LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Tony Alamo, a one-time street preacher whose apocalyptic ministry grew into a multimillion-dollar network of businesses and property before he was convicted in Arkansas of sexually abusing young girls he considered his wives, has died in prison. He was 82.
Once known for designing elaborately decorated jackets for celebrities including Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley, Alamo died on Tuesday at a federal prison hospital in Butner, North Carolina, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
The disgraced preacher was convicted in 2009 on charges that he took underage girls across state lines for sex, including a 9-year-old. The judge who sentenced him to the maximum 175 years in prison told him: “One day you will face a higher and a greater judge than me. May he have mercy on your soul.”
Alamo started preaching along the California streets in the 1960s, advocating a mixture of virulent anti-Catholicism and apocalyptic rhetoric. He claimed God authorized polygamy, professed that gays were the tools of Satan, and believed girls were fit for marriage even at a young age.
“Consent is puberty,” Alamo told The Associated Press in September 2008, during the same weekend state and federal agents raided the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries in the tiny southwest Arkansas town of Fouke to investigate possible child abuse and pornography.
Witnesses in the ensuing trial said Alamo made all key decisions in the compound: who got married, what children were taught in school, who received clothes, who was allowed to eat. They said he began taking multiple wives in the early 1990s, including a 15-year-old girl in 1994, followed by increasingly younger girls.
Alamo was convicted after five women testified they were “married” to him in secret ceremonies at his compound when they were minors — including one when she was only 8 years old — and later taken to places outside Arkansas for sex.
“There’s no telling how many little girls’ lives he destroyed,” Fouke Mayor Terry Purvis told the AP on Wednesday. “I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes right now.”
Former followers said Alamo grew increasingly unhinged after his wife, Susan, died from cancer in 1982. Devotees prayed for months for her resurrection, and her body was eventually placed in a crypt on the ministry’s 300-acre compound in Dyer. Her body remained there until Alamo ordered his followers to flee in 1991, before federal marshals seized the property to settle a court judgment. Alamo returned his wife’s remains to her family seven years later, after being threatened with jail.
Initially, Tony Alamo Christian Ministries attracted hippies and youngsters alienated from their parents when it started in the streets of Los Angeles in the 1960s. The self-proclaimed “Jesus Freaks” preached a wrathful version of Pentecostalism known for spirited worship and a belief in modern-day miracles.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the ministry sold elaborately designed denim jackets to celebrities including Presley, Jackson and several country music stars. The iconic black leather jacket on Jackson’s “Bad” album was an Alamo original later sold at auction to settle $7.9 million in federal tax claims.
At its height, Alamo’s ministry claimed thousands of members nationwide and was perhaps most known for leaving fliers on car windshields with screeds against the Vatican, homosexuality and a perceived one-world government.
John Wesley Hall, a lawyer who had represented Alamo, said Wednesday that the ministry still produces the fliers.
“My staff still gets them in the mail,” Hall said, noting that Alamo “denied that he ever did anything (wrong).”
In a 2008 interview with the AP, Alamo claimed to be unique among Christian preachers because he was born a Jew and had a “supernatural experience” through which he became a born-again Christian.
From his initial compound in northwest Arkansas, Alamo presided over several businesses — including gas stations, a hog farm, a grocery store and a restaurant — that funded his ministry. He was convicted of tax evasion and served four years in prison despite claiming he had no tax liability because he received no salary.
Alamo also was accused in 1991 of child abuse after an 11-year-old boy told police he was paddled 140 times by four men on orders from Alamo in 1988 at the church’s compound in Saugus, California. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges, saying too much time had passed. The same year he was charged with threatening to kidnap a federal judge in Arkansas. He was acquitted by a jury.
It was after he left prison in the 1990s that he started the compound in Fouke in southwestern Arkansas with about 100 followers.
Tony Alamo was born Bernie Lazar Hoffman on Sept. 20, 1934, to a Jewish family in Joplin, Missouri. He arrived in Los Angeles in the 1960s, claiming he was a music promoter with clients including the Beatles. He and his wife legally changed their names to Tony and Susan Alamo after they married in Las Vegas in 1966.