3 Nov 2010

40 years of fraud and abuse by evangelist, Tony Alamo, ended by sex abuse testimonies

Google News - Associated Press July 26, 2009

Sex abuse testimony ends Alamo's long crime career


Of all the horrid accusations against evangelist Tony Alamo — and the list is long — it was the testimony of formerly loyal subjects, recounting "marriages" between their cult leader and girls as young as 8, that may end his 40-year rule and send him to prison for life.

Born Bernie Lazar Hoffman, the 74-year-old faces up to 175 years behind bars following his conviction Friday on 10 counts of transporting young girls across state lines for sexual purposes. Some jurors wept while women described being molested by and forced into sex with their decades-older pastor.

Among many who've watched Alamo's handiwork since the 1970s — which produced allegations including kidnapping, brainwashing, child abuse, tax evasion and threatening a federal judge — there was never any doubt the street-hustler-turned-pastor should be locked away for good. Their question is, what took so long?

"This man has been running around the country for decades getting away with doing awful things and hurtful things to people," said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which lists Tony Alamo Christian Ministries as a hate group for its virulent anti-Catholicism and homophobic leaflets.

"Law enforcement is very reluctant to intervene in what looks like religion," Potok said "You've got to be very careful when you are attacking people's beliefs. There is a tendency to not want to violate people's constitutional rights."

To understand Alamo's twisted legacy and once-massive movement, it helps to know the beginning.

Bernie Hoffman of Joplin, Mo., a self-admitted petty criminal, arrived in Los Angeles in the 1960s, claiming he was a music promoter with clients including the Beatles. In a bar, he met a chain-smoking aspiring actress named Susan Lipowitz.

Both were married to others. Both soon divorced. They married in 1966 in Las Vegas and legally changed their names to Tony and Susan Alamo for reasons that remain unclear.

The Alamos built a congregation from runaways, drug addicts, and drifters that littered Hollywood Boulevard. They started businesses, including making rhinestone-studded denim jackets that fetched $500 or more.

They promised eternal salvation and free room and board. In exchange, they demanded total control of their followers' money, communication and sex lives. The congregation swelled to 700 or more and the Alamos grew rich.

When Susan died in 1982 from lung cancer, Alamo displayed her embalmed body in a glass coffee table, ordering the faithful to pray for her resurrection.

But defections started. Former members carried tales of corporal punishment, forced marriages and being refused food for days.

In 1987, brothers Carey Miller and Bob Miller fled the California compound, leaving three sons. When the men came back one night to take the boys, they found that 11-year-old Justin had been paddled. Authorities said he had been beaten for "misbehavior" including asking a science question in history class, punished with 140 blows from a 3-foot board while Alamo gave orders via speaker phone.

"Justin Miller was beaten and mistreated," said Pennsylvania attorney Peter Georgiades, who specializes in cult cases. Not as punishment, he said, but "because they were trying to control all the other parents who were thinking 'we should get out of here.'"

His bloodied backside prompted authorities to raid the compound, but Alamo was gone.

The Los Angeles District Attorney's office charged him with felony child abuse and the FBI launched a manhunt. Alamo was arrested in 1991 in Florida, where he'd been living under an assumed name and running local businesses. The IRS also charged him with tax evasion, and he was sentenced to six years for refusing to pay taxes totaling $7.9 million. While he was incarcerated, Los Angeles prosecutors dismissed their case against Alamo.

After Alamo left federal prison, he started another compound in the tiny town of Fouke, Ark., near the Texas border, with about 100 followers. He still preached that Armageddon was around the corner and young girls made the best wives.

Until last September, when more than 100 agents, including state police and the FBI, raided his Arkansas property. Alamo surrendered five days later and was denied bail. For the first time, his followers openly revolted.

Women were talking — on an Internet site and to state police, who alerted the FBI. They were tired of being abused, they said. They'd been given to Alamo as teenagers. They'd seen others handed over at ages 8, 9 and 10.

Neighbors, angry that Alamo posted armed guards on the public road leading to his property, said they'd had enough. The town council got complaints.

Carl Hassan, a mental health therapist who counsels cult defectors, said he'd heard the abuse complaints and offered help. "There was a lot of lobbying done behind the scenes on behalf of these victims by their families and others," he said. He declined to provide details, and neither the FBI nor Arkansas State Police would comment on the Arkansas case.

"Liars," Alamo called them on his Web site. "Bull----," he said aloud in court.

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Google News - Associated Press July 27, 2009

Trial reveals evangelist's hidden cash, properties

by Jon Gambrell (AP)

TEXARKANA, Ark. — Evangelist Tony Alamo, awaiting sentencing on sex abuse charges, has been running a multimillion-dollar empire that hums along without a trace of his fingerprints.

Followers who had had funneled all their earnings back into Alamo's apocalyptic ministry testified during his trial about how properties, vehicles, businesses and bank accounts fueling its operations ended up in their names.

Had the jury acquitted the preacher of charges that he took underage girls across state lines for sex, it might have given prosecutors another avenue to charge Alamo, who served four years in prison for tax evasion during the 1990s.

With his conviction, it offers the Internal Revenue Service and former followers pursuing civil court judgments against the 74-year-old a clear shot at dismantling the ministry that allowed him to prey on young girls.

"We're trying to have the court order damages that actually punish them and set an example for others," said W. David Carter, a Texas lawyer handling a lawsuit by two former followers who say they were beaten. "To the extent it requires a financial dismantling of some of the ministry's businesses, we're willing and hopefully going to be able to do that."

During the trial, U.S. attorneys used a flow chart to map financial transactions in Alamo's organization, showing plane tickets and hotel rooms for him and his "wives" bought by trusted followers with their credit cards. All those cards were paid through a Texarkana bank account listed under the name of the evangelist's bookkeeper.

Some of Alamo's followers acknowledged having ministry properties in their names to avoid prying by the IRS. Others said Alamo received a $52,000 annual salary only to appease the IRS.

However, former followers testified that Alamo was informed each day what his church's take was from its various businesses and personally signed off on every expenditure, whether food, clothing or toiletries for his followers.

At times, Alamo hid cash profits inside his private bedroom, one witness testified.

Defense witnesses acknowledged multiple properties being listed in their names, ranging from a warehouse in Booneville, Ark., mobile homes in Oklahoma and houses spread through Fort Smith, Fouke and Texarkana, Ark.

Alamo's longtime driver Sanford White testified to having one home in his name but living at another address.

"You don't remember your name being on the deed of the house you actually live in?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Candace Taylor asked.

"I don't recall ... because really we work together to provide housing," White said.

The different names likely protect Alamo from having to pay off tax liens in his name. In Arkansas' Miller County, home to his 15-acre complex in Fouke, records show the evangelist remains liable for a $100,000 civil court judgment. In Sebastian County, home to another Alamo church, clerks say numerous federal tax liens still remain active against the preacher.

David Stell, an IRS spokesman in Oklahoma City, said he didn't know whether the agency had anyone in court taking notes on witness testimony. However, he said that didn't mean the agency wouldn't be interested.

"Folks in the IRS read the newspapers, watch TV and gather information like everybody else does," Stell said. "If information comes up, that's something we'll consider."

Alamo also faces active lawsuits against the church, including a federal suit brought by Carter. That suit asks for more than $75,000 in damages and a jury trial over alleged beatings that left the two men with emotional distress and scarring.

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