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.

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.

Action Distributors has been around in different forms since 1977, with offices listed in both New Jersey and Queens. As with other businesses controlled by Alamo, it often had trouble keeping up with its taxes. The state of New Jersey shut it down once in 1981 for a failure to pay taxes, and another three times because it didn't pay a $50 annual fee to the state. But the company's real troubles didn't start until Tempur-Pedic started investigating its dealings a couple of years ago.

Tempur-Pedic had donated approximately 8,000 mattresses and 7,000 slippers to a New Jersey nonprofit called Waste to Charity, which then contracted Action Distributors to give out the goods in storm-ravaged areas. Tempur-Pedic grew suspicious after being tipped off that those specific mattresses and slippers were being sold out of the back of trucks in Tennessee and Kentucky, and later on eBay. The mattress company hired an undercover consultant to pose as a buyer and instigated an FBI sting that found 2,650 of the donated mattresses in an Arkansas warehouse registered to two of Alamo's "wives," whose address was listed as a supermarket owned by Tony Alamo Ministries.

An undercover FBI investigation revealed that Scarcello had been selling the donated mattresses for profit to a number of secondhand retailers. While the connection between Waste to Charity and Alamo remains unclear, Tempur-Pedic's complaint against Waste to Charity and Action Distributors calls Scarcello a "known associate" of the pastor.

Eight ex-members who spoke with the Voice independently described Action Distributors as part of a network of salvage businesses and nonprofits, all owned by Alamo devotees, that funnel their profits to Alamo. (When questioned, Scarcello testified that he never gave Alamo any money, but invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked if he kept the profits himself.)


The mattress scandal was of little surprise to those familiar with Alamo's way of doing business. The pastor had been operating his empire this way for decades, ever since his transformation from Bernie Lazar Hoffman, who was born into a Jewish family in Joplin, Missouri, on September 20, 1934, into (or so he claims) 1960s big-band singer Tony Alamo, and later into the controversial evangelist. In the late 1960s, Alamo and his first wife, Susan, offered salvation to the junkies, drunks, and hippies of Hollywood: They provided a place to live and regular meals in return for free labor for one of their many businesses. The most popular business venture was Alamo Designs, where church volunteers created dazzling airbrushed jean jackets that became popular among celebrities, from Mr. T to Brooke Shields, at least for a while. But their system of indentured servitude couldn't last.

In 1976, the Department of Labor determined that the Alamo Foundation was in violation of the Fair Labor Standard Act for failing to pay wages to its many workers. The IRS eventually revoked the church's tax-exempt status in 1985 after determining that it was really a profit-making entity meant to fund Alamo's luxurious lifestyle. However, the pastor continued to ignore his taxes, and the IRS eventually seized millions of dollars in Alamo's church property and business interests and put him behind bars. After Alamo served four years of a six-year sentence, all of his properties, businesses, and nonprofits were registered under the names of his followers. Since his release in 1998, he's been trying to make a comeback and has targeted New York/New Jersey as one of several areas for growth—and for his polygamous radio message.

Arm Full of Help's public image is a young girl—just a few years younger than Alamo's ideal marrying age. She is pictured on the charity's website, holding a stack of groceries under the text: "If children can help why not you?" The charity is registered as a domestic nonprofit in several states, including New York, where it purports to help people in a general way. (Alamo's people are not so good on specifics.) According to its mission statement, the charity was created to "provide hope for the hopeless, living facilities for the homeless, clothing for the naked, food for the hungry," by distributing donated goods to "far away places such as Romania, Africa, etc." There is little indication of where any of this goes on, and no mention on the website of its connection to Alamo. However, the website does contain links to thank-you letters addressed to Tommy Scarcello.

According to former workers for the charity, Arm Full of Help is an Alamo-controlled business that sells donated goods for profit. Ex-workers say the charity is part of the same network of businesses and nonprofits as Action Distributors, keeping Alamo's empire afloat. They estimate that up to 70 percent of the donations—meant to help the needy—are sold for profit.

"We knew it was just a scam," says ex-member Ian Mann, who worked in the printing and administrative offices of the Arkansas compound. He says he's sure because his wife, who left the church with him in 1995, was one of the original founders of the charity in 1989. Her signature appears on the incorporation papers as the secretary treasurer. Like other ex-members, he described the mingling of the nonprofits and business ventures in the New York/New Jersey branch, saying they operated essentially as one entity. Donations of food, clothing, and other products would come to Arm Full of Help, and much of it would be resold and shipped through Action Distributors.

"They're trained to call anybody and everybody to get as many donations as possible. Alamo justifies it saying it's for the good of the ministry," says Danny Ondrisek, an ex-member who worked for a time in the New Jersey branch when he was a teen. "But the main point of that organization is to make money," he insists.

To prepare donated items for resale at flea markets and to correctional facilities, private schools, and nursing homes, Ondrisek says, "they strip the products of any identifiable markings, and they turn around and sell it. We used to get donations from Feed the Children—big boxes. The logo was a kid holding out his arms, so we would cut that off the box and then resell it. For stuff that was out of date, we would rub [the expiration date] off with acetone."

Mann notes that Arm Full of Help does give away some donations, fulfilling its mission at least in part. With food donations or surplus products that couldn't be sold, he says, the organization would actually donate the stuff to food banks and other charities. In the 1990s, Arm Full of Help was, in fact, a semi-regular donor to several food banks in New York City, including City Harvest and New York Rescue Mission. The organization even received a generic thank-you note from Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2001 for its "thoughtful and generous gift" after the 9/11 attacks. However, all of those former recipients said they hadn't received a single donation for a number of years.


"I was helped and benefited a lot from the ministry, but over time, I guess it was the 'Absolute power corrupts . . .' kind of thing," says Mann, who was a member of the church from the 1970s until 1995. He got out around the time that Alamo started collecting wives. Discouraged by law enforcement's seeming lack of interest in pursuing the polygamy and child-abuse allegations, Mann decided to take aim at Alamo's empire on his own. When Arm Full of Help inadvertently let its website domain name expire in 2006, he hijacked it. Mann says that "on a lark," he bought the domain, armfullofhelp.com, and publicized the connections between the charity and Alamo.

Where once it read "Here to Help the Poor and Needy Everywhere," Mann wrote "Established to Provide Funds to the Bizarre Cult of Convicted Felon Tony Alamo—Reputed Child Molester, Child Abuser, Rapist, Thief and Religious Huckster." Beneath that, he elaborated: "Arm Full of Help solicits and collects donations from large corporations all across America. These donated materials are then sold and much of the funds are used to support and finance Tony Alamo, his cult and his cultic activities. Knowing that no one in their right mind would fund his nefarious activities, the staff at Arm Full of Help are very careful not to reveal their connection to Alamo."

"I wanted to make sure people knew where their money was really going," Mann says. "They shouldn't solicit money under false pretenses." However, Mann's version of the website was up for only six months or so. The dispute ended up at the World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations that arbitrates international disputes over patents, trademarks, and domain names. Ultimately, Mann was forced to give up ownership of the website, but apparently his exercise in cyber-sabotage did little to convince Alamo to cover his tracks better.

When the Voice called Alamo's church office in Arkansas, church volunteer Jennifer Kolbeck seemed to think that she'd answered the phone for Arm Full of Help: She identified herself as a volunteer at Arm Full of Help's Arkansas branch and immediately launched into an explanation of how the charity and Alamo's church were, in fact, separate entities. She said that Alamo gave money, food, and clothing donations to Arm Full of Help, as well as many other nonprofits, but that was the extent of the connection. But Kolbeck answers the phones at both the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and Arm Full of Help, and she couldn't say who her boss was at Arm Full of Help. "I don't have that information," she said, seeming not to understand the term "executive director." (Many ex-members say they left the church simply because their kids weren't learning anything in the church-run schools.)

The combined income from both Arm Full of Help and Action Distributors—estimated to be around $4 million annually—has been key in rebuilding Alamo's church and funding the pastor's luxurious home in Fouke, Arkansas. There, Alamo has built a kid-friendly mansion complete with a swimming pool, horse stables, and multiple bedrooms for the many girls and women living with him—who numbered about 30, says Ondrisek, when he left the church three years ago. His younger sister is one of those girls.

Ondrisek says his sister began taking "field trips" to Alamo's house with other girls when she was just 10. "She would come back with, like, new clothes," he says. "By the time I was old enough to realize what was happening—it was just disgusting." Now, he says, she is 19 years old and lives full-time at Alamo's house as one of his "wives."


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."

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!"

While Alamo publicly says he's not a polygamist, and challenges outsiders to "find marriage licenses about me being married to anybody," ex-members say he has unofficially "married" at least eight girls as young as eight years old, and many others live in his house.

Alamo seems to think that all the ex-members upset with him are just unhappy that they didn't get more of his affection: "You get a young girl and you get them mad at you, they'll lie that you've had sex, that you've raped them or something. This is just the nature of women, especially if you don't continue to have relationships with them. They will leave, and they will tear you to ribbons with their lying tongues."

Alamo doesn't seem likely to get additional young female friends from New York. At a recent meeting, the few locals who seemed to be recent recruits were down-and-out men, including a former Nation of Islam member and two immigrant workers speaking Spanish. When one newcomer was too shy to go up to the "altar" to be reborn, the pushy followers eventually relented. "You can be saved over the phone if you want," one woman suggested, giving out the 1-800 prayer line for the ministry.

Later, the group shared a meal of rubbery turkey burgers and salty fries after the service—red meat and dairy have been forbidden by the aging pastor—and another woman explained that the church provides them with food, jobs, and housing. "The church takes care of us," she said.

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