- BETTER DAYS
Fouke isn't a town so much as a crossroads, a Miller County outpost in Southwest Arkansas, on Highway 71 between Texarkana and Shreveport. The businesses at its center can be counted on two hands; the city hall is a prefab metal structure. Until recently, its main claim to fame was the Fouke Monster, which, like similar mythical beasts, has inspired a weird combination of fear and pride in the people who live near its territory.
The monster has gone into hibernation since its manifestation in 1971, but the 814 residents of Fouke aren't free of their demons just yet. Just a five-minute walk from the town's traffic light lives another reclusive creature that, to some people at least, is much scarier than the Fouke Monster, one that is demonstrably flesh and blood. His name is World Pastor Tony Alamo, and nine years after from his release from prison on tax evasion charges, he's in back in business, with churches in Fouke, Fort Smith and California.
He's also apparently back under the scrutiny of the law. In a recent article in the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report, a woman said she and others have contacted the State Police about Alamo's practice of polygamy and taste for young girls. Maj. Cleve Barfield, commander of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Arkansas State Police, confirmed that there is an ongoing investigation of Alamo and his organization.
Alamo often compares himself to the Apostle Paul. Like Paul, Alamo was a hater of Christ; like Paul, he received the Gospel through direct revelation; like Paul, he ministers based on that revelation. And, as many a Wal-Mart shopper can confirm, Alamo shares Paul's epistolic habits. He is famous for his virulently anti-Catholic tracts, plastered on windshields, circulated more widely — the tracts claim — than USA Today, the New York Times and the L.A. Times combined.
Though the age of mechanical reproduction gives Alamo an edge on his prophetic forebears, he trails them in converts. Nor does he appear to have their capacity for the hard work of proselytizing. Christ wandered the Middle East; Paul preached across the Mediterranean; Muhammad conquered the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. Tony Alamo has a fenced-off property in Fouke.
There, Alamo-watchers fear, Alamo's famous Alma compound is being reincarnated.
It was in Alma, in Northwest Arkansas, that Alamo, who previously lived in California, took his mandate from God and turned it into a cash cow. In 1982, he and his wife Susan bought land, businesses and began to live with followers in a secret compound. They held political sway — they helped elect the mayor of nearby Dyer (and were investigated by the FBI for election fraud) — and their enterprises, registered under the umbrella of a nonprofit foundation, were worth an estimated $60 million by 1985. His most lucrative source of income was Alamo Designs, which specialized in elaborately air-brushed and rhinestone-studded denim jackets. These sold for hundreds of dollars and were wildly popular, especially in Nashville, where Alamo set up a clothing outlet. They also gave Alamo inroads with celebrities who wore them, such as Sonny Bono and Mr. T, outdated photos of whom still appear in the pamphlets the church distributes.
Alamo's employees were church members, and he paid them slave wages. When the Department of Labor got word of the setup, it filed suit against him for violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Alamo had to pay his workers a minimum wage. The church's tax exempt status was revoked the same year.
Despite these setbacks, Alamo continued to resist the IRS. He was convicted and jailed for tax evasion in 1994.
Sneaky bookkeeping and Alamo's extreme anti-government libertarianism were just part of the weird Alamo picture. Susan Alamo died in 1982 of cancer. Alamo insisted she would be resurrected, and it was widely reported that church members prayed over her openly displayed corpse for months. Although she was later entombed at Alamo's Alma property, the saga of Susan's body continued for over a decade. In 1991, government officials on a repo raid found that her mausoleum had been cracked open and the body taken; in order to secure his release from prison, Alamo had to reveal what happened to it. She was finally buried in Tulsa.
Alamo's escapades would be merely surreal if it weren't for allegations more serious than tax evasion and body-snatching.
The most disturbing of these include child abuse. A California family won a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Alamo in 1990 for ordering that their child be beaten 140 times with a paddle. (Prosecutors dropped criminal charges in the case when Alamo was convicted of tax evasion.)
Multiple women who once lived on Alamo-owned properties have spoken out about his sexual relations with the underage girls he claims as wives. In one case, he deflowered a 17-year-old member of his church. The girl's testimony in the sentencing phase of Alamo's tax evasion trial helped outline his history of taking child brides. Alamo himself defends polygamy and the right to marry a minor on radio broadcasts he tapes for the nation's AM stations. (“I believe it's OK to have other wives if it's done by the order of God,” he said on one show. “If any of you bastards out there have anything to say about it, well, I don't care.”)
In October, the Intelligence Report, the magazine of the Southern Poverty Law Center, published an article outlining Alamo's history of child abuse and anti-Catholicism (splcenter.org). The SPLC, which monitors ideologically bigoted organizations, also added Alamo's church to its list of hate groups.
Fouke's Alamo-watchers hope that the added attention will induce government action.
Alamo got out of prison in 1998. Soon after, he moved to Fouke, though it's not clear why he chose the town to re-establish his church. He moved in quietly.
Sandford White, an Alamo associate, bought a storefront that became the church's worship space; followers moved onto nearby land, where Alamo built houses and set up trailers.
Except for a drawn-out dispute over some illegally hooked-up water meters, the town rarely had a problem with the new residents. The land on which the church sits was not fully annexed into Fouke until 2005, and the church members kept to themselves.
Last year, however, some people in Fouke who'd become aware of Alamo's past started to raise the alarm about his alleged child abuse.
The church is routinely called a cult — a difficult claim to dispute. Many of its members live together on the grounds of its enclosed Fouke compound. Alamo is the only person in the church allowed to give interviews; the children who live on the property are schooled there; most media other than Alamo's screeds and the King James Bible are banned, and church members are generally shielded from wider society. (“I didn't know who was president when I got out,” said one follower who left the church in the 1970s.) Even while in prison Alamo was able to exert his influence. “He could be in outer space and control everything,” said a longtime church member, who estimated that the Alma compound housed about 300 people.
Websites have appeared smearing ex-followers, and Alamo has been known to publicly berate them. More, Alamo has a history of confiscating the children of people who quit the church. In one incident earlier this year, sources in Fouke and at the Miller County sheriff's office say, the FBI became involved in a standoff between Alamo and a man who tried to take his children from the compound. (An FBI spokesman said he could not comment.)
Alamo's cozy relationship with former Fouke Mayor Cecil Smith also had some town residents worried. On one occasion, Smith authorized the use of a Fouke firetruck to water a piece of Alamo property without telling the fire department. (Smith said there was nothing wrong with this and that Alamo paid for the water.)
Significant Alamo donations to the town have given the impression of a pay-for-play scheme. Most notably, he gave $60,000 — about 30 percent of Fouke's entire general fund — to build a park.
Relations between Fouke and the church were not always completely chilly — on one occasion an Alamo minister invited residents to attend a gospel-singing session. But, despite his largesse, Alamo was rarely seen in town, and his church members never shopped in Fouke stores.
By the time mayoral elections rolled around in November 2006, tensions were high. Locals, believing a new mayor was needed to restrain Alamo's perceived influence, campaigned in favor of Terry Purvis, a longtime town council member.
The marquee campaign issue was a controversy over a street that leads through Alamo property. Although the street was previously accessible to the public, the church restricted its use; on one occasion, a Fouke resident said, an inhabitant of the property confronted her with a gun when she ventured up the disputed road.
Purvis won, but the new mayor was unable to halt the Alamo agenda. When a council member stepped down without announcing his intentions, Ben Edwards, a longtime member of Alamo's church, registered for the seat just before the deadline and ran unopposed. Several council members have voted with Edwards on important town issues, including the right of way issue through Alamo's land. After Purvis received a letter from Alamo's lawyer threatening suit if a survey to determine ownership of the street proceeded, the council voted 5-3 to drop the matter.
“No trespassing” signs are posted around church property and a private security company guards its grounds. (The church said it hired the company because of several incidents of vandalism against its property.) That secrecy and the controversy over the road have turned Fouke into a hothouse of conspiracy theories. Most of the rumors are about council members perceived to be Alamo backers. Residents of Fouke, including self-proclaimed Alamo-watcher Mary Coker, have been passing out fliers that highlight Alamo's past history and more bigoted radio statements. Headlined “The Truth About Tony Alamo Ministries,” the fliers provide quotes from his broadcasts (“Since I've been in Arkansas, the Postmaster General has dropped dead because he was saying nasty things about my wife Susie”) and claim that Los Angeles County's actions to shut down his facility there may send new followers to Arkansas.
If Alamo is up to something illegal, as many in Fouke suspect, he's keeping his operation as airtight as possible. The church uses a variety of tactics to shush talk and intimidate detractors. Some methods border on the ridiculous — on his radio show, for instance, Alamo has stated that God will strike down certain members of the Fouke town council. Others, such as the threat of litigation the church commonly invokes, are more direct. In April of this year, Buster White, a church elder, promised a lawsuit against anyone who called Alamo a pedophile or claimed that the church had weapons. (Multiple residents of Fouke have said they have witnessed the church's guards carrying pistols. Eric Lieberman, Alamo's lawyer, said that anyone who claims the guards were ever armed is lying.)
Alamo has also been more discreet about his finances than he was in the past. In contrast to his operation in Alma, Alamo owns no commercial property in Fouke.
Several people close to Alamo have been indicted for fiscal malfeasance in recent months, however. In February, Alamo associate Thomas Scarcello was indicted in a scam to illegally resell mattresses that were supposed to go to Hurricane Katrina victims. The indictment claims that Scarcello tried to sell the mattresses out of a warehouse that shares a P.O. box with an Alamo Ministries-owned grocery store. (Lieberman, the lawyer, who also represents Scarcello, said that the alleged scheme has nothing to do with Alamo or his church.) And in September, White was indicted for selling counterfeit Nikes and pirated CDs. The Texarkana Gazette reported that the FBI confiscated about $109,185 in cash from a safe at the Great American Outlet Mall, from which the goods were sold. In November, a U-Haul trailer labeled “Great American Outlet Mall” was parked on the Alamo property.
Although the indictments don't directly link the profits from these businesses to Alamo or his church, they may give the World Pastor reason to squirm — after all, it was a system of profitable proxy businesses and tax-exempt “donations” that got him in trouble in the 1990s.
Some Alamo watchers have wondered why, considering the number of people who have spoken out about his treatment of young girls, he hasn't been charged with statutory rape.
But not everyone in Fouke wants to probe into Alamo's doings. “I think he's got a siege mentality,” said one man who asked that he not be named. “If you're persecuting him you're doing what he wants you to do.” Others in town talked about him with a sort of bemusement, speculating that Fouke might someday be to the next Waco, where a federal raid ended in the burning of cult leader David Koresh's compound. If people in Fouke are skittish, it's because history has given them reason to be.Alamo is 73 now. Perhaps he always imagined himself living out the end of his days at the center of his own secluded fiefdom, feeding manna to the chosen few. Perhaps he's content to blather daily in a radio booth, to fuel small-town mischief, to dream and conjure the pettiest scams conceivable. But while it doesn't wear on him in the least, the past still lurks. Fouke may yet give him more than he bargained for.