BUTNER, NC — Tony Alamo, an apocalyptic Pentecostal preacher who was serving a 175-year jail term for sex abuse, has died in prison. He was 82. Let us now remember the Alamo.
The man who would go on to build a multimillion-dollar Christian empire was actually born Bernie Lazar Hoffman in 1934 to Jewish parents in Joplin, Missouri.
Little is known about Alamo’s early life other than his relocation to Southern California in his twenties, where he worked in and around the music industry, and may have had some success as a live singer. He said he changed his name to “Tony Alamo” to keep up with the early 1960s trend of young Italian hit-makers.
Alamo’s subsequent claims that he was “asked to manage” the Beatles, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones remain, to put it mildly, unsubstantiated.
After a quick jail stint on a gun charge, Alamo met and married Edith Opal Horn, another Jewish transplant from the south. She thereafter became known as Susan Alamo.
Together, the Alamos apparently experienced a sudden and potent religious conversion (Tony later explained that Jesus came to him during a meeting at a Beverly Hills investment firm). In 1969, they established the Alamo Christian Foundation in Hollywood.
As with many new Christian organizations of that era, the Alamo church attracted hippies and “Jesus Freaks,” and they focused on ministry among disaffected youths and charitable works in inner-city Los Angeles.
However, Alamo also rapidly developed a rather fiery worldview from which he essentially never wavered. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which in 2007 defined the Alamo organization as a “cult,” went on to sum it up thusly:
“His dogma included blaming the Catholic Church for everything from communism and Nazism to the Jonestown massacre. He compared the Vatican to a prostitute. He also ranted about gays and the government.”
In addition, Alamo warned that the apocalypse was at hand — nonstop. As usual, he pinned the blame on the Vatican, which he further described as the source of “narcotics, prostitution, pornography, booze, and the black market — every filthy thing.”
In 1975, the Alamo Christian Foundation moved to Susan’s hometown of Alma, Arkansas. There, the founders ran the operation from a mansion on a sprawling compound that included a signature heart-shaped pool.
For the next 15 years, Alamo played hard to the public fears regarding nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cold War brought in big bucks for the ministry. Only the 1982 cancer death of Susan Alamo seemed to dim the Foundation’s ascent.
At the same time, Alamo turned his own flashy fashion sense into a major moneymaking operation. Put bluntly, Tony looked like a chintzy Vegas-era Elvis impersonator, and Susan could have competed in any low-rent Dolly Parton cosplay competition. In every sense, the Alamos made this work.Church members had long designed and manufactured the figureheads’ couture for little or no pay. Thus, Alamo had his followers set up a large-scale clothing business that specialized in rhinestone-bedazzled denim jackets. Their pay rates, as might be expected, did not change in the process.
Priced in the modern equivalent of the thousands, Tony Alamo items became hot sellers in Las Vegas, Nashville, and on L.A.’s Melrose Avenue.
Elvis Presley himself was an early customer. Michael Jackson regularly sported his collection. Hulk Hogan, Mr. T, and Sonny Bono even posed with Tony in their own get-ups. For a while, the jackets seemed standard among country music royalty.
The glitzy garment game eventually attracted heat from the IRS, which, in 1985, revoked the Alamo Christian Foundation’s tax-exempt status. This action further solidified the perception of the church being perceived as a cult.
As the Feds raided Alamo properties and drilled deep into the church’s accounts for the next few years, Tony took it on the lam. Even then, though, Tony kept peddling his wares. He’d reportedly turn up in a shop somewhere, unload jackets in a cash transaction, and hit the road again. As a result, the Alamo Christian Foundation continually remained afloat.
Finally, in 1991, agents captured Alamo. In addition to financial chicanery, the preacher faced multiple allegations and lawsuits regarding abuse of his followers, in particular children. He served four years, and then returned to run the continually downsized, but never entirely knocked out, Alamo ministries.
Following Susan’s demise, Tony remarried an indeterminate number of times. In 2008, authorities busted him on charges of child sexual abuse and pornography. Former followers came out in strength against him. According to The New York Times:
“Witnesses at the trial said Mr. Alamo had made all decisions for his followers: who got married; what children were taught in school; who got clothes; and who was allowed to eat. They said he began taking multiple wives in the early 1990s and increasingly younger ones thereafter, including a 15-year-old girl in 1994. He was convicted after five women testified that they had been married to him in secret ceremonies when they were minors (one as an eight-year-old) and taken to places outside Arkansas for sex.”
In his own defense, Alamo said God ordered polygamy and that “consent is puberty.” Shortly thereafter, he got the maximum sentence of 175 years. He also owed $7.9 million in back taxes.
Authorities have not yet officially released Alamo’s exact cause of death. Whatever becomes of his body, it’s likely to be less colorful than what happened to Susan’s back in 1982.
For six months after Susan’s demise, Tony kept his wife’s embalmed remains on display at their Arkansas compound. He promised devotees that if they prayed hard enough, Susan would be resurrected. Some of them, somewhere, must still be waiting. Now they can wait for Tony, too.
Main photo: Tony Alamo and Susan Alamo, 1972/screenshot [YouTube]