Body-snatching. Zombie-like cult members making rhinestone-studded designer jean jackets. Prayers to rise from the dead.
The strange story of Susan and Tony Alamo (pronounced ah-LAH-mo) has all the weirdness of a pulp horror classic, but it happened in the Ozark hills of Arkansas in the 1980s.
Susan Alamo, 56, died on April 8, 1982, at Oral Roberts’ City of Faith Hospital in Tulsa, after a long battle with breast cancer. She had started out preaching to street people in Los Angeles in 1968 before marrying Tony Alamo and establishing a Christian foundation.
Tony Alamo predicted that his wife would be resurrected. Her body was taken to the foundation’s compound on a ridge overlooking the town of Dyer, Arkansas, where Susan Alamo was born as Edith Opal Horn.
Alamo placed Susan’s casket in their living room and ordered followers to hold a 24-hour prayer vigil until she rose from the dead. Her embalmed body was kept on display for six months before being entombed in a marble crypt near a heart-shaped swimming pool.
After Susan’s death, Tony consolidated his control over the foundation’s empire, which grew to 30 businesses, including a record company, gas stations, a restaurant, grocery and clothing stores, a motel, a hog farm, a candy factory, a trucking operation, a real estate firm and a quarry, according to The Los Angeles Times.
The ministry stressed biblical passages about fear and obedience. Its teachings were virulently anti-Catholic, claiming that the pope was a Nazi, a homosexual and controlled all government agencies.
You’ve probably found flyers with the crackpot ramblings of Tony Alamo on your car in a store or mall parking lot.
Alamo claimed that the 300 or so people working for his enterprises were volunteers, entitled to $5 a week each. Some worked 15 hours a day, six or seven days a week, according to the U.S. Labor Department. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the workers were entitled to minimum wage and overtime compensation.
Meanwhile, Tony and Susan had lived a luxurious lifestyle, the Internal Revenue Service concluded. They occupied a cavernous 14,000-square-foot mansion filled with statues and gilded antiques and lined with scarlet carpeting and draperies.
The foundation amassed tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of South African krugerrands, silver dollars, silver bars and gold coins, according to an IRS report for the years 1977 to 1980. It bought scores of antiques, a grand piano, a $49,000 gold nugget ring, a five-carat emerald ring and other jewelry, the IRS said.
The couple traveled in Cadillacs and shopped at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman-Marcus stores, buying fur coats and $285 shirts.
“God wants his children to go first-class,” Susan Alamo once said, according to The New York Times.
‘Pumped up on coffee’
At 7 a.m. on Feb. 13, 1991, federal agents seized the 265-acre Arkansas compound to satisfy a $1.8 million court judgment against Alamo, who had been on the run from the FBI for two years.
Inside an unventilated factory on the site, the agents discovered how Alamo kept his minions going during their arduous workdays making hand-painted, silk-screened, airbrushed, rhinestone-encrusted denim jackets that were sold for hundreds of dollars apiece, the Chicago Tribune reported.
“They kept these people pumped up on coffee and vitamins,” said Deputy U.S. Marshal David Watz, pointing at legions of coffee pots, cassette players and boxes filled with tapes of Alamo’s sermons. “Food was a reward and a punishment. If you goofed up, you didn’t eat. And while you worked, you listened to Tony on tape. It was total mind control.”
The agents said the 200 followers living at the compound appeared zombie-like after the early-morning raid. On Feb. 16, the followers fled, leaving everything behind.
Well, not everything. That night, they returned for the body of Susan Alamo.
In 1995, Susan Alamo’s daughter, Christihaon Coie of Los Angeles, sued Tony to release her mother’s body. Three years later, the body was delivered to a Van Buren, Arkansas, funeral home. In August 1998, Susan Alamo’s earthly remains were placed in a crypt in Memorial Park Cemetery in Tulsa.
Tony Alamo, 82, is currently serving a 175-year federal prison sentence for taking young girls across state lines for sex. The self-proclaimed prophet forced five girls as young as age 8 into sham marriages, evidence showed.
“Mr. Alamo, one day you will face a higher and a greater judge than me,” U.S. District Judge Harry F. Barnes told the preacher in a Texarkana, Arkansas, courtroom on Nov. 13, 2009. “May he have mercy on your soul.”
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