Townspeople worry Alamo may try to rebuild religious empire upon prison release

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service
Publication Date: 11/27/1998
Author: Martin, Jeff

Townspeople worry Alamo may try to rebuild religious empire upon prison release

DYER, Ark. _ The guards who once kept outsiders away from the Alamo compound are long gone.

So is Susan Alamo’s body, and the followers who kept it inside the mansion as they prayed for her resurrection high atop this ridge overlooking Dyer.

The only evidence of the massive raid that closed the compound are the dozens of doors kicked in by federal marshals.

Still, many of the townspeople remain uneasy.

After all, Tony Alamo, 63, is nearing release after a six-year stay in prison.

When he is freed on Dec. 8, ex-followers believe he will try to rebuild his ultra-conservative religious empire.

“I have no doubt that once he gets out, he will go right back to doing what he was doing before,” said Tom Smith of Goleta, Calif., who spent 15 years inside Alamo’s California and Arkansas compounds.

“Whether they’re going to do it in western Arkansas or somewhere else, I don’t know,” said Smith, a former follower who helped design the 16,500-square-foot mansion on the grounds here.

At its height, the church claimed thousands of members nationwide. More than 200 of them lived in the dormitories, houses and duplexes here on Georgia Ridge.

“The people he still has are few,” Smith said, “but they’re extremely dedicated.”

Those dedicated few, known for stuffing leaflets under car windshield wipers, now use more high-tech methods of getting their message out. Alamo Christian Ministries operates a home page on the World Wide Web. And the group, also known as Music Square Church, still holds worship services not far from Dyer in Fort Smith, Ark.

“It would not surprise me at all if he builds up whatever is left of that church and goes on to bigger and better things,” said Ronald Enroth, a sociology professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., who has done extensive research on extremist religious groups.

“He’s got that kind of charisma,” Enroth said, “that strange charisma.”

Inside the group’s Georgia Ridge compound, Smith recalls, “there was a tremendous amount of peer pressure.”

“You pick up a fortress mentality, kind of an us-against-them, us-against-the-world mentality,” Smith said. “It was always hammered home every morning, every day that we were the last bastions of Christians in the world and if you left here, God was going to throw you on the ash heap.”

Smith left in August 1986, hiking down from Georgia Ridge in the middle of the night after deciding that “Tony wasn’t using us as human beings … we were just tools.”

The threat of eternal hellfire, Smith said, kept followers from leaving.

“We were told that anyone who left there was either found dead, went insane or turned to a life of crime and went to prison,” he said.

It was Alamo who went to prison in 1994, after being convicted in Memphis, Tenn., of failing to file tax returns on church profits.

Alamo is serving the last few days of a six-year sentence in a halfway house in Texarkana, Ark. He refused to be interviewed for this story.

Georgia Ridge was among property in Arkansas, California and Tennessee that was seized by lawmen and later sold at auctions to pay Alamo’s debts.

About three years ago, its spectacular views led a California couple to buy the property and rename it Harmony Hill.

Truman Hance, a traveling evangelist who moved here from Bakersfield, Calif., and his wife Opal are now restoring the Alamo mansion.

“There’s probably people in this town who would be afraid to stand in front of this house here,” Truman Hance said outside the mansion, a few feet from the heart-shaped swimming pool out back and Susan Alamo’s empty crypt on the front lawn.

Susan Alamo grew up in the Dyer area as Edith Opal Horn, then moved to Hollywood with hopes of becoming an actress.

Her daughter Christhiaon Coie has said the two would visit churches, posing as a missionary and her daughter to con parishioners into giving them money.

Susan Alamo “was the power behind the movement when it started, and in those days he was kind of a shadow that stood behind her,” said Enroth, the sociology professor.

She married Alamo, born with the name Bernie Lazar Hoffman, in Las Vegas in 1966.

Together, their unorthodox church was well-established by the early 1970s.

Followers recruited new members _ known inside the compound as “Baby Christians” _ by handing out leaflets in Hollywood. Dozens of followers lived at the Alamo compound in a remote area near Saugus, Calif.

“I had moved to Los Angeles for college and was away from home for the first time, and it left me feeling really lonely,” Smith recalls. “I ran into Alamo’s people on Hollywood Boulevard … They would witness all day in Hollywood and then invite people to take a bus ride up to Saugus for a service at night.”

Smith compares his first few weeks in the Alamo compound to basic training in the military.

“It strips away your individuality and prepares you to be part of the group,” he said.

By the mid-1970s, Smith was deeply devoted to the organization and helped the Alamos move their headquarters from California to Georgia Ridge.

And Alamo, whose followers made jackets studded with rhinestones and sold them to country music stars from a store in Nashville, Tenn., was amassing enormous wealth.

“He started with $4,000 in cash and 10 years later had a $50 million enterprise,” said Ed Sanders, a retired religion professor at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.

Alamo’s businesses included a grocery store, a construction company, an auto repair shop, a restaurant and a hog farm.

The Arkansas Ozarks offered an attractive home to the compound, partly because “mountain people are private,” Sanders said.

“They don’t care what you do in your holler, as they say, as long as you don’t bother them in their holler,” Sanders said.

And no one did bother them.

So why, Smith now wonders, did he guard the gates from the squirrels, the deer and the occasional stray dog in the pre-dawn hours so many nights on Georgia Ridge?

“We were always told there were unseen demonic forces trying to get in and murder everyone,” Smith said.

When Susan Alamo died of breast cancer in Tulsa in 1982, Smith and other followers prayed around the clock, each doing two-hour shifts.

“We were praying by the coffin for God to raise up Susan from the dead,” Smith recalls.

About that time, worship services were held in the mansion, which had three fireplaces, marble bathtubs, a 40-by-30-foot master bedroom and a recording studio in the basement.

To the north are buildings that once served as a school, a cafeteria and dormitories.

“This was kind of like a paradise,” Opal Hance said of the grounds.

Eventually, though, Tony Alamo’s legal troubles touched off the raid that sent followers hitch-hiking to the bus station in nearby Alma, Ark.

He was charged with child abuse after an 11-year-old boy told police he was paddled 140 times by four men on orders from Alamo at the Saugus compound in 1988. Prosecutors dropped the charges seven years later, saying too much time had passed.

He was also charged in 1991 with threatening to kidnap a federal judge in Arkansas. He was later acquitted after a jury trial.

In February 1991, 30 federal and local law officers raided Georgia Ridge and much of the property was seized by the IRS. They found Susan Alamo’s tomb broken into, her body missing.

After Coie sued to get her mother’s body back, it was returned by followers last summer and she was buried in Tulsa’s Memorial Park Cemetery in August.

Despite Alamo’s run-ins with the law, Sanders said “If I were ranking dangerous people, I wouldn’t put him near the top.” It’s Alamo’s followers, though, who concern Sanders.

“There’s always the danger of some misguided disciple deciding to take matters into his own hands,” he said.

Misguided or not, folks in Dyer are convinced they’ll be tucking their leaflets under windshield wipers for years to come.

The Rev. Herman Porter of Dyer’s New Bethel Church, who has known Alamo for years, said “he’s got followers all over the place and always will, I guarantee that.”


(c) 1998, The World, Tulsa.

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service

In: 1990-1999

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