Will followers still obey evangelist from prison?

Associated Press/November 12, 2009

Little Rock, Arkansas - Evangelist Tony Alamo controlled his followers from behind bars for years when he was in prison for tax evasion. Even as he awaited trial on child-sex charges over the past year, he had sufficient power to warn a young follower who questioned an order not to cross him.

"Just because I'm in jail, you'll find out that I'm still in charge. OK, kid? You understand?" Alamo chillingly told the girl, whose scared voice crackled across the recording played at his trial.

Now, with Alamo set to spend the rest of his life in prison, the question becomes whether his 200-odd followers will again obey his demands after the charismatic, apocalyptic preacher is led out of court in handcuffs.

The aging preacher, 75, faces up to a 175-year sentence from U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes when he returns to a Texarkana, Ark., federal courtroom on Friday. A jury convicted him in July of 10 counts of taking underage girls as young as 8 across state lines for sex. Each count also carries possible fines of $250,000.

At his trial, the women testified that their parents had been taught that Alamo was infallible, and most did not question him when he said God had commanded him to "marry" the girls. The parents said they didn't want to refuse Alamo's commands because they feared the wrath of an angry God and the chance they'd be cut off from a church they gave up everything for.

That's a common fear among those involved with charismatic, but abusive religious leaders, said Rick A. Ross, a court-recognized cult expert based in Trenton, N.J.

"The alternative is to recognize (Alamo) is a fraud, that he is a criminal and that all of your sacrifices have been done for nothing," Ross said. "What you have in the case of the Alamo group is a group of people who largely live who live in a kind of compound life. ... This environment reinforces Alamo's control."

While some members did flee Alamo's group after he went to prison on tax evasion charges in 1994, many others remained behind.

That included his multiple wives, who obeyed commands he issued via telephone. They even moved to Colorado to be near his prison and managed the church's finances - estimated to be in the millions, coming from a series of questionable business and trucking ventures run by trusted Alamo associates.

One woman even testified that she was "married" to Alamo at age 14 during a visit to him in prison, with a group of other "wives" blocking guards' view as he groped her.

Now, court actions may help peel some followers away from Alamo. Arkansas child-welfare officials have seized about three dozen children from followers. To regain their children, local judges have ordered parents to cut their ties to the church and work to support themselves.

But Alamo's control appears to remain strong over a significant portion of his followers.

A signed letter attributed the father of one underage "bride" claims his daughter is "frail and weak-minded and (FBI agents) are playing on that." A letter posted to the Web site of Alamo's ministry claims Barnes already received at a least one plea for leniency from one of the evangelist's children, saying he "preaches the Bible because he wants people to go to heaven."

Meanwhile, acolytes keep the elaborate gardens in front of Alamo's Fouke, Ark., church blooming and the grass perfectly trimmed.

Alamo's preaching, based on an apocalyptic reading of the Bible focusing on a Satanic one-world government, also plays a part in controlling his followers, Ross said.

"When you feel that kind of fear, you feel the leader gives you this kind of umbrella of protection from all the evils in the world that are outside of the community," Ross said. "That's the kind of we-them mentality that people like Tony Alamo promote."

Alamo will be under close watch in prison. Federal prison spokeswoman Traci Billingsley promised he would be monitored by staff if he is allowed visits with his followers, especially if they can touch each other.

But Alamo likely will remain able to contact - and direct - his followers by telephone from prison. Inmates typically can make 300 minutes of calls a month to people who have been approved in advance by officials, Billingsley said.

And history shows those calls may be enough to keep Alamo's followers firmly under his control.

"They will stay loyal to him through that communication," Ross said.

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