Arrested Preacher's Ex-Followers Speak Out

Some of Tony Alamo's former devotees claim he's still got their kids

Sept. 26, 2008 — -- News of Christian evangelist Tony Alamo's arrest Thursday was especially poignant for some of his ex-followers.

A couple of them, including Jared Balsley, excitedly called or e-mailed on Thursday evening and Friday morning to relay their feelings about Alamo's arrest at a motel in Flagstaff, Ariz., on suspicion of transporting minors across state lines for sexual purposes.

"It's great news, and maybe he can finally be brought to justice," said Balsley, who claims he was regularly beaten by Alamo's aides and once, when he was only 8 years old, by Alamo himself after arguing with another boy over a Big Wheel.

Alamo, who waived his right to fight extradition to Arkansas at a court appearance today, has been accused by ex-followers of beating children who misbehave and separating husbands from their wives and children to punish them for various infractions.

Coverage of the arrest and last weekend's raid on the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries compound in Arkansas by more than 100 federal agents as part of a two-year investigation into allegations of child pornography, physical and sexual abuse of children, polygamy and underage marriage brought back terrible memories for Balsley and other ex-followers.

The 32-year-old Modesto, Calif.-based radio DJ claimed he was regularly beaten by Alamo's aides, and once, when he was only 8 years old, by Alamo, himself,

"We were not spanked at Tony Alamo's house on Georgia Ridge. ... We were beaten," Balsley told

"Beaten for infractions of his rules. Tony would order four of his biggest guys to hold me up spread-eagled, and then they would hit you with a board that was nicknamed the 'Board of Education.'"

Balsley continued, "There was a girl who had epilepsy, and I remember her having a seizure one time, and Tony brought in dozens of families, saying, 'Well, the devil is in this girl,' and he had her hit, strung her up in the air, and said they would beat the devil out of her ... He's a horrible, horrible person. He makes Warren Jeffs look like an angel, in my opinion."

Anna Pugh, who says she was a member of the church for 11 years, believes that four of her children who she's hasn't seen in four years are at one of Alamo's compounds.

"People out there who don't understand how someone out there can get pulled in to this and be controlled and brainwashed -- just answer the question, "How did Hitler take over an entire nation?'" Pugh told KATV.

"It can be done when you're not allowed to listen to anything but some man dictate to you what is right and what is wrong 24 hours a day and they scare you and pump you up and fill you with fear."

Pugh, who claims she was 20 when she was introduced to the Tony Alamo Ministries and soon married a man 17 years her senior, says she felt an overwhelming sense of hope when she heard about the federal and state raid of Alamo's compound.

"There's another part of me that is relieved and hopeful they are going to put a stop to the abuse that is happening in that town, that has been going on for years, to children, to women especially."

Alamo Laughed About Allegations

But Alamo (pronounced ah-LAM-o) seemed relaxed when discussing the accusations and the raid with on Tuesday, relishing the fact that the raid took place on his 74th birthday last weekend. And he remained defiant in his denial of the allegations, and unrepentant about his promotion of marriage between older men and girls as young as 10.

"The government -- those devils -- they gave me this as a birthday present," said Alamo. "These attacks on me and the ministry have been going on for 44 years. It's nothing new. Nothing shaking but the leaves on the tree.

"They think they're hurting me, but I'm feeling pretty good. The Bible says that when they persecute you, to leap for joy, because the prophets were dealt with in the same manner."

Alamo, who told at the time that he had not been contacted by federal officials, denied some of the allegations and sidesteped straight answers on some other claims.

Asked if minors were abused, sexually or physically at the compound, Alamo sarcastically snapped, "Oh, yeah. We're just open to have minors abused. We're a church and we're not phonies, and that's why they're so obsessed with us."

Alamo denied that there was any child pornography at the compound.

"They ransacked our church, my bedroom, and they haven't even found one porn picture. Why would I be into that? I'm legally blind, and I wouldn't have been able to look at it."

Alamo defended his treatment of his followers but admitted, "Some of them got spankings and I tossed some of them out because they were doing things that were against Scripture. They're miffed and disgruntled, and some of them bring accusations of child abuse."

Asked about claims that children were kept out of school to work on his line of designer jeans, Alamo made light of the charge.

"I had adults working on that, and kids would come in and count beads -- like that's real hard labor."

As for his controversial positions on underage marriage, which he has long promoted on his radio shows, Alamo defended his views.

"The Bible says the age of puberty is the age of consent," he said, emphasizing that he supports the idea of marriage to post-pubescent girls, but that members of his church don't act on that view and follow the law. "We don't have anyone married to children under the 18-year-old limit, but the Bible says that's OK if they're age 10 or 12, if they reached puberty."

Dark Side to All-American Story

It's the all-American story with a dark and dangerous twist.

A Jewish newspaper delivery boy from Montana moves to Hollywood in the heyday of the swinging '60s and changes his name to Tony Alamo to pursue a career in music.

Later, he converts to evangelical Christianity and becomes a preacher who ministers to the homeless and drug addicts, raising money for his church by selling a popular brand of sequined denim jackets worn by celebrities, such as Brooke Shields, Mr. T and Hulk Hogan during the 1980s.

But Alamo's shadow side ended up dominating headlines.

The man once described by former President Bill Clinton, the ex-governor of Arkansas, as "Roy Orbison on speed," was accused of leading a cult, landed in prison for tax evasion and weapons violations, spouted anti-Catholic propaganda on the air and in pamphlets, and attacked the pope and President Reagan by calling them "Anti-Christ Devils" in a tract titled "Genocide."

After his wife, Susan, died in 1982, he placed her body in a crystal crypt on his dining room table while his followers prayed for her resurrection; later, he was accused of spiriting the body away before his religious compound was raided by federal marshals in 1991, and her body remained missing until church members turned it over to lawenforcement in 1998.

In the latest incident, the headquarters of his Tony Alamo Christian Ministries Church in the tiny town of Fouke, Ark., was raided over the weekend by more than 100 federal and state officials, and six children were removed from the compound while investigators searched for their parents, according to Arkansas State Police.

The two-year investigation was "aimed at allegations that children living at the Alamo facilities may have been sexually and physically abused," according to Bill Sadler, spokesman for the Arkansas State Police.

"We did make the decision to remove the children that we felt were in harm's way or in imminent danger," said Julie Munsell, spokeswoman for the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

Defending Polygamy

Alamo, who strongly defended the polygamy practiced by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Mormon sect after its Texas compound was raided in April, has long advocated that such unions between older men and teenage girls are God's will.

"What I'm doing is fighting for these people that they, the ungodly beast, is throwing into prison for marrying someone 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, if they've reached puberty," he told his radio listeners in an April broadcast.

In other radio sermons, Alamo contended that the Virgin Mary was only 6 when she conceived Jesus, asking his listeners whether that made God a pedophile.

Before the arrest, spokesmen for the FBI and the Arkansas State Police would not discuss whether an arrest warrant is pending for Alamo or whether he has been interviewed as part of their investigation.

"He has been around for a long time, and he is really creepy," said Heidi Beirich, deputy director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's (SPLC) 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 claiming 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 an 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," said 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 said Alamo used to preach fundamentalist sermons about the return of Jesus, urged his followers not to use birth control, and railed 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.

Since his release from prison in 1998, Alamo relocated his main ministry to Fouke, a town with 800 residents, where his armed security guards have butted heads with local law enforcement.

"They've always had armed guards stopping people on a public road and telling them they could not come up on the property," said Mayor Terry Purvis.

"It's a secretive culture -- they've got some trailer homes and a few duplexes up there where their members stay and live," he said. "I've had several ex-followers call me up with allegations about polygamy and underage marriage."

Purvis, who witnessed the raid, was thankful that it went smoothly and that federal agents did not encounter resistance.

"They didn't tell me much, just that they were serving a search warrant that pertained to child pornography and child abuse," he said. "I'm just glad that there was no resistance. My biggest fear was a Waco situation."