Alamo's Last Stand: Controversial Preacher's Ministry Raided by Feds

"He has been around for a long time and he is really creepy," says Heidi Beirich, deputy director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. "We interviewed some of the ministry's child brides, documented some of the virulent hatred directed at Catholics and have documented many complaints about the ministry and forwarded the info to the FBI."

From Hollywood to High Fashion to Holy Days

It's been a long journey for Bernie LaZar Hoffman, the son of Jewish-Romanian parents, who worked delivering newspapers in Montana as a boy.

Soon after heading out to Los Angeles, he changed his name several times while chasing a career in pop music, singing and producing albums, and claimed that the Beatles and Rolling Stones sought his services as a promoter.

But his life changed during a business meeting in 1964 when he claimed that God temporarily struck him deaf and gave him an ultimatum: Tell everyone that Jesus is coming back to Earth, or die, according to a SPLC report on Alamo and his ministry.

Soon after meeting Susan Lipowitz, a Jewish convert to evangelical Christianity, he changed his name to Tony Alamo. The couple set up their Christian foundation in 1969, distributing paranoid screeds about the end of the world to drug-addled hippies on Hollywood Boulevard.

His followers lived in sex-segregated dormitories and suffered a range of punishments --from beatings to losing their spouses and children -- if they broke Alamo's rules, according to several ex-followers.

"We were in fear of him," says a former devotee who joined the ministry in the '70s and left in 1996. "I joined because I was idealistic and wanted to make the world a better place, telling people that we have the truth."

Former followers say that Alamo used to preach fundamentalist sermons about the return of Jesus, urging his followers not to use birth control and railing against the Vatican.

"I'm embarrassed now to think about it, but he somehow convinced us that he was a prophet of God and we had to obey him," said a former sect member.

The ex-devotee says that followers were urged to work long hours and then turn all their money over to the ministry, including children who were kept out of school and forced to help sew rhinestones into the famed Alamo jackets.

While Alamo had a charismatic presence and attracted Clinton, Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap and other country stars to his restaurant in Alma, Ark., his followers saw a different side to the man.

"For us, he was a cruel taskmaster," the former member explained. "He could kick you out in a heartbeat. We didn't own anything, and he could take your house away. That's how powerful he was."

Despite legal problems ranging from tax troubles to labor-law violations, Alamo expanded his empire, setting up several churches and owning 30 businesses -- from a hog farm and supermarket to a restaurant and banquet room -- in Alma, where Clinton remembers seeing Dolly Parton perform, according to his autobiography, "My Life."

Secretive Ministry Raided

When Susan Alamo died of cancer in 1982, he became convinced that she was an immortal prophet who would rise from the dead as a witness of the Book of Revelation. Rather than bury her body, Alamo embalmed it and set it up in a crystal casket on his dining room table, commanding his followers to pray in two-hour shifts around the clock.

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