Evangelist and cult leader Tony Alamo, who died Tuesday in a prison hospital in North Carolina, was a curiosity to many people before he was a criminal, and lived much of his life in the headlines.
Tony Alamo was born Bernie Lazar Hoffmon on Sept. 20, 1934, in Joplin, Mo. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Romania who, Alamo claims, had been dance instructor for Rudolf Valentino, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
When he was a teenager, Alamo left Joplin for the West Coast. He apparently adopted the name Marcus Abad for some time and achieved some modicum of success as a "big band crooner" in Los Angeles.
Alamo went on to own a health club and work in the music industry. He claimed that he recorded a hit record single in the early 1960s, "Little Yankee Girl," and that he was asked to manage musical acts including the Beatles, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones.
In 1966, after serving jail time for a weapons charge, Alamo married Edith Opal Horn from Alma, Ark., in Crawford County. Nine years his senior, Horn was a two-time divorcee who had moved to Hollywood to become an actress but ended up supporting herself partly by scamming churches into believing she was a missionary in need of money, according to the Encyclopedia article.
Some sources say they changed their names to Tony and Susan Alamo after getting married, but Tony Alamo has claimed that he changed his own name earlier to mimic the Italian-American singers who were popular at the time.
According to Tony Alamo, while he was in a meeting at a Beverly Hills investment firm, Jesus came to him and told him to preach the second coming of Christ. Afterward, he and Susan converted to Christianity and began a Hollywood street ministry, passing out religious tracts and preaching especially to drug addicts, alcoholics and prostitutes.
Former followers react to Alamo's death
The death of evangelist and cult leader Tony Alamo on Tuesday in a North Carolina prison hospital did not pass without comment. Known, in part, for his rambling religious and anti-government commentary, several of his former followers had a few words of their own to share.
Rebecca Gay, 42, who now lives in Georgia, spent the first 14 years of her life at the compound on Georgia Ridge. She posted a message Wednesday on Facebook about Alamo's passing.
"Last night Tony Alamo the leader of the religious cult where I was born and raised, a man who was an annihilator of lives, the fracturer of families, and a thief of innocence took his last breath," wrote Gay. "It feels strange—like someone cut the invisible tie that bound me for so long. I'm still processing. So many thoughts."
Dorothy Curry, 72, of Fort Smith, said she had mixed emotions.
"I don't rejoice, but I'm kind of glad," she said. "I don't want to celebrate somebody's death. I'm not jumping up and down. We were all hurt by that ministry—spiritual abuse is what you call it. Some people have gotten over it and some haven't.
"Part of my testimony is that I was in a cult for 25 years. The cultish practice is the control, and we submitted to that."
Curry said her sister Ann, who's 82 and a former Alamo follower, was in a much more celebratory mood Wednesday.
"My sister was saying 'Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Jesus!' She's thankful because (Alamo) doesn't have power over anyone anymore," Curry said. "What a relief for a lot of people, a lot of people who grew up in there and were dealing with the abuse."
Curry said she can't imagine anyone taking over as the leader of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries.
"I'm just rejoicing because his reign is over," she said. "You can't imaging anyone else taking over that ministry. His doctrine was unGodly. It wasn't the doctrine of Christ."
(Bill Bowden of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette did the reporting on this story.)
In the mid-1970s, they moved the ministry to western Arkansas, where Susan Alamo had grown up.
The group purchased land on Georgia Ridge, just north of Dyer, and built a 13,064-square-foot mansion where the Alamos lived.
Tony Alamo thought of himself as a country-gospel singer. In former President Bill Clinton's 2005 autobiography, My Life, he described Tony Alamo as "Roy Orbison on speed."
After Susan Alamo died of cancer in 1982, Tony Alamo kept her embalmed body in the mansion, telling his followers that she would rise from the dead. After about six months, he was finally convinced to entomb her body in a mausoleum near their heart-shaped swimming pool.
In 1991, just before federal agents seized the property, the front of the mausoleum was smashed and Susan Alamo's body was spirited into the night as Tony Alamo and his followers abandoned the compound.
In 1998, the coffin and remains of Susan Alamo were dropped off one night outside a Van Buren funeral home after Christhiaon Coie, Susan Alamo's daughter, won a legal battle for the body.
In August 1998, Susan Alamo's remains were placed in a crypt in Memorial Park Cemetery in Tulsa, according to the Tulsa World.
In the 1990s, Tony Alamo did prison time for tax evasion. After being released in 1998, he set up then-smaller Tony Alamo Ministries in Fouke (Miller County) with branches in Fort Smith and Los Angeles.
On Sept. 20, 2008, state and federal officials raided Alamo's Fouke compound as part of a two-year investigation into allegations of child abuse and child pornography.
Alamo was arrested in Flagstaff, Ariz., five days later on a warrant charging him with violating the Mann Act, a federal statute enacted to stop the trafficking of women or girls across state lines.
At the end of a trial that included several women testifying that they had been sexually abused by Alamo, some having been forced to become his "wives," Alamo was found guilty July 24, 2009, on 10 counts of taking underage girls across state lines for sex. On Nov. 13, 2009, he was sentenced to 175 years in prison and fined $250,000. On Dec. 2, 2010, the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld his conviction and sentence.
In February 2014, a Miller County judge—in the largest personal-injury judgment in Arkansas history—awarded $525 million in actual and punitive damages to seven former members of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries.
"Susan died and Tony couldn't find himself," Curry said. "He didn't know how he was going to get along without her. She was the only one with any kind of anointing, any kind of spirituality."