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Is He a Prophet, Promoter or Profiteer? : Religion: Ex-followers recall Tony Alamo's path as harsh and narrow.

July 11, 1993|SAM ENRIQUEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

". . . the prophet who presumes to speak a word in My name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that prophet shall die."

--Deuteronomy 18:20, quoted by an ex-follower of Tony Alamo

Hounded by government agents, faced with financial ruin and slandered by some of the very souls he labored to save, controversial evangelist and accused tax dodger Tony Alamo says Satan has unleashed a fierce counterattack on his soul-saving enterprises.

The U.S. marshal's office in 1991 seized cash, merchandise and millions of dollars worth of his property, as well as the Alamo clothing businesses, gas stations, restaurants, grocery stores, the auto shop, the construction firm, the candy company, the nursery and landscaping business.

Even the hog farm.

Much of the seized property has ended up in the hands of former church members who won a $1.5-million court judgment against Alamo in U.S. District Court a year earlier in Fort Smith, Ark., and the Internal Revenue Service wants the rest.

He faces trial this fall on tax fraud charges in Tennessee.

Those Alamo setbacks, coupled with child abuse charges pending against him in Los Angeles Superior Court, have prompted many longtime ex-followers to come forward and tell, for the first time, of their experiences living in the religious community founded by the 59-year-old preacher and his now deceased wife, Susan.

And Alamo, in a rare interview, told his side.

Although these are trying times, he is not letting on. The government, he said, has been after him for years.

"Never let the devil see you cry," he said.

*

Theirs was a match made in heaven. God, Himself, said so.

"I had a vision of her and me kissing, a profile of us that looked like black and white wrought-iron, all shimmering," recalled Tony Alamo. "I told the Lord, 'She's smarter than me.' He said, 'That's good for your ego.' "

And so began the divinely inspired union of Bernie Lazar Hoffman and Edith Opal Horn, a.k.a. Tony and Susan Alamo--a partnership deserving of an eternity in heaven or hell, depending on whom you believe.

From their Las Vegas marriage in 1966 until Susan's death from cancer in 1982, critics say, the Alamos used street smarts and conceit to build a religious following that numbered in the hundreds and a string of businesses that earned millions.

Internal Revenue Service officials have determined that the Alamos used their church to get rich, and then stiffed the IRS for about $10 million. He is free on $50,000 bail, which his followers paid in cash.

Tax Charges

A federal grand jury in Memphis, Tenn., charged Alamo with filing a false income tax return in 1985 and failing to file returns the following three years.

Alamo says he is innocent, that Satan is behind a plot to squelch his work spreading the Gospel.

He also scoffs at the notion that he ever lived high on the hog. Besides, everything he used--the fancy clothes, jewelry, cars and so on--belonged to the church, he said. In 1987 divorce papers, Alamo reported drawing no salary. He said he received about $500 a month in room, board and travel expenses, which was about the same as any other church member.

Whatever the outcome of his tax fraud trial, it is not likely to change any minds on whether the former Hollywood promoter is a courageous prophet or a lying profiteer.

Either way, his story is a testament to the power of faith.

The labor of church members helped the Susan and Tony Alamo Foundation and its affiliated church organizations grow from a dingy Hollywood crash pad in the 1960s to a self-supporting enterprise with residential housing in California, Arkansas and Tennessee on properties worth an estimated $20 million. In time, the arrangement prompted a Department of Labor civil complaint.

These days, some ex-members describe a path to salvation that was harsh and narrow.

The Alamos, who were born Jewish, used the threat of hell to keep a tight rein on their Christian community, holding power over matters large and small, from approving clothes to selecting jobs and marriage partners.

Followers believed the couple got their orders directly from God. Any disobedience chanced eternal suffering. Church members were told that thoughts critical of the Alamos were planted by the devil.

Fasting was a common remedy for slackers and backsliders. Single men and women were not allowed to be alone together or even engage in conversation. Television was for years forbidden, and the only reliable interpretation of the Bible, as well as current events, came from the Alamos.

Tony Alamo told followers the U.S. government staged the Persian Gulf War as a diversion so the world would not notice the seizure of Alamo church properties to satisfy a court judgment.

While preaching a message of austere fundamentalism, Tony and Susan Alamo amassed for themselves a host of earthly treasures: Cadillac and Lincoln limousines, properties, jewelry, antiques, furs, silver and gold.

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