If I had been born about 20 years earlier and one hour south of here, I may have appeared in this story. The story of a bad boy who wants to be Elvis, a girl with a bleached blonde bouffant, a stolen corpse, the mind-altering power of Jesus Christ, –all encrusted in rhinestones. This is the story of Tony and Susan Alamo.
Tony Alamo was born Bernie Lazar Hoffman in 1934, in Joplin, MO. He claimed his father, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, had been a dance instructor for Rudolph Valentino. As a teenager, he left Missouri for Los Angeles, CA to find fame in the music industry. He recorded a single “Little Yankee Girl” that’s weird as hell, but mostly he just talked the big talk. He would tell everyone who would listen that he was a hotshot music promoter who’d worked with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Sonny and Cher. That’s how he met Susan.
Susan was born Edith Opal Horn, also of Jewish descent, in Alma, Arkansas. She had moved to Hollywood to become an actress, but was supporting herself in the meantime scamming churches. “Put your dress on,” she would tell her daughter Christhianon Coie, “we’re gonna go do a church.” According to an interview Christianon did for the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2008, she was present when her mother met her match. “I’m watching them and it’s like a tennis match of horse crap. They both think the other’s got money.” It was at this meeting where Susan launched the greatest pickup line of all time. “Tony, I’ve got to ask you a question. Did you know that Jesus Christ is coming back to Earth again?” Tony looked deep into her eyes and says “Why, yes, Susan, I do. But how did you know?” And she said, “Well, let’s go up to my apartment and talk about it.”
The two were married in 1966, three times in a period of two days. According to a 1980 court deposition, Susan stated that the couple was first married in Mexico. She worried that the Mexican marriage wasn’t good and legal and refused to sleep with Tony. Later that day, frustrated, Tony supposedly bought not one, but TWO marriage licenses in Las Vegas, and they were married another couple of times to make sure it stuck.
If marrying Susan wasn’t serendipitous enough, within the same year Jesus came to Tony and told him that it was his job to tell the masses of the second coming of Christ. So, the newlyweds built Music Square Church in Hollywood and began bringing the prostitutes, drug addicts, and hippies of California into their fold.
The Alamo ministry preached a range of ideas; end times paranoia, UFOs as divine messengers, and Vatican conspiracy theories. Tony hated the Catholic Church and blamed them for everything bad that had ever happened– including Nazism. One Alamo tract entitled “The Pope’s Secrets” read “The Vatican is posing as Snow White, but the Bible says that she is a prostitute.”
Followers flocked to worship with the Alamos, and the church grew into it’s own compound in Saugus, California. Members of Music Square Church would live communally at the compound and work at Alamo-owned businesses. On payday, they’d return their paycheck to Tony, who would then give it to Jesus. Tony and Susan were on top of the world. They were in love, rich, famous and the rulers of their own empire.
In 1975, Susan was diagnosed with cancer. This wasn’t completely devastating because the couple TRULY believed themselves to be immortal. “I am the Lamb of God,” Susan would say on their television program.
As a child, Susan had suffered from tuberculosis and was near death, but was visited by angels at her bedside in Arkansas and suddenly HEALED! When Susan shared the story of the healing power of Arkansas with Tony, they packed up their furs, turtle leather platform boots, Bibles, diamond pinky rings, and crew of Jesus freaks in a fleet of black Cadillacs and headed to Dyer, Arkansas, population 486.
In Dyer, the Alamos moved into Susan’s childhood home and began remodeling it with materials shipped in from Hollywood. The couple was fond of red carpeting, chandeliers, and velvet wall coverings and installed them in every space they occupied.
At this time, they also began construction on a sprawling Victorian home on the mountain, complete with dormitories for their followers and a heart shaped pool for Susan. A grand church hall was constructed for their evangelical TV show where Tony regularly sang love songs for Susan, such as my personal favorite “I Love You So Much It Hurts Me.” Then they set to expanding their empire in the neighboring town, Alma. Once it was all said and done, the Alamos owned 30 businesses in a town of 30,000, including a supermarket, western store, restaurant, a candy factory, and hog farm. In President Bill Clinton’s autobiography My Life, he talks of a trip he made to the Alamo restaurant to see Dolly Parton perform and describes Tony Alamo as “Roy Orbison on speed”.
In 1982, despite Tony’s orders for intense prayer, Susan’s cancer worsened. She died on April 8th at a local hospital. Tony was devastated and blamed his church members for not praying hard enough. But luckily, they had immortality on their side. She would rise from the dead. He was sure of it.
Instead of burying Susan, Tony brought her embalmed body (dressed in her wedding gown) back to their dining room and ordered his followers to stand around her 24 hours a day, praying for resurrection. A local florist, Shirley Lovett, was hired to deliver flowers to Susan almost daily.
In a 2008 interview for The Oregonian, Elishah Franckiewicz remembers Susan’s death. “I believed 100% that she was going to rise from the dead.” Tony talked publicly about the resurrection and local radio stations made fun of him by playing “Wake Up, Little Susie” over and over. She said that week after week, they would be forced to lay down and curl up with the rotting corpse. “She smelled. She was cold and really, really hard. She was dead.” Every day that Susan remained dead, the children were beaten.
Finally after 6 months of no luck, an exhausted crew of cult members finally placed Susan in a newly constructed mausoleum on the grounds. Franckiewicz was devastated and remembers laying on the mausoleum still praying for Grandma Susie to rise.
Stricken with grief, Tony Alamo did what any heartbroken evangelist would do. He created his own fashion brand. He was gonna dress the stars! High on coffee, vitamins, and Jesus– Tony’s cult members and their small children would work until the wee hours of the morning bedazzling jackets with elaborate cityscapes of rhinestones and Swarovski crystals. These jackets would sell for anywhere from $600 to $5,000 and graced the backs of celebrities like Dolly Parton, Mr. T., Hulk Hogan, and, Sonny Bono. Alamo soon set up shop in Nashville, TN where he could keep close proximity to the stars of the Grand Ole Opry.
With the love of his life temporarily interred, Tony also remarried, multiple times. First he tried his hand with a couple of 15 year-old girls. When that didn’t pan out, he married Birgitta Gyllenhammar. Two years later, she left him, claiming that he tried to force her into getting plastic surgery to look like Susan. You can call it what you will, but I call it romance.
Up to this point, Tony had charmed his way out of various legal troubles. In 1991, the law finally closed in on the Alamo Foundation and charged him with tax evasion. Prior to the inevitable raid, Alamo ordered cult members to gut the mansion. They ripped out carpeting, light fixtures, furnishings and Susan, from her marble tomb.
One can only speculate on Susan’s post-death adventures, but in 1998, after 7 years of being on the lamb with Tony, her body showed up on the stoop of a Van Buren, Arkansas funeral home. “The casket was covered with hay,” Lovett the florist told a local reporter. “When he disappeared, he took her with him for a spell, but I think he knew if he was ever found, they would find her body. I think that’s why he put her in a barn somewhere.” Susan was eventually interred in a crypt in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
In the years following Susan’s death, Tony was in and out of prison. Tax evasion, child abuse, and threatening to kidnap a federal judge were just a few of the allegations against him. However, by 1998 he was free, and began taking on multiple wives, all of them between the ages of 8 and 15. Susan had been dead for years now. She may have been re-born and he was on the hunt for her. They would be re-united at last! Needless to say, the world was horrified.
On September 20, 2008, Tony was arrested for trafficking young girls across state lines and forcing them to marry him. He was found guilty on ten counts and sentenced to 175 years in prison. The trial was just a few blocks from my house. My friend Harriet Wells, who has fueled my Alamo fascination, attended the trial. “He looked like a vampire. White skin, dark sunglasses, and jet black hair.”
On May 2, 2017, Tony Alamo died in a North Carolina prison. He was 82. Sadly, I was right in the middle of a rhinestone coated jacket negotiation when I got the call.
Since 1991, the majestic 13,064 square-foot Alamo compound on the mountain in Dyer, Arkansas has set empty, slowly decaying. The property was purchased in 2000 by a couple of entrepreneurs who have turned the majority of the grounds into an outdoor wedding venue.
This April, the local paper printed a story, complete with photos, saying the new owners were ready to turn the compound over to a “legitimate Christian charity” for restoration as a ministry. I decided to email the property owners and ask for a tour. I told them I was writing a story about the Alamos and would love to walk around and get a feel for the place and possibly a quick interview. Mrs. M., as I’ll call her, asked where the article would be posted and I nervously replied “www.orderofthegooddeath.com.” After reviewing this good-looking website, she decided she’d gladly let me tour the estate for $1000 and even let me stay in a “premium bed” in the wedding chapel next door. She closed the email by asking for my credit card information.
The next day, Harriet and I were sitting in our little vintage shop as a husband and wife were perusing our “Wall of Alamo.” (As I said, we are nothing if not Alamo historial enthusiasts.) They were looking at the record sleeve for Tony’s album “Love Songs for Sue & You” and the woman says to her husband “Is that the chandelier that hangs over Mom and Dad’s dining table?” I tell her that it’s Tony and Susan Alamo’s home and she says “Yeah, I know, my folks bought their old house.” SERENDIPITY. “I always try to get Mom to dress up as Susan Alamo for Halloween and answer the door for trick or treaters.” We converse for a while about the house and they eventually leave with my phone number. “My dad loves to talk.” She tells me.
I wait for weeks for the call. Nothing happens. I beat myself up for not getting their number or names, even. Finally, I have to act. I call the Crawford County Genealogical Society. The man who answers the phone may be the oldest person alive. I tell him that I met some people who know some people who bought Susan Alamo’s childhood home and that I’ve lost their contact information. He says as slowly as physically possible “Well, let me see if I’m smart enough to do this.” I can literally hear him flipping through a Rolodex. Then he starts reading off phone numbers. “Here’s his work number. This here’s his cell phone. And this is the home number.” “What’s his name, again?” I ask. “Well, it’s Billy Gale Morse! Our mayor. If he doesn’t help you, just give me a call back.” I couldn’t believe my luck. I love small towns.
I called Mr. Morse and told him about my article. He immediately started telling stories faster than I could write them down. He finally stopped and said “ Just come on down and let’s have a visit. You can see the house for yourself.”
A week later, Harriet and I loaded up and drove an hour south to meet the mayor. We arrived sooner than expected so we decided to just drive by the mansion and have a peek. We were greeted with a No Trespassing sign at the bottom of a scary and steep driveway. As tempted as we were, we turned around.
We arrived at the Dyer City Hall, which was closed and looked like it may have been closed for the last 20 years. Billy had forgotten about our meeting, but could be at his house, which was just down the street, in ten minutes. “Stay cool and don’t knock on the door. My wife doesn’t know you’re coming.”
Ten minutes later, we’re inside. Every square inch is wallpapered. Our feet, at last, are sunk into plush, blood red carpeting. Before we begin, he introduces us to his wife. “She likes to think of herself as an invalid, but she’s not.” He whispers. “Jo Ann, there’s some ladies here from Fayetteville who want to talk about the Alamos.” She was horizontal in a Lazy Boy, with her hair and face done up like Tammy Faye Bakker. “I’m sick!” she said and waved us away.
We went into the dining room. A chandelier hung above our heads as he began to tell us all he could remember about the Alamos. Most things he said never made it into my notebook because they were so jumbled together. Timelines were skewed, fact bled into speculation, and on top of that, it was just so dang hot in that house.
He tells us of some brothers who were members of the Alamo cult for years and then were ousted when Alamo borrowed a $10,000 start up fund from the brothers’ folks and refused to pay it back. According to the story, Tony wanted to bring the wives of the brothers back into the fold, so he pronounced the couples divorced and took the wives back to remarry other members. This brought trouble for Tony when the brothers involved an attorney who specialized in cult cases to file a two million dollar Alienation of Affection lawsuit against him. They won.
Billy told us stories of elections the Alamo’s controlled, of Elvis Presley visiting the Alamos for clothing orders, and ceiling murals of pheasants his interior decorator forced him to paint over.
Finally, he put the icing on the cake with this one. After Susan’s death, Billy and Jo Ann owned a large house on a hillside in Dyer that they were trying to sell for $350,000. One day the real estate agent called and said “Tony Alamo is here and he’s interested in your house.” So Billy went to meet the agent and Tony at the property. “Tony walks up with a couple of his thugs on either side of him and about fifteen feet behind him is his new bride. She couldn’t have been over fifteen and she had a couple of thugs of her own.” Tony liked the house and told Billy “Here’s what I’ll do. I will trade you the property for an artesian well in the city of Los Angeles that holds enough water for the entire city– FOREVER.” Billy refused.
When Mr. Morse was obviously exhausted, he sent us to our next stop, the church directly across the street. It had been built in the late 70’s as the official Alamo Ministry church. It was also the home of the weekly television program. The church had been stripped of furnishings and flooded when the government raided the Alamos in 1991, but what remained was a 50’ mural painted by a member of the cult. It was truly majestic. The mural can be seen in the background of the Alamo Christian Ministries videos from that time.
As we were leaving town, we decided to risk driving by the mansion. The mayor had egged us on and we couldn’t imagine being this close without seeing it. We crested the hill where the mansion supposedly sat and it was nowhere to be seen. We drove in circles and then for some reason, went off-roading down a grassy hill. “Just keep your head up and act like we know what we’re doing.” I told Harriet. We had no idea what we were doing.
Finally, as we were feeling defeated, there it was. I jumped out of the car and ran past the Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted sign to the heart-shaped pool I had been dreaming of. It was even more beautiful than I imagined.
As I was walked back, I happened to notice an open door on the lower level. If the Alamos taught me anything, it’s that when the Lord opens a door, you go through it.
It was damp and really dark. Ahead of me was the most beautiful staircase I’d ever seen but I just couldn’t make myself go up into the pitch-black darkness ahead.
I went outside and climbed the outer staircase. A previous trespasser had busted out a back window. I did what I felt compelled to do and stepped over the glass into the bright kitchen, where Susan’s body had allegedly been displayed for six months. There was a puddle of green slime in the middle of the floor. Quickly, I made my way through the house. An abandoned baby doll, a hide-a-bed, a tiny swatch of velvet wallpaper, and a pile of moldy bibles were all that was left behind. I grabbed a handful of bibles and shoved them out a window to Harriet. “Bibles! Take them to the car!”
As soon as she got the sacred books safely in the floorboard, a car approached. It was Mrs. M., of “$1,000k to tour the property we had just broken into” fame.
Standing outside of the mansion, on the hottest day of July, Harriet was suddenly filled with the spirit of the Alamos and spilled forth the most beautiful stream of lies. “We’re just so lost. I’m with my friend, Sheila, and we’re looking for some wedding chapel. My granddaughter is getting married in October. Oh, it’s over there? What even IS this place? The Alamo Compound? Never heard of it.” She looks at us skeptically. “Y’all just hold on tight right here. I’ve gotta run to the office and I’ll be right back. I’ll take you down to the chapel.” By this time, I’ve slithered my way back up to the van. We jump in, crank the AC, and drive as fast as we can back to civilization.
Greta P. Allendorf lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas with her daughter, Maude. She is a home funeral guide and serves on the board of the National Home Funeral Alliance. In her spare time, she sells dead people’s clothing at her vintage store, Cheap Thrills, and obsesses over cults.