- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009

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 sect 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 after his conviction Friday in federal court in Texarkana, Ark., 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 anti-gay leaflets.

“Law enforcement is very reluctant to intervene in what looks like religion,” Mr. 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 out of 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 away tales of corporal punishment, forced marriages and being refused food for days.

In 1987, brothers Carey 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 speakerphone.

“Justin Miller was beaten and mistreated,” said Pennsylvania lawyer Peter Georgiades. 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 preached that Armageddon was around the corner and that young girls made the best wives.

That was 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 sect 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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