Published January 13, 2015
Since Tony Alamo's start as a California street preacher more than 40 years ago, the self-styled evangelist's story has been colorful and checkered.
When his wife died of cancer, Alamo claimed she would be resurrected and kept her body on display for six months while their followers prayed. It would be 16 years before her body was returned to her family.
For a time, his elaborately painted denim jackets were a must-have in Hollywood, but sales contributed to tax problems that landed him in prison for four years in the 1990s.
Alamo was charged but not convicted of other crimes, including child abuse. Now the 74-year-old is accused by former church members of abusing children and running an organization in which girls who just reached puberty can marry. Agents raided his southwest Arkansas compound on Saturday and placed six girls in state custody.
In an interview Monday, Alamo spoke of the allegations with a mix of denial and defiance, saying he never promoted sexual abuse but that he believes there's a mandate from the Bible for young girls to marry.
"In the Bible it happened. But girls today, I don't marry 'em if they want to at 14-15 years old. Because we won't do it, even though I believe it's OK," Alamo said.
In an AP interview on Saturday, he had said that for girls having sex, "consent is puberty."
On Monday he bristled at descriptions of his organization as a cult, saying enemies want to cast him as a "weirdo for preaching what the Bible says."
People who have left Alamo's organization say they have witnessed older men marrying girls who just reached puberty. The U.S. Attorney's Office said in an e-mail that was inadvertently sent to media last week said agents expected to find children ages 12-14 who had been abused and that they expected to file charges. The e-mail said agents believed child pornography was being produced at the compound in Fouke.
Alamo also denied creating any pornography.
"They (government agents) have got six of our girls in custody. Little girls. They probably disrobed them. I mean it's the most filthy bunch of devils that I've ever heard of," Alamo said.
As for former followers making the allegations, Alamo said, "I've kicked a lot of people out of the church and they'll say anything to get back at me."
He suggested efforts to gather evidence against him will only bring more people to his ministry, noting that daily traffic on his Web site has grown more than 10-fold, to more than 1 million hits, since the raid.
"They're really making us famous," he said with a laugh.
Alamo, who now lives in California, said he still preaches daily. He first bought land in Arkansas in 1975 for a complex near Alma and from there grew to own a number of businesses.
Fashion was his best-known business. His painted denim jackets were worn by celebrities for a time and even now are offered for hundreds or even thousands of dollars on the Internet. Alamo's Web site features a picture of Mr. T wearing one.
Alamo went to prison for tax evasion after the complex was raided in 1991. He fled with his followers before the raid, taking with him the body of his wife, who had died nine years earlier.
In order to be released from his sentence in 1998, Alamo followed a judge's order to return Susan Alamo's remains to members of her family.
And Alamo's property had been raided once before, in 1988 in Santa Ana, Calif., where state officials came to seize three boys and return them to their fathers' custody.
An 11-year-old boy told police that Alamo directed four men to strike him 140 times with a wooden paddle as punishment for minor offenses. Alamo briefly faced a child-abuse charge but a prosecutor directed that the count be dropped, citing a lack of evidence.
In 1991, Alamo was acquitted on a charge that he threatened to kidnap a federal judge.
Alamo claims 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.
"I am a completed Jew," he said, though he added that he had never believed in Judaism.
Alamo's anti-Catholic bias is evident as he speaks. He claims the White House is in league with the Vatican, which he says also controls the United Nations.
He said being a Jew gives him special insight.
"We wrote the Bible. I don't want these stinking gentiles in Rome telling me what it says. They don't know," he said.
Under state law, investigators have to make a court filing after a search warrant is executed that details what the search found. But Circuit Judge Jim Hudson said the document would be kept under seal because of the juveniles involved.
The six girls taken into state custody will require a hearing if they remain with the state on a long-term basis but there was no indication Monday that a hearing had been set.
Arkansas Department of Human Services spokeswoman Julie Munsell said the children were taken from the compound because they were "in harm's way or in imminent danger." She said the state is trying to identify the children's parents.
As for what would inspire people to follow Alamo or other charismatic leaders, there is no single or easy answer, said David Bromley, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University.
"These groups vary, and when they are at the hot stage, there is intense commitment. When people leave, when you have that kind of intensity, they tend to be rejected by the group and they tend to be quite hostile when they leave," said Bromley, who is writing a book on why people join such movements.
Bromley said that such organizations may not be as strong as they seem.
"These groups are much more diverse than they appear on the surface. You have people who look and talk alike, but when you find out who the members are, you find the levels of commitment are enormously different," Bromley said.
"It looks pretty solid to you from the outside but you find out people have different reasons for being there and that half are on their way in and half are on their way out," he said.
Alamo would not discuss how his organization operates beyond saying it accepts donations. He said he has workers who keep the books and pay the bills, including his $70,000 salary.
"Even if I knew I wouldn't tell because the damn government would come right after them (donors)," he said. "I wouldn't be that simple-minded to tell anybody where the money comes from.
"You must think I'm very stupid after 44 years of this stuff," Alamo said.