On this Thanksgiving weekend, I want to tell you about a group of young people who are giving thanks for the first time in their lives. This year, they are extremely thankful that their tormentor, the self-proclaimed preacher Tony Alamo, has finally been brought to justice.
In U.S. district court in Texarkana, Ark., the 75-year-old Alamo was recently sentenced to 175 years in prison on charges of engaging in sex with minor members of his so-called "church." One of the five brides identified was just 8 years old. My sources, escapees of the church, tell me there were many more Alamo brides.
Alamo's real name is Bernie LaZar Hoffman. He was a phony from the get-go. Back in the early '70s, he and his wife Susan dreamed up the "Alamo Christian Ministries" to rescue drugged-out homeless people from the streets of Hollywood. They gave the unfortunates a cot to sleep on, food to eat, a rousing sermon and an odd job or two to perform as payback. City fathers donated money to show appreciation for the more tourist-friendly streets.
Those first Alamo followers settled in, coupled up and gave birth to a second generation. The poor kids never had a chance.
The Alamos had up to three dozen moneymaking enterprises — from restaurants to hog farms — and their loyal disciples were their workforce. Instead of a salary, the workers got meager living arrangements, irregular meals (many consisted of whatever food had been donated to the ministry) and all the preachin' about Jesus the Alamos could muster.
The Alamos got rich. When Susan began to suffer from cancer, they moved their headquarters to a hilltop near tiny Fouke, Ark. — far away from the prying eyes of outsiders.
A big source of income was the uber-expensive, handmade rhinestone- and sequined-studded denim jackets the disciples churned out. In the day, it seemed all of Hollywood was wearing one! Dolly Parton, Brooke Shields, Mr. T, among others, wore the flashy fashion statements, and sales skyrocketed.
In 1994, Alamo went to prison for failure to pay taxes on the jacket earnings. At the time of the trial, there was evidence that children at the compound were being brutally beaten, held aloft by four burly church men while Alamo beat them bloody, "baseball style," with a wooden paddle. That testimony was never allowed at the tax trial, however. Once in prison Alamo still ruled his flock with an iron fist.
In a series of exclusive interviews with those born into the Alamo cult, I've heard unforgettable horror stories.
The children were schooled but now realize, as adults, that on orders from Alamo their education was sorely lacking. If they asked an inappropriate question about the day's lesson, they were beaten. If they were tardy, laughed too loud or wore the wrong clothing, they were beaten. After classes, they were ordered into hours of mandatory prayer. One young man named Jared remembers after Susan died of cancer in 1982 all followers were ordered by "Papa Tony" to keep up a round-the-clock kneeling prayer circle for her "certain resurrection." Alamo kept Susan's corpse for 16 years, until a court finally ordered him to return it to her family.
These Alamo captives now reveal it was they — the exhausted, terrorized children of the group — who often worked until midnight laboriously turning out those denim jackets. A young mother named Becca tells me that growing up in the ministry brought no joy — ever.
She worked in the communal kitchen cutting away the rotten parts of donated food. She fantasized about Papa Tony's promise to get her a "jar of pickles for my birthday." There was no real medical care, not even for one poor epileptic child. Jared remembers watching the girl beaten every time she had a seizure.
Several other former Alamo Ministry children who wish to remain anonymous told me how underage girls were routinely married off to much older male church members. After Alamo got out of prison in 1998, they say, Papa Tony chose multiple underage brides for himself. Finally, in September 2008, at a roadside stop in Arizona, Alamo was arrested with six girls in his vehicle and charged with transporting them across state lines for sexual purposes.
I tell you this story because society needs to learn from it. Our justice system took way too long to stop this monster, knowing since the early '90s that children were suffering at his hand. The doctrine of separation of church and state caused authorities to shy away.
We need to do better. While the second Alamo generation is now thankful he's locked away, authorities admit there are other religious-based predators out there. No one wants to curtail freedom of religious practice, but allowing charlatans to victimize the innocent and enslave people isn't acceptable, either.
Visit Diane Dimond's official website at www.dianedimond.com for investigative reporting, polls and more. To find out more about Diane Dimond and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.