Alamo might be returning to SCV

Signal Staff and News Services/November 24, 1998

Increased activity in and around the Tony Alamo compound in Saugus and elsewhere has prompted speculation that the flamboyant cult leader may be staging a comeback when he is released from federal prison Dec. 8.

Within the past week, leaflets distributed by Alamo's followers appeared in mailboxes and under car windshield wipers at various locations in the Santa Clarita Valley.

"There's been activity going on for a while up there," SCV Sheriff's Lt. Carl Deeley said of Alamo's 140-acre property on Sierra Highway. "It looks like they're cleaning the place up, although a lot of it is still boarded up. They keep pretty much to themselves."

Many still remember the events of nearly a decade ago when sheriff's deputies raided the Saugus compound in response to allegations of child abuse after an 11-year-old boy reported he was paddled 140 times by four men acting on Alamo's orders. Seven years later, prosecutors dropped the charges because too much time had passed.

In Arkansas, too, the memory of Alamo lingers, and ex-followers believe when the 63-year-old Alamo is released from a six-year prison sentence for tax fraud, he will try to rebuild his ultra-conservative religious empire.

"I have no doubt that once he gets out, he will go right back to doing what he was doing before," said Tom Smith of Goleta, Calif., who spent 15 years inside Alamo's California and Arkansas compounds.

"Whether they're going to do it in western Arkansas or somewhere else, I don't know," said Smith, a former follower who helped design the 16,500-square-foot mansion on the grounds in Dyer, Ark.

At its height, the church claimed thousands of members nationwide.

"The people he still has are few," Smith said. "But they're extremely dedicated."

Those faithful few now use more high-tech methods of getting their message out Alamo Christian Ministries operates a home page on the World Wide Web. And the group, also known as Music Square Church, still holds worship services not far from Dyer in Fort Smith.

"It would not surprise me at all if he builds up whatever is left of that church and goes on to bigger and better things," said Ronald Enroth, a sociology professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, who has done research on extremist religious groups.

"He's got that kind of charisma," Enroth said, "that strange charisma."

Smith recalls that inside the group's Georgia Ridge compound "there was a tremendous amount of peer pressure. You pick up a fortress mentality, kind of an us-against-them, us-against-the-world mentality."

"It was always hammered home every morning, every day that we were the last bastions of Christians in the world and if you left here, God was going to throw you on the ash heap," he said.

Smith left in August 1986, hiking down from Georgia Ridge in the middle of the night after deciding that "Tony wasn't using us as human beings ... we were just tools."

The threat of eternal hellfire, Smith said, kept followers from leaving.

"We were told that anyone who left there was either found dead, went insane or turned to a life of crime and went to prison," he said.

It was Alamo who went to prison in 1994, after being convicted in Memphis, Tenn., of failing to file tax returns on church profits.

Alamo is serving the last few days of a six-year sentence in a halfway house in Texarkana. He refused to be interviewed for this story.

Georgia Ridge was among property in Arkansas, California and Tennessee that was seized by lawmen and later sold at auctions to pay Alamo's debts. About three years ago, its spectacular views led a California couple to buy the property and rename it Harmony Hill.

Truman Hance, a traveling evangelist who moved there from Bakersfield, and his wife, Opal, are now restoring the Alamo mansion.

"There's probably people in this town who would be afraid to stand in front of this house here," Truman Hance said outside the mansion, a few feet from the heart-shaped swimming pool out back and Susan Alamo's empty crypt on the front lawn.

Susan Alamo grew up in the Dyer area as Edith Opal Horn, then moved to Hollywood with hopes of becoming an actress.

She was "the power behind the movement when it started, and in those days he was kind of a shadow that stood behind her," said Enroth, the sociology professor.

In 1966 in Las Vegas she married Alamo, who was born Bernie Lazar Hoffman. Together, their unorthodox church was well-established by the early 1970s.

Followers recruited new members - known inside the compound as "Baby Christians" - by handing out leaflets in Hollywood. Dozens of followers lived at the Alamo compound in Saugus.

"I had moved to Los Angeles for college and was away from home for the first time, and it left me feeling really lonely," Smith recalls. "I ran into Alamo's people on Hollywood Boulevard ... They would witness all day in Hollywood and then invite people to take a bus ride up to Saugus for a service at night."

Smith compares his first few weeks in the Alamo compound to basic training in the military.

"It strips away your individuality and prepares you to be part of the group," he said.

By the mid-1970s, Smith was deeply devoted to the organization and helped the Alamos move their headquarters from California to Georgia Ridge.

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