The Barely Legal Empire of Tony Alamo

The nutty evangelist rebuilds his young-girl-lovin' empire—with help from New Yorkers

Long before a fundamentalist Mormon compound in El Dorado, Texas, was raided in April, a more familiar figure was spewing polygamist propaganda over the airwaves in New York.

Longtime evangelist Tony Alamo—on the air daily at WVNJ-AM 1160 in New York and New Jersey—has told audiences for years that polygamous unions between older men and little girls are God's will. These days, he can be heard regularly defending the breakaway Mormon sect in Texas: "These people are true polygamists. They take care of their wives and children, and their children and their wives are happy. But you people, you go out and have sex with every woman you can get your hands on, and you impregnate them and then you send them to the murder compounds [abortion clinics]." During an April broadcast, the pastor proclaimed that the government had no right to take 10-year-old wives away from their rightful "husbands": "What I'm doing is fighting for these people that they, the ungodly beast, is throwing into prison for marrying someone 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11—10, if they've reached puberty." In May, his screeds reached a fever pitch as he threatened the media for criticizing the Texas compound: "The Lord is going to take the firstborn of everyone that's involved. . . . I am telling all you people, including Nancy Grace, to back off if you love your twins. Back off if you love your little twins."

Despite decades of legal troubles, a raid on his former compound, an exodus of members, and a stint behind bars, Tony Alamo—convicted tax cheat, accused polygamist, and accused rapist—just keeps going. He's withstood years of accusations of statutory rape and child abuse, lobbed by ex-members who have either witnessed or experienced it firsthand, and continues to preach from his pulpit in Arkansas.

Remember the Alamo: After prison, preacher Tony rebuilds.
Remember the Alamo: After prison, preacher Tony rebuilds.
The come-on: Armful of Help’s website
The come-on: Armful of Help’s website

Almost a decade after his release from prison, the 73-year-old (who pronounces his last name with the accent on the second syllable) has managed to rebuild his church—surprisingly, with significant help from supporters in New York and New Jersey. Alamo has a local following that runs at least two of what ex-members describe as profiteering schemes. One is named Arm Full of Help, a charity that former workers say misleads people by taking donated goods that are supposed to go to people in need but are instead sold for profit, which is then sent to Alamo. The other is Action Distributors Inc., a New Jersey salvage business that is accused of participating in a scheme to sell for profit thousands of mattresses that were supposed to be donated to Hurricane Katrina victims.

The two local operations are funders of Alamo's bizarre empire: his Arkansas compound where ex-members say he lives with at least eight "wives," most of whom he married when they were still children; a daily radio show that provides a venue for Alamo's unconventional views; and the printing of thousands of anti-Catholic religious tracts that in some parts of the country are ubiquitous—park a car at a shopping center in the Southwest and you're likely to find an Alamo pamphlet on the windshield when you get back.

For his troubles, Alamo's church has been labeled an anti-Catholic hate group, and a number of his former followers have slowly sneaked away, embarrassed and disgusted by their pastor. Some former members take to the Internet to ridicule Alamo; others try to get law enforcement interested in investigating him. But a few locals, gathering in the back room of a pizza parlor in Manhattan, take heart in the words of a nutty old Arkansas man with a thing for very young girls.


What kind of New Yorker is drawn to an Arkansas "prophet" who kept his first wife, Susan, on display at his church compound for six months after she died in 1982, hoping that she'd be resurrected?

"What happened, I went out to Los Angeles, California . . . and there, I received a gospel tract that said, 'Repent or perish—Jesus is coming soon. Services every night at eight o'clock.' I went in there and I got saved, and the Lord changed my life—and that was 38 years ago," said Tommy Scarcello, describing his religious epiphany in a deposition he gave last year. Until very recently, Scarcello was one of Alamo's most important New York–area members.

"I used to light myself on fire when I was in a rock group here in New York," Scarcello testified about his life before Alamo. The deposition was part of a federal lawsuit regarding those thousands of mattresses that ended up for sale in a warehouse owned by Alamo devotees.

Some of Scarcello's testimony sounds like it came straight out of one of Alamo's tracts: "We're living in this one-world structure, the one-world voice, one-world church directed by the Vatican that the Bible says is coming straight from Rome, Italy. The devil-given power unto them to create a one-world voice."

The lawsuit was filed last year by mattress maker Tempur-Pedic. Scarcello's business, Action Distributors, stands accused of participating in the scheme to sell off thousands of high-end mattresses and slippers that Tempur-Pedic had donated in 2005 and 2006. The mattress company is seeking $15 million in damages from Action Distributors and several other defendants.

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