I am a fan of the weird. Creepy stories, true life crime, and everything in between. Every Wednesday, I will feature the weird things that capture my interest. For this first Weird Wednesday post, I will start with a story that took place almost in my own backyard.
In May of 2017, an 82 year old man named Bernard “Bernie” Lazar Hoffman died in a Federal Prison Hospital in North Carolina.
The death of “Bernie Hoffman” wasn’t such a big deal. But mention his alter ego, Tony Alamo, and suddenly everyone takes notice.
He died in a prison hospital because he was serving a 175 year sentence for what basically amounted to sex trafficking across state lines of girls as young as 8 years old. Oh, and also? He was a notorious religious cult leader who:
- ran a multi million dollar evangelist ministry
- hid the body of his dead wife because he was waiting for her to rise from the dead
- turned fugitive and tried to bring young girls across state lines for sex before he was finally arrested, tried and convicted
A Cult Leader and His Wife Resided in My Tiny Arkansas Town
“Tony’s” ministry started out small. It was just him and his wife, Susan, trying to help people on the streets of L.A. But greed, fame, power, and probably mental illness took hold. Before Tony was caught in 2008, he was running churches and businesses and illegal activities across the country and stayed in California, Florida, and Arkansas at various times.
I moved to Alma, Arkansas from Maine in 2005. My mother and I discovered by accident that the Alamo’s 14,000 square foot mansion and former compound was located only minutes from our houses. In fact, his now crumbling and decaying mansion is 6 miles from my driveway of my current home, according to Google Maps.
I visited the former hilltop compound once in 2006. My mother and I took my then toddler daughter, Sophie, for a walk. We pushed her stroller up a long, curving hill and found ourselves walking into a large, flat hilltop area. In one corner, overlooking the view from the ridge, was the Alamo’s low yellow mansion. The iconic drained heart shaped pool sat off to one side. In the middle of the wide-open area were some stark concrete buildings that had once been the compound.
It had been years since the Alamos had lived there and ran their cult there. But the whole place felt odd and foreboding. After learning about Alamo and what he did, it’s even more so.
It Wasn’t a “Ministry” – It was a Cult
Tony and his wife, Susan, started their ministry on the street of Los Angeles. They gathered a following of people looking to be saved from drugs or a life on the streets. They moved to Arkansas in the 1970’s with a thousand followers under shady circumstances.
Once in Alma, they occupied the now infamous mansion on Georgia Ridge between Alma and Dyer. Susan grew up in Alma, so it would have been like any other story of two people meeting, falling in love and going back to a familiar place to start a life together . . . if it hadn’t been for the fact that Tony and Susan ran a cult from their hilltop mansion home.
Members of the cult lived on the hilltop in a compound that was patrolled for a part of its existence by armed guards with guard dogs. Followers lived near the mansion and raised their families there, but the wealth gap between Tony & Susan and their followers was huge.
Tony & Susan lived like movie stars while preaching about sin, while their followers lived like paupers.
According to published information, some people who were members of the cult remember good times. They recount prayer meetings, Bible studies, and working on hobbies (especially in the earlier years before things got really crazy). But many have darker memories of their times at the compound. According to news articles, many cult members endured:
- public beatings and humiliation
- being forced to watch the beatings of other cult members
- being forced to live by strict rules
As part of the cult, members were also forced to work for no pay in the Alamos’ numerous businesses. They ran a restaurant, a concrete plant, a nursery, motels, apartments, and more. Impressive for a small Southern town of less than 4,000 people! (Of course, it helps that all the labor is free!)
According to Susan’s estranged son, who didn’t want to be associated with her, her money, or her bizarre religion, his mother told him that they were worth $52 million just in Arkansas!
Things Get Weirder – A Body Goes Missing
As if that wasn’t bad enough, it became clear that Tony was a lot more than a little crazy when Susan died of cancer in 1982.
For six months, he refused to have a funeral or bury her.
Instead, he displayed her body – wearing her wedding dress – in a glass case inside the mansion, where visitors could see her.
Eventually, some local people convinced him to hold her funeral. But instead of a burial (or even a cremation), he took her back to the mansion, where he kept her body in an above ground mausoleum – right near that creepy heart-shaped pool.
(One article even has locals telling that they heard he had kept her body in the coolers at their local restaurant in Alma before bringing her to the mausoleum). Ugh!
In 1991, Tony got wind that federal agents were going to raid the Arkansas compound. (Oh yeah, he was also a tax evader).
Before they could perform the raid, Tony turned fugitive – and took his dead wife’s body with him!
That’s right – on the night he disappeared, Tony and some of his followers smashed the mausoleum open, took Susan’s coffin with her remains inside and disappeared into the night.
It wasn’t until seven years later that Susan would come back. Susan’s daughter actually had to have a court order that stated the body of her mother should be returned to her! Susan suddenly and mysteriously returned, in (of course) the weirdest way possible.
In August of 1998, Susan’s coffin just showed up at a Van Buren, Arkansas funeral home. After authorities confirmed it was indeed her, her remains were sent to Tulsa, OK to be buried.
But Wait, There’s More Mayhem for Tony and his Followers
Becoming a fugitive and getting over the disappointment that his deceased wife didn’t come back to life didn’t stop Tony. He turned his efforts onto a new pastime. Marrying underage girls.
Ick, this is where things get even more weird.
From 1998 until 1991, Tony was in the sights of the law for a whole host of things:
- tax evasion
- child abuse
- threatening a Federal judge
- fleeing a warrant
Authorities took him into custody in 1991 in Florida, where he had been using an assumed name.
He appealed. Then he spent the next several years marrying a bunch of different wives. He discovered and researched polygamy, and decided to sell it to his followers as being “holy.” Mostly the marriages weren’t legal, especially since he began marrying teenage girls in the mid-1990’s.
He wasn’t able to escape the law completely, though! Tony was sent to prison for tax evasion in 1994. While there, he continued to run his cult as usual! He even had visits from his next-in-line child brides. His release from prison came in 1998.
He went to live in Fouke, Arkansas, where he didn’t learn his lesson at all. In fact, what he did was arguably worse than before. He built a new compound for himself and his followers. Only now, he began indulging his obsession with young girls.
He had what news reports describe as a “harem” of wives. Most were underage and most were allowed to live with him with the consent of their parents.
Tony Alamo is Caught for Good Thanks to Authorities and the Power of the Internet
Finally, (finally!), in the early 2000’s the tide started to turn against Tony.
Former cult members begin to report him for what he had done to them. Residents of the town of Fouke, once supportive of him, begin to see him and his followers for what they really are: a cult of brainwashed and imprisoned people run by a master manipulator.
As the Internet gained steam and more people came online, stories, documents, photos and personal tales showed up documenting the true nature of Tony and his “ministry.”
Soon, with rumors swirling that Tony Alamo was sexually abusing young girls under the guise of religion, investigators and federal agencies begin building a case.
In 2008, if finally all fell apart. Tony Alamo tried to transport girls across state lines for the purpose of sex and was caught by the FBI. His trial took place in 2009, and on November 13 he was sentenced to 175 years in prison.
This time, he was not able to continue running his empire from prison. He died of blood poisoning on May 2, 2019.
What do you think of this weird tale? Have you heard the story of Tony Alamo? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
I used the information, including news reports, firsthand accounts, documents, and court reports from Tony Alamo News to research this post. If you’re interested in learning about the story further, I suggest checking it out!
I hope you enjoyed today’s Weird Wednesday!