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Leader of Cult Evades FBI, Keeps Selling Glitzy Jackets

September 03, 1989|HECTOR TOBAR | Times Staff Writer

FBI agents may be hot on his trail, but fundamentalist cult leader Tony Alamo is still selling $600 designer jackets that can be found in Melrose Avenue boutiques and upscale clothing stores across the country.

Alamo, 54, has evaded arrest on felony child-abuse charges since October. Authorities say he directed the beating of an 11-year-old boy struck with a 3-foot wooden paddle more than 140 times at the Saugus commune of the Holy Alamo Christian Church.

His flight from justice, however, apparently has not prevented Alamo from continuing to make a small fortune on his designer denim jackets, a business former cult members say he operates with some of his approximately 500 church followers doubling as employees.

Stays in Public Eye

To push his jackets in the competitive clothing market, Alamo appears to have maintained an increasingly public life, despite the federal manhunt. FBI agents say he has been spotted selling his jackets in Las Vegas stores. And he has even paid a quick visit to the Los Angeles City Hall to have his picture taken with Mayor Tom Bradley.

The sequined jackets--painted with air-brushed images of the New York skyline, Hollywood and Rodeo Drive--are believed by some industry watchers to be among the hottest items in the Los Angeles fashion market. Fashion industry insiders say annual sales of sequined jackets by "Tony Alamo of Nashville" total anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million.

"He makes jackets for all the stars," said Shirley Blenner, a saleswoman at Twist, a boutique on Melrose Avenue where three Alamo jackets were on sale last week for prices ranging from $360 to $680. Blenner pointed to a display of photographs behind the cash register of Mr. T., Mike Tyson, Hulk Hogan and Dolly Parton, all wearing what appear to be Alamo-designed jackets.

Sends in Sketches

"The clothing is so groovy, everyone wants it no matter what they think I am," Alamo said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location. "No matter what, the superstars are going to want my jackets."

Alamo said he designs the jackets himself, using a fax machine to send in sketches from his hide-outs. "Everything I do is a work of art," Alamo said. "I do the designs wherever I'm at."

The ability of Alamo to conduct business while being sought by federal authorities has angered some former church members and others who have monitored the cult group's activities. Some are critical of the FBI for not being determined enough in its search.

FBI spokesman Jim Neilson confirmed that a search for Alamo is continuing but refused to elaborate on the investigation.

"He apparently has a whole system in place to do all the marketing," said Rachel Andres, director of the Jewish Federation Council's Commission on Cults and Missionaries, which monitors Alamo's group. "He has enough people in power who will follow his orders, and he has contact with them. Even though he's not there, he's still clearly in charge."

Branches in 3 States

Several members of the cult--which has branches in Saugus, Arkansas and Tennessee--have been involved in bitter child-custody disputes with former spouses who have stayed in the church. Former members of the foundation's 150-acre Saugus commune say some church followers have been held at the compound against their will, deprived of mail and forced to hand over all their earnings to the Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation.

About 60 Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies raided the Saugus commune in March, 1988, after allegations of child abuse surfaced. Deputies confiscated paddles and speaker phones that Alamo is said to have used to direct the punishment of the 11-year-old child, left bloodied and badly bruised by the beating. The child was being disciplined in what Alamo later insisted was "a very light spanking."

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office later dropped child-abuse charges for lack of evidence but reinstated them in October when a former Alamo church member who saw the attack cooperated with authorities. Besides Alamo, five other commune members charged in the case remain at large.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Foltz said Alamo's decision to evade arrest may have been prompted partly by concerns that publicity from a trial would affect the marketing of his products.

"I think the real desire of the Alamo Foundation is to protect the clothing business and not some religious principle." Foltz said.

'Nobody Gets Paid'

Former cult members said Alamo's clothing business operates out of small manufacturing shops in California, Arkansas and New York, with the largest shop in Alma, Ark. "Nobody gets paid," one former member said. "It's more or less like sweatshops."

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