From beloved preacher to cult leader: The story of Tony Alamo and his 'church.'

arkansas california cult religion preacher tony alamo
Source: THV11/YouTube

Aug. 11 2021, Published 2:49 p.m. ET

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In the official record, Tony Alamo is listed as a pastor.

Born Bernie Hoffman, the boy from Missouri wasn’t an average preacher. Even in his later years, when the feds were pursuing him for charges ranging from embezzlement to child abuse—the man calling himself Tony Alamo didn’t try to hide. His booming voice could be heard on the radio from Alabama to Africa, trying to convert a new flock.

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The flashy evangelist did business in the backwoods of western Arkansas, but when the law caught up with him, he was living in Tampa, Florida, where he ran a restaurant and regularly broadcast religious talk shows.

Alamo turned fugitive in 1989 and wasn’t captured till July 1991, after a tip came in from a viewer of “America’s Most Wanted.”

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Tony Alamo, a Jewish kid from Joplin, Missouri, met his perfect match when he first laid eyes on the woman of his dreams in Hollywood. Her name was Susan (born Edith Opal Horn) Lipowitz, nine years his senior.

During his outlaw years, he’d threatened to kidnap a federal judge, dug up and removed with late wife’s body from her heart-shaped mausoleum and made millions of dollars selling high-end painted jean’s jackets to celebrities.

He also built a Christian empire on sex trafficking, embezzlement and lies.

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FROM ARKANSAS TO HOLLYWOOD

Susan was the love of Alamo’s life, and by the time he met her, he’d already dropped “Bernie” and begun calling himself “Mark.” He’d tried out a few stage names—“Bernie” was a singer—such as “Mark Hoffman” and “Marcus Abad.”

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Susan, too, would eventually change her name from the one her parents gave her in Alma, Arkansas. She was born four and a half years before “Black Friday,” and the Great Depression dealt her already poor family another blow. Like Bernie, she grew up Jewish in a mostly Christian state. She converted to Pentecostal Christianity in childhood.

In the early 1940s, Susan moved west to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. She married Solomon Lipowitz, and together, they had a daughter. It was her second marriage. Acting didn’t pan out, but Susan Lipowitz made a good living as an evangelical preacher, often leaving southern California for long stretches to preach in tents across the country.

Divorce wasn’t quite as scandalous in Hollywood, where Tony met Susan met in the mid-1960s. They made the trip to Las Vegas in 1966 to tie the knot, each leaving their respective spouses. ‘

He wasn’t quite 32 and she was 41.

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RECRUITING THE LOVE OF HER LIFE

When Bernie, sometimes called Mark, met Susan in 1965, they were both on their second marriages--at least that’s what he told her. He was working as a music promoter. The two immediately clicked, having much in common — from midwestern, Jewish roots to a talent for showmanship — and within months, Susan converted Bernie/Mark to hard-core Protestantism.

They married each other three times within a few weeks, first in Tijuana, Mexico. Then the couple flew to Vegas, where they went through two more marriage ceremonies. They legally changed their names to Tony and Susan Alamo.

It would turn out this marriage would be forever for only one of them.

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Christian communities were good business in Hollywood, and The Alamo Christian foundation grew steadily over the next decade. Susan focused on recruiting and preaching. Tony renamed the business and ran the organization as a benevolent and energetic father figure.

Their partnership brought in more members than ever. Both Tony and Susan were impressive on the stage: he with eye-catching outfits and musical ability, she with fiery sermons and deep faith. They also had a knack for finding young people who needed help.

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Alamo Christian Foundation zeroed in on street kids, and there were no shortage in 1960s Hollywood. New congregants signed on, then the church transported them to a rural location of Agua Dulce, California, about an hour northeast, for a hot meal and a sermon.

After a decade of building the church, Susan and Tony moved everyone to Dyer, Arkansas, just outside Fort Smith near the Oklahoma border.

THE EXPANSION

Members in Dyer worked on a large campus compound. The grounds included a school, a printshop, a tabernacle and a workshop for producing clothing and garments. Church members branched out to begin small businesses within the nearby community of Alma, Arkansas. One business was particularly successful — airbrushing denim jackets to produce beautiful pop art.

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The jackets sold profitably and began making real money for the church members and the church itself when celebrities began purchasing them for several thousand dollars each. On the cover of his album Bad, Michael Jackson is wearing an Alamo-painted jacket.

The Alamo Christian Foundation had churches in Chicago, Nashville, Miami Beach and Brooklyn. In addition to clothing, the church produced music and began distributing Christian music and sermons nationally.

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The main campus continued to grow, adding gas stations, a restaurant and a hog farm, according to The New York Times.

By the time the church was at its height in 1980, they had their own television ministry and were bringing in tens of thousands of dollars each week.

A HEART SHAPED MEMORY

Susan became ill with breast cancer in the late 1970s, just as she’d reached the height of her business success. She believed a miracle would save her. When it became clear she wouldn’t survive, she told church members she believed she would rise from the dead.

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Susan died in the early Spring of 1982. Tony was heartbroken. He’d lost his best friend, business partner and favorite wife — and she was only 56. He built her a heart-shaped mausoleum, and the church kept her body on display. Members could stop by the compound in Dyer, from its perch looking out over the Ozark Mountains, and view the embalmed body of Susan Alamo.

In six months, when she didn’t rise from the dead, Tony finally buried her.

Around the time of his wife’s death, Tony changed the name of the church and consolidated its power. He called the new entity Music Square Church and filed for tax-exempt status. It would later be determined that the “church” was mostly optics, as it became the way an increasingly erratic and unhinged Tony evaded paying any taxes on his growing fortune.

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Tony began a concerted effort to avoid reporting his income. By now, he was a millionaire with a large staff of workers. They complained of long shifts, and some revealed the organization required absolute loyalty. Others said they never got paid.

Tony’s behavior after Susan’s death became troubling, but it turned out he had a long history of shady dealings and violent confrontations dating back to his days in Los Angeles.

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THE TONY ALAMO STORY

Tony traveled far from his midwestern roots. His father was a poor immigrant from Romania who settled the family near Joplin, Missouri in the 1920s. Bernard was born in 1934 and took a bus to Hollywood before graduating high school. He was ambitious, but few facts about his early life are verifiable as Tony tended to self-aggrandize.

In 1966, Tony was arrested on a gun charge, a felony for which he served jail time. After he hooked up with Susan, his ambition, combined with her knowledge of Pentecostal life, along with the burgeoning pro-Jesus counterculture movement of the mid-1960s, resulted runaway success.

Always the promoter, the Alamos established their theological foundation as staunchly anti-Catholic, promoting conspiracy theories about how the Pope, United Nations and mainstream media stood behind the US.. Presidency.

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The Alamo’s promoted UFOs as real and convinced followers to turn over their salaries, work long hours and prepare for the inevitable End Times. The Arkansas compound had much in common with Jonestown, the South American outpost run by Jim Jones that resulted in 909 deaths by cyanide poisoning on Nov. 18, 1978.

The Alamos were multi-millionaires by the time Susan died, although their followers were often forced to scrounge through dumpsters for food, according to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

In 1976, a few unhappy followers reported him to the U.S. Department of Labor, who investigated.

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Alamo was charged was violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, went to court, then countersued all the way to the Supreme Court. He lost, and would soon lose his tax-exempt status as the lawsuits piled up and dragged on through the 1980s.

THE FALL OF THE ALAMO

As the government painstakingly made its case for tax evasion, Tony was fighting legal battles on multiple fronts. Years earlier, sheriff’s deputies showed up at Alamo’s Saugus, California compound. They’d been tipped off by three former members, all men whose sons had been taken to California after their ex-wives married other Alamo Church members.

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The case of the boys went before U.S. District Judge Morris Arnold, who ruled that child abuse had taken place and awarded damages to the plaintiffs. Tony allegedly threatened to kill Arnold but was never held legally accountable. One of the ex-communicated fathers also claimed Alamo had embezzled up to $100,000 in church funds from their trucking company.

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In 1984, Tony Alamo married what was either his fourth or sixth wife, as there have been claims he was married four times before he wed Susan. Her name was Brigitta Gyllenhammer, and she lasted two years before divorcing him. She later claimed her husband beat and drugged her and demanded she undergo plastic surgery to make her look like Susan.

Tony also faced charges relating to his late wife’s body. Claiming resurrection was imminent, he’d kept Susan displayed in the compound for months before interring her body. When he announced to his followers they would all need to leave the compound in 1991, certain the feds were about to raid the place, Tony took Susan’s body along. A few years later, her estranged daughter, Christhiaoan Coie, successfully sued him in 1995 for access to her mother’s body for burial.

It would be three more years before Alamo followers would finally deliver Susan Alamo’s remains to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for proper burial under Coie’s supervision.

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LIFE IN JAIL

The feds had narrowed in Tony fought Coie for custody of Susan’s remains. They charged him with several counts related to his tax issues.

Alamo was convicted on June 8, 1994, on one charge of filing a false income tax return and three charges of failing to file a tax return. The trial included testimony from church members who proved Alamo Ministries had accumulated $9 million in income for three years when he paid zero taxes.

The court concluded Alamo also owed another $5 million to ex-members for unpaid labor. Alamo responded by declaring bankruptcy, and his businesses imploded, although Alamo Ministries limped along.

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In September 1994, the Federal District Court for the Western District of Tennessee sentenced Alamo to six years in federal prison in Texarkana, Texas. He served slightly less than four years, was transferred to a Texarkana halfway house, and by Christmas 1998, he was a free man again.

Upon his release, the ex-felon returned home: back to his now humbler Tony Alamo Christian Ministries. The smaller compound was now in Fouke, Arkansas, but there were two extant branches in Ft. Smith and Los Angeles.

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The next raid wouldn’t just be the feds and it wouldn’t be a pesky tax problem.

Tony Alamo was looking at child porn charges.

THE CULT

When Tony got back into the business in 1999, he immediately went on the air. He preached he was the victim of a government conspiracy. He kept the presses at his print shop running day and night, churning out literature about Satanic conspiracy theories perpetrated against him and the church.

He claimed Satan was behind the continuous, relentless government prosecution and that he was the ultimate victim.

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In 2007, the Southern Poverty Law Center listed the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries as a hate group, citing its anti-Catholic literature and rhetoric. The feds had been investigating him since 2005 on charges related to the Mann Act, which was passed to prosecute the sexual exploitation of women and girls.

In September 2008, Alamo was charged with multiple violations of the Mann Act between 1994 and 2005. He was convicted on July 4, 2009. Witnesses at his trial described being taken as “child brides,” with some as young as 9 years old. Ten would be convicted on ten counts, all related to trafficking underage girls across state lines.

In November of that year, the judge sentenced him to 175 years in prison.

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The full weight of the crimes he’d committed was finally coming to light, and in 2014, a judge from Miller County, Arkansas, ruled in a case brought by seven ex-cult members. They were awarded the largest sum of damages in Arkansas history — $525 million dollars.

At the age of 82, Tony Alamo died while serving his federal prison sentence.

Tony spent the last 20 years in and out of prison, pioneered conspiracy talk radio, and built an empire that couldn’t withstand the lust and greed of its creator.

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