Controversy Continues To Follow Tony Alamo

THV - KTHV, Little Rock, Arkansas/ February 11, 2008

It's been 30 years since Tony Alamo established a church near Alma, preaching his religious beliefs while living with his followers in a secret, guarded community. During that time, Alamo was famous both for his religious practices and his run-ins with the law.

For years, leaflets and religious tracts were the only real view anyone had of Alamo or his church. In them, you'll find anti-Catholic and anti-government articles and letters from Alamo followers. His tracts cover topics ranging from mass suicide to polygamy.

All of this coming from a man declaring himself the mouthpeice of god.

"When I got saved and I met sue, it was so exciting because when we got married, I said, 'God has got to love me more than anybody in the world,'" he said in an interview with KFSM-TV.

Born Bernie Lazar Hoffman in Joplin, Missouri in 1934, Alamo moved to California where he changed his name and claims to have worked in the music industry before receiving a direct message from God to begin his ministry.

The often flamboyant Alamo started his church with his late wife Susan in 1969, witnessing primarily to young Hollywood drifters. "She used to call me the eagle because I would go down and grab everyone I could," he said.

In 1975, the couple relocated to Arkansas and began building a new church. This one was larger and more secluded, built along the Georgia Ridge in the town of Dyer.

Susan Alamo died of cancer on April 8, 1982, leaving complete control of the church and its followers to Tony. "There was a lot of happy times. There really was," said ex-member Carol Fryer.

She and her six-year-old daughter, Jody, joined the Alamo church shortly after Susan's death. She said it was dream to live in such a spiritual environment, but those times didn't last.

"We were forced to go to services twice a day, morning and night. If you weren't babysitting or working, you had to go to services," Fryer said. "When you're around people in Christ, they don't act like robots. It was very strange there."

Over time, Fryer says Alamo became less of a pastor to his people. Instead, she says he became their sole source of survival. "All these people, they didn't have anywhere else to go. You separated from your family because he demanded that," she added.

That's exactly what former member Peter Loudan said was demanded of him in 1986 when his parents objected to his joining the church after graduating from the University of Miami.

"After four years at Miami, in their eyes, I had a tremendous future ahead," he said. "They feared the worst, so Tony suggested I move to Dyer."

Loudan moved to the church compound and immediately began working within Alamo's businesses.

"For quite a period of time, I worked in the jackets, doing airbrush, doing liquid embroidery, doing silk screening," he said.

In exchange for the work, Loudan says, church members received housing, clothing and food.

"You were given, supposed to be given,$10 a week. But often that was suspended," he said.

The lack of wages was in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1985.

The high court ruled against Alamo, ordering him to pay his workers even though he said they were volunteers and it would violate their religious expression.

Carol Fryer worked in the administration's business offices.

"They would come in and clear out all of the files if there would be an audit or if they found something wrong and someone was going to investigate," she said. "They would take boxes and boxes of files out of the drawers, tear them apart, take them somewhere, redo them and bring them back with completely different books."

Fryer also recalls watching children, and in some cases adults, being violently paddled for what Alamo deemed as bad behavior.

"There were a number of boys who got spanked. They'd hold them up, spread-eagle, then one of the big brothers would just take the board and let them have it over and over and over," she said. "I couldn't tell how or why they held it together. Many of them fell apart, screaming bloody murder."

Not unlike 11-year-old Justin Miller, who at the Saugus, California church in 1988, received more than 100 swats on the orders of Alamo by phone.

"Tony's smart enough to have other people do the dirty work. He's smart enough to let other people do his bidding," Peter Loudan said.

In 1990, U.S. Circuit Judge Morris Arnold awarded Miller's family almost $1.5 million in Fort Smith federal court for the beating.

When delivering his decision, Judge Arnold is quoted as saying, "No feeling person could fail to be moved by the testimony in this case or be revolted by the cold-blooded and calculated manner in which the punishment was carried out."

Criminal charges against Alamo were later dropped, but Loudan says the church leader's bizarre behavior and liberties with biblical doctrine grew darker.

In 1993, Alamo wrote a detailed justification for taking multiple wives in a tract titled "The Polygamists."

In it, he writes that anyone who would believe that polygamy, according to God's scripture, is dead, would believe that God is dead and that the Bible is meaningless.

He later writes that God's law of right and wrong actually commands a man to be a polygamist.

"When I was there, he was involved in polygamy," Loudan said. "If that's his beliefs, his understandings of the scriptures, then that's his business. But when it involves compelling young teen agers to become his wives or concubine, using blackmail, using threats, then that's a different story."

But that was the story for Carol Fryer's daughter, Jody, who she says Alamo ordered to marry him at 17 or be struck down by God.

"They didn't tell me," Fryer said. "They wouldn't let me know for months until she called me to tell me that she was coming back to Arkansas. She made it sound like she was very happy."

But Fryer says her daughter didn't buy in to all of Alamo's teachings.

"She would tell him, 'this is not right. You can't do this.' He'd get very upset with her, and she became a burr under his saddle."

Fryer says Alamo cast her daughter out of the church but kept other wives in addition to his new legal wife, Sharon.

"He was a maverick," Fryer said. "He wanted to do what he wanted to do. He wasn't going to listen to God."

Alamo wasn't listening to the federal government either. The IRS revoked the church's tax exempt status in 1985, raiding the Dyer compound in February 1991.

Federal agents seized what items they could from the church and Alamo's remaining businesses as he fled authorities, a fugitive for more than two years.

"The messages I got were that the government would come in and probably kill us all like Jonestown or whatever. We'd all be murdered."

In July 1991, after two years, federal marshals arrested Tony Alamo in Tampa, Florida.

In 1994, Alamo was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to six years in federal prison in Texarkana. One of the prosecutions key witnesses was Carol Fryer's daughter and Alamo's exiled wife, Jody.

"It took a long time for me to even be able to talk about it," Carol Fryer said. "I was afraid because I had the mindset that he was a prophet of God, and you don't speak against God's anointed. Now I realize he was not God's anointed. All he did was yield intimidation and fear."

"I believe his time is short here," she added. "He's going to do what he can while he can, but his time is short, and he knows it."

When Susan Alamo died in 1982, Tony claimed she'd be resurrected and instructed members to pray for her return. When marshals raided the compound nine years later, Susan's body was nowhere to be found.

It remained missing until 1995 when, under court order, Alamo was instructed to return her remains. Alamo's followers complied and in 1998, she was laid to rest in Tulsa, 16 years after her death.

That same year, Alamo walked out of federal prison a free man and immediately set up a new church, this time in the town of Fouke.

Along Hwy. 549 in Southwest Arkansas sits the town of Fouke, made famous in the 1970's for tall tales of the Fouke monster, a half-man/half-beast roaming the countryside.

Today, Fouke is gaining notoriety once again, not for its legendary monsters, but as the home of religious leader and felon Tony Alamo and his followers.

"We're just a little town with 814 population," said Fouke Mayor Terry Purvis. "There are some people who are actually scared."

They're scared of a man involved with bad business dealings and following a civil suit in 1990, physical abuse of children.

Alamo served four years in federal prison in Texarkana for tax evasion, 15 miles from Fouke, site of his newest church along Hwy. 71.

"They do pretty much keep to themselves," said Mayor Purvis. "They have security guards around the property."

Those guards, according to Alamo's attorney Eric Lieberman, protect the church from outsiders.

"We've never had to have armed guards to guard our church. We've never had to have the secrecy thing," he said.

But Mayor Purvis says those guards are giving neighbors real headaches, especially when traveling Circle Drive. It's a public street but also the road leading to Alamo's home and other church buildings.

"We've had several reports of people going up Circle Drive, being met with armed guards," Mayor Purvis said. The church denies the allegations.

But during the Oct. 12 Fouke City Council meeting, Leslie Ray "Buster" White, a pastor within the Alamo church, addressed the Council's concerns about the guards, informing them that the guards were armed.

"They have guns. We have guns," White said. White faces his own federal indictments for trafficing counterfeit shoes and pirated compact discs'.

The church, with the help of city councilman and Alamo member Ben Edwards, is trying to rezone Circle Drive as a private street.

Mayor Purvis said, "As far as I'm concerned, that is still a city street for 480 feet off of Hwy. 71."

Those living in Fouke see Alamo's push for privacy as an attempt to return to the reclusive life he enjoyed in his compound along the Georgia Ridge near Alma 20 years ago.

"He's paranoid," said Mary Coker.

Coker, a longtime Fouke resident, began researching Alamo's history as a church leader and a criminal when he moved to her town.

She formed a group of ex-members and residents to keep an eye on the church's activities, especially after she realized church members were watching them.

"They would come to city council meetings and take down tag numbers to see who was there, so then we decided we'll turn the tables on them," she said.

Coker also began listening to Alamo's radio broadcasts, airing on stations around the world and through the Internet.

"I listened every day for a while, and it finally got to the point that I couldn't stand to listen to him anymore," she said.

In several of his broadcasts, Alamo freely discusses his views on when girls should be eligible for marriage.

"God commanded young women to marry. And when women start their periods, then they are women, according to God's Word." His sermons go on to say, "Women should be able to marry if they have someone who has a job and can support them. They should be able to be married at 13-, 14-, or 15-years old, or if they have menstruated, at 12-years old.

We exhausted every possible attempt at interviewing world pastor Tony Alamo. We made email requests, phone requests, even went to his fort smith church.

We arrived at the Fouke compound and were turned down again. But Alamo reconsidered and talked to me briefly on the phone, me in his church's cafeteria, him hidden somewhere on the grounds.

No cameras were allowed inside, and we weren't able to record the conversation, but I did take notes.

Pastor Alamo told me, "Go somewhere else and peddle your false message to someone else. I'm doing the Lord's work. You know it; I know it, and I will not grant any interview that will smear my ministry or my message." After that, he hung up on me.

Mayor Terry Purvis says his town's hands are tied when it comes to taking action against Alamo's teachings.

"Freedom of Religion is given to everybody in America, but there are laws that must be followed as well," he said. "We've received complaints, and we've turned them over to the proper authorities who investigate and do what they must do."

Alamo is now 73 and reportedly in poor health. Mary Coker hopes his days are numbered.

"I'm hoping when you cut the head of the snake off, the rest of it dies," she said. "Maybe nobody will try to take over for him. It may just fall apart when he's gone. It may last for a while, but what are they gonna do if Tony's not there to tell them what to do?"

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