Longtime evangelist Tony Alamo owes millions of dollars in court-ordered restitution for abusing some of his former followers, triggering a nationwide hunt for assets still controlled by the Arkansas pastor.
The 76-year-old preacher, now a federal-prison inmate, enlisted members of his church to help run a business empire that over the years has included a trucking company, a restaurant, a hog farm and a designer clothing line that made rhinestone-studded denim jackets for Hollywood celebrities.
Since starting his street ministry in Los Angeles during the 1960s, Mr. Alamo faced repeated allegations by former followers, some backed by court convictions, that he abused his flock—sexually molesting girls, ordering beatings and forcing adults and children alike to work long hours for little or no pay.
Former followers have won millions in court judgments, but government and private investigators say Mr. Alamo kept few assets in his name, making it difficult to collect.
Mr. Alamo preached polygamy and declared that girls could marry as soon as they reached puberty. He acknowledged disciplining followers with corporal punishment and forced fasting, but said all his views were grounded in the Bible. He has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
His theology placed him well outside mainstream Christianity and included virulently anti-Catholic views. Mr. Alamo preached that the Vatican controlled much of the world outside his ministry and was responsible for such evils as World War II and pornography. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks religious movements, has labeled Tony Alamo Christian Ministries a hate group.
In late 2009, Mr. Alamo was sentenced to 175 years in federal prison after a trial in which prosecutors presented evidence that he took girls as young as eight years old as his "spiritual wives." In his sentencing, U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes in Texarkana, Ark., also ordered Mr. Alamo to pay five of the girls—now young women—restitution of $500,000 each.
The five women have filed a civil case against Mr. Alamo, seeking additional damages. Their case is scheduled for trial next year.
Meanwhile, a federal jury in Texarkana this month ordered Mr. Alamo to pay two young men $66 million in damages for beatings they suffered while living in the ministry's compound in southwest Arkansas.
Mr. Alamo's attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr., says his client has no money to pay the judgments.
Authorities allege Mr. Alamo spent more than a decade transferring real estate, businesses and other assets into the names of church members. The holdings are believed to be scattered across the U.S., including in New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and California.
"We will work for years, if necessary, to find the assets necessary to satisfy the judgment," said W. David Carter, the lawyer who represented the two men who won the $66 million judgment.
Finding such assets will not be enough. Investigators can seize them only if they can prove Mr. Alamo put them in his followers' names to evade a court judgment, a so-called fraudulent conveyance. Federal attorneys scouring the U.S. for Mr. Alamo's assets acknowledge the difficulty of proving such cases, especially if Mr. Alamo transferred ownership years before he was indicted.
Mr. Hall, the pastor's lawyer, said he was confident that any property in church members' names would be safe there. "They can't prove fraudulent conveyance," he said.
Mr. Alamo was born Bernie Hoffman but took the name Tony Alamo when he entered show business as a young man. In the 1960s, after a spiritual revelation, Mr. Alamo and his late wife, Susan, took to the streets to preach to lost souls in Los Angeles.
They built a church compound, including dormitories for followers, in Saugus, Calif., and in the 1970s moved their headquarters to Arkansas.
In 1994, Mr. Alamo was convicted of falsifying income-tax returns and spent four years in federal prison. He continued to run business and ministry ventures across the U.S. after his release.
In Fouke, a southwest Arkansas town with a population of 865, Mr. Alamo converted a grocery store into his church and the ministry bought homes for as many as 300 followers, said Terry Purvis, the mayor of Fouke.
In September, 2008, federal and state authorities raided Alamo properties in Fouke and Texarkana and the state took custody of children believed to have been abused. Mr. Purvis said most followers have since scattered and just a half-dozen ministry loyalists remain in Fouke.
Mr. Alamo lost an appeal of his criminal conviction and is incarcerated at a federal prison in Indiana. He has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January, he also wrote President Barack Obama to ask for a pardon on the grounds that he has a secret plan to bring peace to the Middle East.