Tony Alamo says he's back in California after raid at Arkansas church
By Brandon Lowrey,
09/23/2008 1204 AM PDT
The Tony Alamo church near Saugus. (David Crane/Staff Photographer)
SANTA CLARITA - Windowless, white commercial vans glide through the dry canyons north of Santa Clarita, stirring up suspicion and gossip among the locals.
The vans transport the faithful - many of them homeless and runaway young people - in and out of Tony Alamo's New Jerusalem Christian Ministries. The reclusive sect has made its home deep in Mint Canyon, amid tall oaks, for more than 40 years.
Across the street, a small neighborhood of ranch-style homes is perched on a hillside overlooking the modest-size ministry.
"They don't bother anyone," said Mike Hooper, 48. "They're kind of misunderstood because they don't go into the community.
"A normal church has functions," Hooper said. "This church doesn't do any of that stuff."
Hooper said the armed guards who watch the church at 13136 Sierra Highway in Santa Clarita every minute of every day make him feel safe.
"It's free armed security I'd have to pay $5,000 a month for," he said. "So I'm like, `Cool, they watch my house."'
Alamo, the charismatic 74-year-old church leader, has spent most of his time in recent years at his church and residence in his wife's home state of Arkansas. On Saturday, federal agents investigating allegations of child pornography raided the compound and child-welfare workers took six children into custody.
Alamo's earlier brushes with the law in the 1990s include a four-year prison term for tax evasion and being a fugitive from
And as federal agents hinted there could be a warrant for his arrest soon, Alamo told the Daily News by phone that the allegations were baseless persecution.
"Every true Christian church gets that. Jesus got it. Everybody gets it," said Alamo, whose followers believe he has direct contact with God.
Monday, Alamo said he and his followers have been constantly besieged by the forces of the Dark Lord: Catholics and the law.
Alamo - pronounced al-AH-mo - was born Bernie Lazar Hoffman to a Jewish family in 1934 in Joplin, Mo. He changed his name, reportedly to sound more like Italian- American singers Frank Sinatra and Perry Como.
He claims to have found God in 1964. He married Susan Lipowitz in 1966 and started his ministry with his wife in 1969.
His wife died of cancer in 1982 and Alamo put her body on display for six months at an Arkansas compound, requiring his flock to pray for her resurrection.
Alamo's church on the outskirts of Santa Clarita, which has 100 to 400 worshippers, is the Los Angeles-area headquarters for his congregation.
As peculiar as many neighbors to the church find it, Alamo and his followers have made positive contributions to the Santa Clarita Valley, helping nearby residents evacuate during fires and even volunteering to build Canyon High School's football field in the early 1970s.
Back then, Charles Willett, a contractor, was a Jaycee in charge of building concrete bleachers for Canyon High School's football field. Tony and Susan Alamo offered to supply the manpower: the young members of the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation, the church's charitable arm.
Willet drove to Alamo's church, picked up about 20 young men and brought them to Canyon High School, where they worked for three months on the bleachers.
"They recruited (the followers) down on the streets in Hollywood," Willett said. "A lot of them were ex-drug users and they were pretty eccentric that way. And then they became eccentrically involved in the Christian foundation."
The church's dogma and odd habits have aroused curiosity, suspicion and even disgust. Alamo outlined some of his church's beliefs during phone calls to the Daily News on Sunday and Monday.
Polygamy is OK in God's eyes.
Homosexuals are Satan's tools.
The pope is a homosexual who could be the Antichrist himself.
Girls should be allowed to marry and have sex as soon as they have their first menstrual period, regardless of their age, as long as they're born-again Christians and mature enough to carry on an interesting conversation.
"When they reach puberty, they're able to have children," he said. "Why would God prevent anyone?" But when asked whether he or any of his followers has ever had sex with a girl under 18, he said no.
"I know what would happen if I did that," he said. "I'm not that stupid."
Monday, several women stood in the lobby of Alamo's Sierra Highway church wearing T-shirts bearing Alamo's name and his ministry's emblem: A bejeweled golden cross. When a reporter asked them questions, Sharon Green stepped forward to vouch for the congregation.
"My heart and soul is content now, with my niece being here," she said, adding that the church has been treated unfairly by the news media. But before long, a woman wearing an Alamo shirt ushered Green away, told the reporter to leave and shut the door.
Outside the church, two white vans with Arkansas license plates were parked as armed guards patrolled the area in a truck; Alamo said they're there to ward off vandals.
When asked whether he is a cult leader, Alamo bristled.
"No, I'm not," Alamo said. "A cult (leader) is like the pope.
"If we're a cult, then Jesus and his followers were a cult."
Alamo's church also owns a cluster of homes a few miles away from the church, where Alamo said some of his congregation live. The homes are on a hill just behind the Santa Clarita Valley landmark Halfway House Cafe.
An employee at the cafe said Alamo's white vans are a fixture up there.
In the Halfway House, Alamo's face popped up on a news broadcast, describing the raid at the pastor's Arkansas church. Those in the dining room pointed to the images of the church on the television.
"I drive by there all the time," said Stuart Kennon, 45, of Santa Clarita.
He said he's heard lots of gossip, and that Alamo has gotten into trouble with the law, but not much else. "I don't really know anything about it.
"Aren't they in Hollywood, passing out their pamphlets?"