Rising like a bedazzled, denim-clad Phoenix from the ashes, it appears Tony Alamo is attempting some sort of resurrection in Tulsa.
Alamo (born Bernard Lazar Hoffman) is a now-disgraced former evangelist who rose to notoriety decades ago with a widespread ministry-turned-cult that propelled him into a stint of worldwide fame. Celebrities flocked (and some still do) to his popular bejeweled jean-jacket designs, and he cultivated an outlandish “Macho Man Randy Savage” look that was in sharp contrast to his early appearance.
However, he’s spending the rest of his life in an Arizona prison. He was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to 175 years for transporting children across state lines for sexual contact.
But the comeback is on, as much as it can be for an 80-year-old convict who claims to be blind, diabetic and wheelchair-bound. Many drivers who’ve parked their vehicles in downtown Tulsa recently may have discovered a surprise — Alamo flyers and brochures under their windshield wipers, with bold headlines like “FRAMED,” and “MY COMMUTATION.”
Alamo, no longer getting much mileage out of his powerful cult of personality, will never get out of prison. But that apparently hasn’t stopped him from trying.
His “ministry,” to whatever extent it still exists, lists a California telephone number, and is apparently staffed by at least one person. A woman who answered the phone there promised to pass message from The Frontier “on to someone,” though a return phone call never came.
After several more attempts, the woman advised “reading his pamphlet,” and said, “I don’t think anyone is going to call you back.”
Alamo’s church also still exists in some form in Arkansas, apparently, as it does in Texas where a flyer advertises a P.O. Box return address in Texarkana. Reporters in Arkansas received the “MY COMMUTATION” flyers last month, and said they came with a return address from a P.O. Box in Tulsa.
So why did his flyers show up here? Who is mailing them out and placing them on cars? What could possibly be Alamo’s end game from prison?
Those answers are a mystery.
‘Off the deep end’
Alamo and his wife, Susan, began their ministry in the late-1960s in California. It spun a relatively familiar tale for many “lost youth,” according to Ole Anthony, the president of a Texas-based religious fraud watchdog group called The Trinity Foundation.
For decades, the non-profit group has investigated large-scale, religious-based frauds including evangelist Robert Tilton, of The Trinity Network, and the Rev. James Eugene Ewing.
Alamo, Anthony said, was sort of a “forerunner” of today’s televangelists, focusing more on style than substance, and using his personality to woo needy people to his cause.
“He would find people who were lost souls, and he would give them a sense of community,” Anthony said. “And in return they would turn everything over to him.”
Even, apparently, their children’s future. A book called “The Encyclopedia of Cults,” written by James Lewis, detailed how people who joined Alamo’s ministry would give him their possessions, and in return they would be fed, clothed, and their children would be taken care of and receive some form of an education.
“These kids, when they felt like they belonged somewhere, finally, they would excuse anything,” Anthony said. “He was truly a forerunner of all these crooks we see today.”
Despite that, Anthony said he believed Alamo started out with a true desire to help people. Though Anthony made it clear his foundation never did a full investigation into Alamo, he said they did have a very detailed set of documents they had cobbled together on Alamo during his heyday. (The Trinity Foundation is famous for going to any means necessary to get the information it wants, even if that means dumpster-diving.)
But first, he had to find them.
“This was so long ago, they aren’t digitized or anything like that,” Anthony said of the file folder in a phone interview late last month. “Normally when we do an investigation, we go through trash dumpsters, and attorneys’ trash, we’ve never done that with him. We do have a fairly complete file on him though.”
Anthony said he believed, based on his review of the documents they’ve accumulated, that it was the death of Susan Alamo, Alamo’s second wife, that pushed him “off the deep end.”
Susan Alamo, born Edith Opal Horn, married Hoffman in 1966 after which the two changed their names to Tony and Susan Alamo. For years they were side by side, and Anthony said he believes she was the true mastermind of Alamo Ministries.
“Tony was more, I think, the face of that organization, it looks like,” Anthony said. “His wife was the one pulling the strings, so to speak.”
Which, in retrospect, makes Alamo’s downfall if not tragic, at least more pitiable.
Susan Alamo died in 1982 after a bout with breast cancer. Believing she would apparently rise from the dead, Alamo kept his wife’s embalmed body on display for several months. She was eventually buried on the church property, which was later confiscated by government officials who found her body missing, having been taken, presumably, by her husband.
“I do believe as long as she was alive he was legitimate, but when she died he went off the reservation,” Anthony said.
“In one sense you feel sorry for him. If he was as dependent on her as our files make it seem, it makes sense that he would be lost once she died. The whole thing with him showing off her body and having their church members pray over her 24 hours a day, it kind of gives you an idea of how dependent he was on her.”
Alamo was convicted in 2009, though his problems with the law go back much further than that. In a flyer his supporters sent out last month, Alamo is quoted as saying his deceased wife predicted their legal problems, though it’s described more as a prophetic vision than just reading the writing on the wall.
“She predicted, on her national syndicated television program, ‘After my death, they will frame Tony and our churches,’” Alamo wrote.
Susan Alamo was quoted later, saying, “I began to realize that we had been picked for destruction by the news media. Having been a member of the news media at one time, it was obvious to me that all the members of the press were not ignorant or deceived regarding the lies being told about Tony and myself. These lies were told by most of the major newspapers and major television newscasts, as well as by television magazines throughout the world.”
Indeed, their exploits were well-covered. In April of 1989, the “Deseret News,” a Salt Lake City, Utah, newspaper, featured Alamo and his big-money denim jacket business. For nearly two decades Alamo sold the jackets, which featured fake jewelry, screen-printed designs, and cost upwards of $1,000.
“Frankly, almost everybody who’s anybody in entertainment has worn Alamo’s designs,” the story said. “Dolly Parton, Conway Twitty, Larry Hagman, James Brown, Elvis Presley, Liberace, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna and Mr. T – that’s just a small sampling of the big names who’ve relied on his costuming artistry.”
The LA Times profiled Alamo and his jean jackets five months later. Only this story focused more on Alamo’s fugitive status (he’d been on the run from child abuse charges for nearly a year,) than on his burgeoning fame in the fashion industry.
“The clothing is so groovy, everyone wants it no matter what they think I am,” Alamo told the newspaper in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location. “No matter what, the superstars are going to want my jackets.”
Eventually, it all came crashing down. Alamo was arrested and convicted — first of tax fraud and later of sex crimes — and his property and jackets were seized by the government and sold at auction to help finance a $525 million settlement awarded to seven Arkansas women who said Alamo forced them to be his “child brides.”
But his quote to the LA Times about how “groovy” his jackets were was prescient. Despite his old age, status as a sexual predator, and overall bulldozed legacy, decades later the jackets themselves remain relatively hot items. Ebay stores have several for sale for more than $1,000, and celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj have been photographed wearing the designs.
In a flyer Alamo’s disciples have mailed and handed out recently, the disgraced former street-preacher begs for clemency, saying he’s “too old and too sick to be a predator.”
“I appreciate anything that you can do to help me get out of here,” he writes. “I’m praying that God will get ahold of some of you people to help us with the ministry and to help us to help others. God bless you, and I’m waiting to hear from you.”
“He will never get out of prison,” Anthony said. “But that doesn’t mean he has to stop trying, I guess.”