Starting in the 1960s, Tony Alamo amassed thousands of followers by preaching about the end times — but he was later arrested for tax evasion, fraud, and child abuse.
Of all the cult leaders throughout American history, Tony Alamo was perhaps one of the most baffling. Born to a Jewish family in Missouri in 1934, Alamo moved to Hollywood as a teen to work in the entertainment industry. Before long, however, he’d become an evangelical street preacher who prophesied about the second coming of Christ.
He married Susan Alamo in 1966, and the couple amassed a group of followers who called themselves “Jesus Freaks.” In 1969, they founded the Alamo Christian Foundation, a cult that championed communal living, frugality, and total obedience — all while Tony Alamo made millions of dollars by exploiting members.
In the 1990s, Alamo’s empire came crashing down when he was imprisoned for tax fraud. And soon after his release, he was implicated in a far more sinister crime: child sexual abuse.
This is the shocking story of Tony Alamo, the conniving cult leader who brainwashed thousands — and finally faced justice.
How Tony Alamo Got His Start As A Religious Leader
Born Bernie Lazar Hoffman to a Jewish family in Joplin, Missouri, on Sept. 20, 1934, Tony Alamo had an unassuming start to his utterly bizarre life. According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, he moved to California as a teenager to make a name for himself.
Alamo worked in the music industry, ran a health club, and became a singer in Los Angeles for a short time. He even claimed that he was asked to manage major bands like The Beatles, The Doors, and The Rolling Stones. This never came to fruition, but by the 1960s he had gained a small amount of fame as a street preacher in Hollywood.
Alamo said he had a “supernatural experience” that caused him to convert to Christianity, per The New York Times, and he started sharing the gospel with sex workers, alcoholics, and those struggling with addiction. However, Alamo’s version of the gospel included some strange conspiracy theories as well.
He believed that the Vatican controlled the White House, the United Nations, and the world media. He also preached that UFOs were messages from Heaven and a sign of the end of times. With the help of his new wife, Susan, Tony Alamo amassed a group of dedicated followers who would do anything he asked.
The couple officially founded the Alamo Christian Foundation in 1969, and they relocated their headquarters to Arkansas in the 1970s. There, they built compounds for their “Jesus Freaks” to live in. Some members of the cult handed over the majority of their salaries to Alamo, while others worked for little to no pay at one of Alamo’s many businesses.
Tony Alamo had complete control over his followers. He told them who to marry, what to teach their children, and how to carry out every aspect of their lives. He forbade them from flushing the toilets in the compounds more than once every few days, and many of the members had to resort to dumpster diving to feed themselves. Meanwhile, Alamo was making millions of dollars off of them.
This continued for decades — but cracks soon began to appear in the surface of Alamo’s seemingly charmed life.
Tax Fraud, Prison, And A Stolen Body
In 1982, Susan Alamo died of cancer. Tony Alamo embalmed her body and put it on display in his dining room for six months, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. He reportedly believed that she would be resurrected, but he eventually moved her body to a mausoleum.
Then, in 1991, federal authorities began investigating Alamo for tax fraud. When he discovered that police were going to raid the cult’s Arkansas compound, he ordered his followers to leave — and take his wife’s body with them. A judge later demanded that Alamo return the corpse, but he refused for years. Susan was eventually re-interred in Oklahoma in 1998.
Meanwhile, the tax fraud case against Alamo grew stronger. Per the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, investigators found that the cult leader had made $9 million in three years and failed to pay taxes on any of it. He also owed $5 million to members for unpaid labor. He was convicted in 1994 and imprisoned until 1998.
Upon his release, Alamo quickly reestablished his church. But his teachings grew even more disturbing — and he was soon under investigation for worse crimes than tax fraud.
Tony Alamo’s Child Brides Led To His Downfall
In addition to his conspiracy theories about the Vatican and UFOs, Tony Alamo also frequently preached controversial claims about sexuality. He said that God condoned polygamy and that gay people were sent by Satan, but perhaps his most disturbing declaration was: “Consent is puberty.”
He preached that young girls should get married as soon as they started menstruating, saying, “God impregnated Mary when she was about 11 years old.”
Alamo reportedly began taking multiple wives in the early 1990s, but as time went on, they got increasingly younger. At least five girls later claimed that they were forced to marry him in secret ceremonies before he took them out of state for sex. One of them was just eight years old at the time.
In 2008, Alamo’s compound was raided once again — this time for allegations of child abuse and pornography. Federal officials found that he’d taken multiple underage girls across state lines to have sex with them. He was found guilty and sentenced to 175 years in prison, where he died in 2017 at the age of 82.
In the years since Alamo’s death, former members of the Alamo Christian Foundation have come forward to share the truth about the cult leader. One of them, Susan Groulx, recalled, “I knew Alamo to be a delusional, narcissistic, unmerciful, and evil man. Even behind prison bars, Alamo persisted in writing tracts, pastoring the church in his warped way, and controlling followers’ lives.”
She concluded, “I no longer believe in Hell, but I’ve never met anyone more deserving than Alamo of going there.”
After learning about the disturbing life of cult leader Tony Alamo, go inside the story of Marshall Applewhite, the Heaven’s Gate cult leader who orchestrated a mass poisoning. Then, read about Brian David Mitchell, the street preacher who kidnapped Elizabeth Smart.