The Barely Legal Empire of Tony Alamo

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

Alamo's local followers are back to recruiting in Manhattan, one of their old haunting grounds. Every evening at Andiamo Pizzeria on Second Avenue, a small group arrives to rearrange the dining room in an attempt to transform it into something that could pass for a church. The polygamist preacher's message is apparently less appealing to New York women; during two Voice visits, there were about 20 mostly middle-aged men and only two or three women.

"The sisters sit in the back," one towering man instructed newcomers—and, sure enough, the two women in attendance quietly took their places in the last row. On an April evening, the group's makeshift band of keyboard, tambourine, and guitar players did their best to be heard above Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" playing on the radio. At the end of their song, the devoted raised their hands, muttering "Jesus! Jesus! Hallelujah, amen!" over a commercial for control-top panty hose.

The scene sounded familiar to ex-members, especially Sarah, a sarcastic 18-year-old who ran away from the Arkansas compound a few years ago. Sarah and her older sister, Phoebe, both agreed to speak to the Voice using pseudonyms, fearing that their outspokenness might result in bad things for their remaining sister, who is one of Alamo's wives. We'll call her "Angie."

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

The girls were roped in when they were children—when the church's promise of security sounded good to their single mother, who was attempting to raise three daughters on welfare checks and food stamps in Washington Heights. It was 1995, and a good friend invited the family out to one of the church services in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where Alamo's East Coast followers previously hosted the daily worship services. (These days, the local followers say that no one will get in a car with them to make the trip across the Hudson, so the Manhattan pizzeria church was born.)

Once they arrived at the New Jersey church, the family was greeted by a close-knit, friendly group of people, eager to welcome the newcomers into their fold. "They showed us pictures—a whole booklet they had—of the way it was many years ago, and they made it sound like it was still that way," says Phoebe. "They painted a pretty picture." The family friend was rejoining the church, moving to its Arkansas compound, and urged the girls' mother to do the same. She took the bait, and a week later, the family was in Arkansas with a new home, a cafeteria job for mom, and a ready-made community.

Sarah, the youngest, was only six years old when she says she first realized that something strange was going on between Pastor Alamo and some of the girls in the church. "It was just totally obvious. I went to go visit Tony in prison, and he kissed all the women," she says. It was her first indication that Alamo had multiple wives, many of whom, ex-members say, he married when they were still children. A naturally rebellious and skeptical kid, she says she was beaten and confined for her many infractions, which included talking back to a teacher and listening to music not approved by Alamo. The pastor fancies himself a singer, but Sarah wasn't keen on his country-gospel crooning and would sneak in her own CDs.

Sarah remembers that even the kids were put to work for Arm Full of Help's Arkansas branch, preparing donated food for resale. "They called it 'volunteer work' " she says. "The kids would get nail-polish remover and take off the dates, then they repack it really nicely in these boxes. I did it, and the little treat for the kids is to go get an ice cone."


Alamo eventually ordered Sarah and Angie, the two youngest, to live at his house for months at a time while their mother remained in another of the church compounds five hours away—Sarah because she needed to be watched, and Angie because she was being groomed to be Alamo's next wife. Phoebe and Sarah say that Angie went to live at Alamo's house permanently when she was 12. By 13, she was wearing a wedding ring, and, at 14, she was spending the night in Alamo's bedroom. Eventually, Sarah was kicked out at age 15 for kissing a young man that Alamo didn't approve of; she says she's glad to have been ejected from the church.

These days, Sarah takes jabs at Alamo every chance she gets, making fun of his ridiculous rules: When babysitting, the girls needed permission to hold the male infants and were outright banned from changing their diapers, lest they be sexually tempted. "He says everything is about the temptation of the devil," she says, "which is crazy, because they're little kids!"

In recent radio broadcasts, Alamo waxed poetic about menstruation: "The Bible is filled with stories where God commanded young women to get married. When they start their periods, they are women, according to God's word. They should be able to be married at 13, 14, 15 years old, and in cases if they've menstruated already, 12 years old." He also contends that Mary was as young as six at the time she conceived Jesus, and sarcastically asks if God could be considered a pedophile: "You want to take the Almighty God to jail, because He wanted the Son of God to be born of a young virgin? But you, Satan, you wicked people in the Vatican, and all the rest of you want people—men—to be married to old bags! You want [girls] to wait until they're 18 years old, and them having had sex with possibly up to 100 men!"

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