs are divine messengers from heaven and signs of the end times. Communal living was a staple of the Music Square Church. The church quickly expanded its holdings, buying several businesses and establishing a compound in nearby Saugus. Members usually lived in a commune and worked at an Alamo-owned business, turning over much of their salaries to the church. With the labor of their followers, the Alamos turned their church into a hefty financial empire, even as many members had to scavenge food from supermarket dumpsters and were forbidden from flushing the toilets more than every two or three days.
In 1975, the Alamos purchased land in Dyer, near Alma, and there established the main branch of the Music Square Church, which later was called the Holy Alamo Christian Church Consecrated before its present name was adopted. At one time, Alamo owned as many as twenty-nine businesses in nearby Alma, including Alamo Western Wear, as well as Alamo Restaurant and Alamo Discount Grocery. Again, followers worked in these businesses for practically nothing. Soon, the organization established yet another compound in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1976, the U.S. Department of Labor brought charges against Alamo for violations of the Fair Labor Standard Act. Alamo had not been issuing checks to his employees and offered only the most menial financial recompense, leading some disgruntled followers to begin reporting his activities. He lost the suit as well as an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1985, the same year that the IRS retroactively revoked the tax exempt status for his church for the years 1977 to 1980. Alamo’s attorneys kept the issue before the courts from 1985 to 1992, arguing that church-owned enterprises were exempt from federal income taxes because they were churches in disguise.
Special Trial Judge Larry L. Nameroff ruled, however, that the organization was essentially “operated for Tony’s and Susan’s private benefit,” and the IRS seized some of the church property for an auction. On June 8, 1994, he was convicted on one charge of filing a false income tax return and three charges of failing to file a tax return; testimony during the trial revealed that the church had a total income on $9 million during the three years when Alamo paid no taxes. In addition, the judgment against Alamo showed him owing another $5 million to former church members for unpaid work. Alamo quickly declared bankruptcy, and his related businesses collapsed. In September 1994, Alamo was sentenced by the Federal District Court for the Western District of Tennessee to six years in the Federal Correctional Institution in Texarkana, Texas. In July 1998, he was transferred to a Texarkana halfway house, from which he was released on December 8 of the same year.
While Alamo was tied up in the courts on federal tax evasion charges, other allegations were levied against him from various quarters. Acting upon reports of child abuse, on March 25, 1988, sheriff’s deputies raided the Saugus, California, compound in order to reunite three boys with their natural fathers; the fathers had been members of the Arkansas compound but had been excommunicated. Their wives had remarried more loyal subjects of Alamo, and their families had relocated to California. U.S. District Judge Morris Arnold, finding that they had indeed been abused, later awarded damages to the boys in question. Alamo claimed that he and his followers had no assets and were living “hand to mouth”; he also apparently issued a death threat against Arnold, though he was later acquitted of that charge. One of the fathers, Robert Miller, had previously overseen the church’s trucking company and alleged that Alamo had embezzled $100,000 from it. In 1990, Alamo failed to appear in court to answer these charges and was ruled guilty in default.
Probably the strangest incident surrounding Tony Alamo Christian Ministries had to do with the body of Susan Alamo, who died of cancer on April 8, 1982. Tony Alamo quickly predicted that she would be resurrected and kept her embalmed body on display at the Arkansas compound for approximately six months before placing it in a mausoleum. In February 1991, Alamo ordered his followers to vacate the Arkansas compound prior to a federal raid and to bring along the body of Susan Alamo. A chancery court judge ordered Alamo to return the body in 1995 in response to a suit filed by Christhiaon Coie, Susan Alamo’s estranged daughter. On July 23, 1998, after a three-year legal battle, his followers brought the body to a funeral home in Van Buren (Crawford County). The following month, Susan Alamo was re-interred in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Alamo’s various marriages were controversial and difficult to number. Following Susan’s death, rumors spread that he had taken two fifteen-year-old girls as “wives.” On June 23, 1984, he married Swedish native Birgitta Gyllenhammar in Las Vegas, Nevada, though this marriage ended two years later; she later claimed that Alamo wanted her to have plastic surgery to look like Susan and that he regularly beat and drugged her. In the midst of his supposed third marriage, a 1986 Arkansas Gazette report concluded that Gyllenhammar had actually been Alamo’s sixth wife, as he had apparently been married four times prior to Susan. Between 1986 and 1990, the preacher remarried twice. When Alamo was released from federal prison in 1998, he quickly reassumed his status as the head of a now smaller Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, which is headquartered in Miller County, with branches in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) and Los Angeles. He was heard on over a dozen radio stations in the U.S. and more in Africa, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. He claimed that the government's actions against him were merely the machinations of Satan, and his followers continued to attract controversy for distributing his printed literature across the United States and beyond.
In October 2007, Tony Alamo Christian Ministries was listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center on account of its anti-Catholic rhetoric. On September 20, 2008, state and federal officials raided Alamo’s Fouke (Miller County) compound as part of a two-year investigation into allegations of child abuse and child pornography. On September 25, 2008, Alamo himself was arrested in Flagstaff, Arizona, on a federal warrant charging him with violating the Mann Act, a federal statute enacted to stop the trafficking of women or girls across state lines, over a period from March 1994 through October 2005. At the end of a trial that included several women testifying that they had been sexually abused by Alamo, some having been forced to become his “wives” as young as eight years old, Alamo was found guilty on July 24, 2009, on ten counts of taking underage girls across state lines for sex. On November 13, he was sentenced to 175 years in prison and also was fined $250,000. On December 2, 2010, the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld his conviction and sentence. In February 2014, a Miller County judge—in the largest personal-injury judgment in Arkansas history—awarded $525 million in actual and punitive damages to seven former members of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries. Alamo died in federal custody in North Carolina on May 2, 2017.