Good and evil. Black and white. Those contrasts ran through my mind while reading about the recent death of infamous cult leader Tony Alamo. Tony, his wife Susan, and a disparate collection of lost souls inhabited the SCV for a few brief years in the early ‘70s, adding a bit of colorful perplexity to our sage brush-covered canyons. The evangelical couple reigned over a cadre of young homeless people “rescued” from drug-infested streets in Los Angeles. They established a headquarters north of the Soledad Canyon/Sierra Highway junction that professed to grant salvation through hard work and strict religious practices.
Publicly, Tony and Susan were enigmas, contrasts in style and temperament. Susan often dressed in long, white dresses or pants suits. From a distance the white garb, coupled with her long, blonde locks, gave her an ethereal look. However, up close, she more closely resembled a bleached-out version of Morticia Addams. In his dark suits and slicked down hair, Tony looked like the stereotypical Mafia Don. They were a study in black and white – and, as it turned out, good and evil. Their community appearances were rare, but at one chamber event, they stepped out of a dark limo dressed in their black and white personas to deliver an Alamo Foundation entry to a Fourth of July parade.
And what a dramatic entry that was! About 100 of their young cult members marched at the end of the parade, carrying crosses and belting out an impassioned rendering of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A fellow curbside spectator nudged me with his elbow as the singers passed by exclaiming, “Those Alamo kids really know how to raise the Holy Spirit!”
“Those Alamo kids” provided the public “face” of the foundation. As in most cults, they had turned all their worldly goods over to the Alamos in the name of salvation. That included a variety of cars that were then painted red, white, and blue and adorned with the Alamo logo.
At one time or another, several of the cars would be parked at the foundation’s gas station located at the corner of Sierra Highway and Friendly Valley Parkway. The young acolytes not only pumped gas, but would also clean a motorist’s windshield. Many in town commented skeptically that this colorful façade did little more than cover the real workings of a cult, even though there were no overt signs of individual oppression or abuse.
While reading Alamo’s obituary, I mulled over several questions. Were the former music promoter and the once-aspiring actress truly converts to the “Jesus Movement”? Did they start out with good intentions – a crusade to uplift their followers with the word of God? Can a cult ever deliver the salvation it guarantees? And if so, when, in the case of the Alamos, did things go so horribly wrong?
In 1976, the Alamos left our valley to relocate their “ministry” in Susan’s Arkansas hometown and expand their foundation’s outreach. The gas station closed and the red, white, and blue cars disappeared, but a church continued to operate in the Agua Dulce-Acton area, and Alamo literature would sporadically appear on cars’ windshields. The cult was mostly forgotten until a few disturbing Midwestern newspaper stories began filtering back to the SCV.
One of the most bizarre stories came after Susan’s death in 1982. The grieving widower, who preached that his wife would be resurrected, recruited some beefy cohorts, sneaked into the cult mausoleum in the dead of night, and stole her coffin. Upon hearing the report, The Signal Newspaper editor Scott Newhall cynically commented to co-workers that Alamo had become a poor man’s Juan Peron. Scott’s words conjured up eerie images of Alamo carrying Susan’s coffin around, much as the Argentinean dictator did when “Evita” died.
Susan’s death did result in a resurrection of sorts. Subsequent news stories reported that the foundation “died” and was replaced by a tax-exempt corporation called the Music Square Church. The “church” became most notable for being investigated for tax evasion. Alamo was personally investigated as well, becoming more famous for frequent arrests involving his multiple child brides than as a redeeming pastor and savior.
In 2009, newspaper stories reported on Alamo’s final criminal conviction, which resulted in a 175-year federal prison sentence for sex crimes against children. Charges also included the beatings and starvation of young male and female members of the church.
A recent, tersely worded paragraph from SCV History.com may well sum up Alamo’s ultimate legacy: “ . . .Alamo, aka Bernie LaZar Hoffman, was convicted in 2009 of transporting children across state lines for sexual purposes. He was given the maximum allowable sentence. He died in a federal prison facility in North Carolina, with about 167 years left on his sentence.”
Susan and Tony are gone, but remnants of the Alamo Foundation live on. According to a Wikipedia article, there are more than 30 properties to be dealt with, including the church in the Acton area.
And every now and then, disgruntled SCV shoppers return to their cars to find Alamo pamphlets stuck under the windshield wipers or blowing around the parking lots.